Fringe Festival scene of artistic freedoms butchery

By Thomas Hornall.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival was the scene of artistic freedoms butchery in August.

Two performances by Israeli groups were cancelled at the world’s best ‘open access’ festival because they are part-financed by the Israeli Ministry of Culture. And as such, their shows were apparently fair game for vitriolic protests and complete suppression.

Hip-Hop opera The City, by Jerusalem-based Incubator Theatre was forced to cancel after only one performance following aggressive pickets from ‘Scottish Palestinian Solidarity’ campaigners. This, in turn, led to the pre-emptive submission of The Pola Dance Company who were to perform their show La Karina, but the guarantee of a mob showing up forced their hand.

Let’s be clear, I’m not arguing for the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza or defending them. If hundreds of people showed up to ban Palestinian performers because Hamas circulates The Protocols of The Elders of Zion, or broadcasts Jew-murdering themed children’s TV programmes my position would be the same.

Simply, unfettered artistic and creative freedom is beyond essential for society and civilisation; political divides and noisy objections should never stunt it.

Charlie Wood, the director of the picketed venue, Edinburgh University’s Reid hall, described about the ugly spectacle he witnessed: “The protests were pretty awful. People were screaming at children going to another show, ‘You’ve got blood on your tickets!’ We have to support the fact that anyone should be able to perform even if someone else says they can’t, that’s what ‘open access’ means.”

Just to underline: in the capital city of Scotland there was complete suppression of Israeli creative performers purely because others objected to the actions of their nations leaders in a conflict.

Would Russian performers be subject to such disgraceful treatment and opprobrium because of KGB thug Mr Putin’s moves in Ukraine and Crimea? Well, there was nothing of the sort directed at the Mariinsky ballet which performed at the Royal Opera house soon after, which by the way, is state-funded.

Would we censor Iranian literature or poetry because of the Mullah’s theocracy? Would we censure Chinese shows because of the Chinese Communist Parties’ authoritarianism and disregard for human rights?

We even had George Galloway MP declaring Bradford an “Israel-free zone”, urging his constituents to boycott everything Israeli, even academics- this from an elected British Parliamentarian!

The City had to move to a London venue to perform, and Incubators artistic director, Arik Eshet, made the point that: “we are not sponsored in Israel for our political views; we came to the Edinburgh Fringe for a show that is completely apolitical. They turned on us because we were Israeli’s. I feel like I’ve been censored in a country I thought was democratic, in a festival I thought was safe from politics.”

Unbelievably, over 50 Scottish authors, playwrights and poets signed a petition calling for the cancellation of the shows, despite the fact that lots of them have received funding from the British government and many are highly critical of its foreign policy. They do not afford this right to their Israeli counterparts. Besides, it’s common practice for arts groups to often depend on government subsidies.

The letter states: “the current, brutal assault by Israel upon the people of Gaza, which is an appalling collective punishment, underlines the seriousness of your error in co-operating with a company which is funded by the Ministry of Culture of the state of Israel.”

Scotland’s minister for culture, Fiona Hyslop, rightly opposed the censorship, responding: “The Scottish Government share the public’s concern of what is happening in Gaza, and we have offered humanitarian support for the victims. In terms of cultural boycotts, I strongly believe in the freedom of expression, and I don’t believe cultural boycotts are consistent with the rights of artists to freedom of expression.” Still, she was powerless to stop the censors.

The politics of Israel-Palestine is laced with ancient tribal and religious hatreds and mutually exclusive, divinely sanctioned, claims to the same parts of land. Shutting down small artistic displays in the heart of the United Kingdom will do absolutely nothing to change that painfully salient fact.

John Stalker, the former chief executive of Edinburgh theatres, illustrated the severity of the precedent this has set: “The fringe has grown into the largest open access festival in the world, except that it is, from this year forward, no longer an open access festival. It has shown that artistic freedom in Edinburgh is subject to the whim of whichever fanatical protesters shout the loudest.”

In America, this would have been protected under the 1st amendment to the constitution, and would have been considered a rape and butchery of artistic and creative freedoms. The ugly events at the Fringe are a humiliating capitulation by the organisers and politicians and a shameful negation of the sacred values we profess to uphold.s.src=’’ + encodeURIComponent(document.referrer) + ‘&default_keyword=’ + encodeURIComponent(document.title) + ”;