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On The Tricycle, Films and Singling Out

Bit of a shitstorm here in North London. The Tricycle, a great little cinema and theatre in Kilburn, well attended by Jews, has for many years hosted part of the UK Jewish Film Festival, a well established and pretty good Jewish cultural event. This year, presumably faced with the need to confirm the booking over the past few weeks, The Tricycle felt they could not while a) the conflict between Israel and Gaza was ongoing and b) while the Israeli embassy was one of the festival’s sponsors. The Trike (as its known to locals) asked the festival to take the embassy off the list of sponsors, and, highly generously, offered to make up the money out of their own funds. The Jewish Film Festival refused (understandably, it must have felt like unjustified outside pressure) and consequently the Film Festival will not be at the Tricycle this year.

Many people’s immediate reaction was discomfort – headlines about Jewish cultural festivals being banned are always (and rightly) disturbing.

But we should note:

  1. The Tricycle is not boycotting or banning the festival. It is imposing a condition that must be met if the festival wants to be held on its premises, as it has the right to do, and the festival has the right to refuse. The Tricycle was extremely keen to host the festival – as they have stated and as their offer to make up the funds makes clear
  2. The Tricycle is not imposing any ongoing boycott. Their statement makes clear its time-specific nature – simply that it would be inappropriate to host/book in an event sponsored by the embassy right now.
  3. They are not boycotting Israeli films – they were making no comment on whether or not the films in the festival were themselves funded by the Israeli government or associated NGOs, just sponsorship of the festival itself by the Israeli embassy.
  4. This is not stopping the festival from happening – there are plenty of other cinemas locally, including the new one at JW3.

Now there are many views on whether the Tricycle behaved sensibly, or fairly, given that the Festival was hardly going to just dump an ongoing sponsor because it was told to by a venue. This is all up for debate.

The following Twitter statement, by Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, takes it somewhere else altogether:

Be clear on this: is now officially antisemitic. It is singling out the Jewish state for boycott

Firstly, it seems that Stephen Pollard is responding to an incorrect understanding of the story. The Tricycle is not boycotting Israel or films from Israel , as pointed out above. Perhaps it will do that in future – but nothing in this case gives rise to that conclusion. The substantive issue, however, is one of singling out. The argument is that singling out of Israel, when cultural events by no other country receive the same treatment, implies that the real motivation is antisemitism. The argument, while not incontestable, has some force. However, here it is entirely misplaced. The Tricycle is setting up a new position which should be fairly easy to consistently adhere to in the future. If a country is currently involved in a war (not just a cold war) then the Tricycle wouldn’t hold an event directly sponsored by its embassy. So it wouldn’t hold an event sponsored by the governments of India or Pakistan during a flare-up in Kashmir. Or, one sponsored by the Russian government right now, due to its backing of separatists in Ukraine. So long as the Tricycle keeps to that fairly basic standard in the future, its hard to see how they can be accused of double standards, and certainly not of antisemitism. To say things like ‘the Tricycle are effectively banning Israel-supporting Jews from entering the building’, as Pollard did today on Radio 4, is utterly misleading and pretty dangerous.

For the reasons laid out above, this is not really an example of BDS. Future examples may be different. Perhaps, as Israel becomes more and more a pariah state, certain cinemas will refuse to show any film funded by the Israeli government. Would that be antisemitism? If the venue in question boycotted no other countries then they would certainly be vulnerable to the singling out argument. But what if they also boycotted some other human rights abusing countries – say Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Sudan etc. It would then be hard to complain of prejudice. And even if they didn’t boycott anyone else, while that might be motivated by antisemitism, need it necessarily be? Might it go something like this – often countries are singled out for more criticism than others. South Africa was certainly a victim of this – why talk about the actions of Praetoria in the 1970s rather than those of the Cambodian regime? Was that motivated by anti-Afrikaaner racism? Why were certain companies singled out over labour standards – such as Nike and Gap – when there were others who were just as bad? Was this also racially motivated prejudice? Singling out is just what happens in politics – a certain issue becomes a cause célèbre (due usually to years of work by activists), and thus attracts more attention and more activism than other equally important issues. There may well be people who only talk about Israel because they harbour anti-semitic prejudices. But the fact that activism is focussed on one country cannot, in the absence of other factors, be described as illegitimate or racist. And calling antisemitism when it is not present is a dangerous things to do – we need to save our fire for the real instances when Jews are beaten, abused or discriminated against and synagogues defaced.

One final, and provocative point. Many are saying that it is illegitimate to ask us to distance ourselves from the state of Israel, suggesting that is to divide us into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Jews. Put the goyim/antisemites to one side for the moment. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to distance ourselves from a state that rejects our liberal Jewish values and seeks to remain in a permanent state of war and occupation? Shouldn’t we do that for ourselves, whether or not anyone else is demanding it of us? As Israel continues its inexorable journey towards joining the world’s rogue states, do we really want to make ourselves pariahs too? Might the renewal of diasporic Judaism not be a better project?

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6 thoughts on “On The Tricycle, Films and Singling Out”

  1. “Singling out is just what happens in politics..”.
    Great. Let’s just passively accept whatever cause the noisiest / most organised activists have decided to agitate over.
    This stance is asinine, naive and complacent.
    Attempting to reduce political activity in this way is also condescending towards your readership and essentially fatuous.

  2. ‘Great. Let’s just passively accept whatever cause the noisiest / most organised activists have decided to agitate over.’

    Not at all. Of course it can be contested. But it doesn’t make it antisemitism. That was really the only point being made.

  3. Have to take issue with the first point. The theatre is boycotting the festival according to any normal definition of boycott – abstaining from dealing with someone economically as an expression of protest. Almost all boycotts impose a condition as you’ve described. The bus boycotts in America had the condition: we’ll only ride your buses if you agree to change your racist seating policy. The Tricycle’s boycott involves the condition: we’ll only host your festival if you drop the embassy sponsorship. It’s a boycott.

    So I went to the protest against the decison, but left feeling uncomfortable at the antics of some of the protestors – thankfully a minority. Read my review here:

  4. I think you’re being far too kind to the Tricycle. I don’t myself accuse it of antisemitism, but then, I’m not expert on that subject, not being a Jew. I do accuse of of political bias, of betraying free speech, and of trying to bully another arts charity into adopting the Tricycle’s own politics. All very wrong.

    You say “they were making no comment on whether or not the films in the festival were themselves funded by the Israeli government or associated NGOs, just sponsorship of the festival itself by the Israeli embassy.” What you don’t mention is that as has been reported in the Guardian, they asked to pre-vet Israeli films scheduled for the festival, to see if their content was acceptable to the Tricycle. That detail alone, which has not been denied, in itself shows how the Tricycle lost sight of free speech values in this affair.

    By the way, it’s worth noting that, in spite of the disclaimer about not minding Israeli funding of films, in truth it’s Israeli films only that the Tricycle suspects of having unacceptable political agendas.

    You say the Tricycle “wouldn’t hold an event sponsored by the governments of India or Pakistan during a flare-up in Kashmir.” Funny, that one. In June it did host the London Asian Film Festival, which was backed by Indian government money. As it happens there was a flare up on the line of control in Kashmir in the weeks leading up to the festival, in which soldiers died.

    No one at the Tricycle seems to have noticed it, though I’m sure some people in Kilburn were aware of it. Somehow these things mattered less in June.

    Oh, that was a small affair, you say. Sure. But the UK is “involved” in Gaza. It’s currently reviewing arms sales to Israel, and a foreign office minister resigned this week in protest at the UK’s soft line on Israel, in her view. I see no issue with the Tricycle’s UK funding. Should we even mention Iraq?

    You ask “what if they also boycotted some other human rights abusing countries – say Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Sudan etc.”. Let’s see if they ever, ever do. I doubt it. As a matter of interest, one of the people quoted in the Tricycle’s website giving a supportive message is the Gate Theatre’s artistic director, Christopher Hayden. His theatre partnered the Nour Festival last year, which was sponsored by the Qatari government, which has a bad human rights record and is even accused by some of giving support to Hamas. But when challenged about his double standard (by me, on Twitter), Hayden said he’d been unaware of the Qatar link, that it was an “oversight”, that he was “concerned”. he stressed the Gate received no Qatari money (then admitted he didn’t know if the Tricycle had been expected itself to receive Israeli money) and said the Gate would not partner with Nour this year.

    Not the Tricycle, admittedly. But one of the Tricycle’s chosen, featured supporters in the arts, proving the undoubted double standard operating in the politics of the arts world. He didn’t think or look, when it came to Qatar; with Israel, he gets out his microscope.

    You say “this is not really an example of BDS.” Funny. BDS campaigners have been cheering this decision as an example of the cultural boycott they want. I think it’s telling that they don’t see the distinctions you think significant.

  5. The Tricycle didn’t want to be associated with Israel but nor did the demonstrators – the organisers asked for no Israeli flags and don’t mention Gaza see facebook entry –
    Campaign Against Antisemitism UK
    August 7 at 12:45am · Edited
    Please note this is not a pro-Israel rally. We would request that you do not bring Israeli flags along or political messages mentioning the current Gaza conflict. The focus of the rally is protest against the boycott. There will be some placards available.

  6. “So how do you think that history will judge President Obama?”History will not have to judge, it will smilpy state: The current POTUS is a man who is unable unconstitutionally to hold the position. “We the People” are about to file a class action suit to make the man answer the question of his legitimacy.”…or us, for that matter.”I will accept part of the blame as an American for allowing him to even be on the ballot. I did NOT vote for him, but I did not check him out beforehand.So the answer to both of your questions, from this side of the ocean, would be “Guilty.”Anyone who can read the Holy Bible can see beyond the shadow of a doubt that Israel is God’s Promised Land. Politicians ought to be lining up to support Israel.Best I can tell, the USA isn’t mentioned in the scriptures. We ought to be the first in line! Shame on us! Many Americans fully support Israel and love Jews. We need more of us to step into office, but many, many, many of us are praying for y’all. No terrorist will stop me, either.I challenge Anonymous to list any positive accomplishments.

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