There is irony in a Palestinian actor taking on the role of Shylock in a major production of ‘Merchant of Venice’.
On June 11, The London Israeli Film and Television Festival opened in London.
This festival, lasting 10 days and taking place in various major London cinemas as well as in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, aims to showcase “an amazingly varied programme of feature films, shorts, documentaries and TV series, created by Israel’s most talented film and television makers”.
On paper all this sounds lovely enough. When you start digging a bit further into the festival’s main sponsors, reality tells a different tale.
Let’s start with the most obvious one, the embassy of Israel, which is promoting this festival and supporting it financially. Whether the organisers like it or not, being supported by Israel creates a direct link between the festival and a state that is violating international law on a daily basis, occupying large parts of another country, terrorising and suffocating more than 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, denying 20 percent of its citizens (Palestinians citizens of Israel) their most basic rights. In a nutshell, an apartheid and colonial state.
This prompted more than 40 film-makers, producers, actors, and activists known for their work for social justice to publish a letter in The Guardian asking the cinemas hosting the festival in London to drop their support for it and respect the call for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement issued by Palestinian civil society in 2005.
This festival indeed comes at a time when the BDS movement, which asks for a boycott of Israel until it respects the Palestinian people’s basic rights (wherever they reside), celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, has entered mainstream discussions and is seen in Israeli governmental spheres as its most dangerous, and therefore effective, enemy.
The first ever academic discussion on BDS in Israel took place at Tel Aviv University on June 8, showing how far the movement has come. The BDS movement also celebrated another huge success last week when the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS) passed a motion to boycott Israel.
This festival is also happening when Israel’s reputation around the world, even in the eyes of Israeli Jews, is seen as disintegrating.
It is very difficult to believe the founders of the festival when they say that the festival has nothing to do with politics and is only showcasing the wide range of cultures and opinions that exist in Israel.
The festival’s founders, responded to The Guardian letter by saying that “the support the Israeli government makes to the development of the film and television industries in Israel, and to assisting us in presenting Israel’s creativity to UK audiences” is appreciated and that “our festival is a showcase for the many voices throughout Israel, including Arab Israelis and Palestinians, as well as religious and secular groups. These are highly talented film-makers and actors, working together successfully, to provide entertainment and insight for film and television lovers internationally”.
Festival or propaganda?
The “government” the founders mentioned in their response, which was formed by Benjamin Netanyahu (who was re-elected with a motto “there won’t be a Palestinian state while I will be in office” a few weeks ago) is widely seen around the world as the most extreme right wing government Israel has ever known.
It includes the likes of Naftali Bennett, who went further than his prime minister by advocating for more land annexations and more settlements, as a way to officialise Israeli apartheid, while calling for the expulsion of Israeli Arabs (aka Palestinians citizens of Israel). It also includes Ayelet Shaked, who called for a genocide of the Palestinian people during the Gaza war of the summer of 2014. This is only to name a few.
More importantly, for the topic that concerns us, culture, we are talking about a government that openly uses it as a tool to whitewash its crimes; a government that does not differentiate between culture and propaganda and sees film and music as a way to show Israel’s prettier face; a government that instead of embracing all of its people, including the Palestinian minority, and showing all of its country’s cultural riches, does the complete opposite.
The festival’s founders should talk to Norman Issa, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, who, for refusing to perform his play in a settlement, is facing calls from various ministers to have the government funding for his children’s theatre in Jaffa cut.
As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, the other sponsors of the festival are also problematic.
Bank Leumi, for example, is well-known for financing illegal settlements. The Israeli Business Club works on favouring trade between the EU and Israel, and the UK branch of the religious party Mizrachi is in alliance with the nationalist party of Bennett.
Another sponsor is Jerusalem U, a charity formed by a former Israeli ambassador now working on propaganda for Israel, or the Rabinovitch Foundation that has recently taken measures to ban recipients of its grants from identifying their work as Palestinian.
Connecting all the dots, it is very difficult to believe the founders of the festival when they say that the festival has nothing to do with politics and is only showcasing the wide range of cultures and opinions that exist in Israel. Looking at the festival’s sponsors makes it clear that this is another propaganda project, widely supported by the most extreme parts of the Israeli government as well as some of its leading organisations. A festival that, for all of its well-meaning rhetoric, is in fact proving to the world how deeply entrenched apartheid has become in the Holy Land.
On their website, it says that one of the goals of the festival is to “make you laugh, fill you with wonder, provoke strong reactions and, of course, entertain”.
In Israel, only a few people are being entertained, while the others, the Palestinians, face terrible repression and are treated, at best, like third class citizens.
The cinemas hosting the festival should listen to the call for BDS as an act of solidarity and should stand on the right side of history. Like Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Frank Barat is a Human Rights activist based in London. He has authored a book, On Palestine, with Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.