The boycott law that was recently passed in Israel is an unreasonable infringement on freedom of speech and it’s aim is to silence all debate and criticism about Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians and the Occupation. Many Israelis across the political spectrum seem to agree on that point. Ok, but that’s Israel, this is the U.S.
Unfortunately, here in the U.S. we seem to have also been bitten by the censorship bug. We are seeing an increase in attempts to silence not only debate about Israel but also attempts to encourage Arab-Jewish understanding and dialogue. While none of this falls under the rubric of “state action” and thus doesn’t trigger a First Amendment issue, it still is a form of censorship that flies in the face of what this nation stands for.
From the WaPo:
Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-born Muslim, was deeply proud of the open conversation channel he had maintained with Ari Roth, longtime artistic director of Theater J, a highly regarded branch of the D.C. Jewish Community Center. Together with another local theater lover, Mimi Conway, they’d created the Peace Cafe, an after-play forum, complete with plates of hummus and pita bread supplied by Shallal’s popular Busboys and Poets dining spots, that had become a mainstay of Theater J’s programming.
The makeshift cafe — established 10 years ago, during the run of a politically charged solo play about the Mideast by David Hare — has been important as an outlet for debate over issues raised in Theater J’s sometimes provocative repertory, especially for an outsider such as Shallal. “It was an emotional experience for me, to walk into a Jewish community center, to grow up as a Muslim, thinking of Israelis as really scary people,” he says. “I walked through that door, and it was a very beautiful experience.”
Then, suddenly, a few months ago, a curtain was drawn.
Whatever the nature of the disagreement, the incident was further evidence of the corrosive turn that the political and artistic dialogues over matters related to Israel have taken of late in this country, particularly at, but not limited to, Jewish institutions.
In cities such as New York and Washington, ad hoc watchdog groups have formed to pressure Jewish federations to cease funding nonprofit groups that they deem critical of Israel. Locally, a portion of their ire has been directed at Theater J, one of the nation’s most successful — and dramatically adventurous — theater groups operating from within the structure of a Federation-funded Jewish community center.
In March, a group calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, headed by Potomac lawyer Robert G. Samet, asked that the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington look at imposing curbs on financing for Theater J. As evidence of the theater company’s intent to produce works that “demonize Israel and the Jewish people,” Samet cited “Return to Haifa,” a work by an Israeli playwright, Boaz Gaon, that was performed at Theater J last winter by Israel’s most renowned company, the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv.
I guess when it comes to the history and politics of the Middle East, only one version of events is permitted and anything else is deemed “hostile” to Israel. The fact that some art is controversial is hardly breaking news. Controversy isn’t always bad, particularly if it provides an opportunity to increase dialogue between people with opposing views. But dialogue doesn’t seem to be the order of the day and one should probably ask, “what are they afraid of?”