The Tricycle Theatre in London seems an unlikely anti-Semitic institution. There are several Jewish people on its board of trustees, including the chairman, Jonathan Levy; it has hosted the UK Jewish Film Festival for the past eight years; above all, it has long nurtured work that is determinedly anti-sectarian, anti-racist, pro-human. These are not the behaviours that one readily associates with such a grim prejudice.
Nonetheless, the Tricycle is now facing that accusation. It stems from the decision taken by its artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, to insist that the UK Jewish Film Festival return a grant from the Israeli embassy if it wished to continue at the theatre’s Kilburn venue. It offered to make up the shortfall, but the UKJFF felt that it could not accept that offer, and so now it is looking for a new home.
There have been some unconsciously comic responses to all this. The news of the Tricycle Theatre’s stance on the conflict in Gaza has not yet swayed matters there decisively one way or the other.
When Philip Himberg, a playwright and trustee of the theatre, says that “as regards the current crisis in the Middle East, the Tricycle must remain neutral”, the statement is unlikely to have the same impact as John Kerry saying the same about America.
Still, even if matters on the ground in the Middle East will proceed according to the same grotesque pattern as before, this lesser, local conflagration contains some important lessons for us here. Learning them is hard.
I don’t believe the Tricycle, or Indhu Rubasingham, are anti-Semitic. I don’t say that lightly, and I don’t think, as someone at the Gate Theatre tweeted yesterday, that “if you think the Tricycle is anti-Semitic you are an idiot”.
In recent weeks, too many non-Jews have dismissed observations of prejudice with a kind of scornful impatience that may itself be seen as evidence for the thing it denies.
Anti-Semitism seems to be an especially insidious prejudice, and in moments like this, as Howard Jacobson once wrote for this paper, we risk “a gradual habituation to the language of loathing, passed from the culpable to the unwary and back again.”
Just as men are often surprised when women tell them of how often they hear cat-calls in the street, how often they are ignored in meetings, so the non-Jew may have no intuitive sense of the weight that ostensibly innocent language can carry. And if non-Jews are serious about fighting it, they have to trust the people who experience it for themselves.
The famous on Israel-Gaza
The famous on Israel-Gaza
1/21 Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem
Oscar-winning married actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem signed an open letter accused Israel of "genocide". They said: "Gaza is living through horror these days, besieged and attacked by land, sea and air'.
2/21 Zayn Malik
The One Direction singer was bombarded with Twitter death threats after posting #FreePalestine to his 13 million followers. The tweet collected over 130,000 retweets, but it soon became apparent that not everyone agreed with his opinion.
3/21 Mia Farrow
Mia Farrow, the actress and Unicef ambassador, said on Twitter: 'We can passionately protest Israel's assault upon Gaza without descending, even remotely, into the hideousness of anti-Semitism'.
4/21 Katy Perry
Way back in 2011, Katy Perry faced a slew of angry responses from Palestinians and their supporters after she tweeted to her fans, asking them to 'Pray for Israel'.
ABC via Getty
5/21 Massive Attack
Massive Attack spoke of their ‘love and commitment’ to supporting the plight of young Palestinian refugees after the band visited the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon.
6/21 Selena Gomez
The former Disney child star caused a stir when she posted an image on her Instagram account than began: 'It's about humanity. Pray for Gaza.' Joan Rivers responded to the TMZ celebrity news website: 'Oh, Selena Gomez, yeah, that college grad. Well if Selena said that...let’s see if she can spell Palestinian'.
7/21 Russell Brand
Russell Brand is currently caught up in an entertaining spat with Fox News anchor Sean Hannity. Brand uploaded a video where he accused Hannity of terrorism after his agressive behaviour in an Israel-Gaza debate. Hannity, who is famously right-wing and pro-Israel, asked Yousef Munayyer if he was 'thick in the head'.
Rihanna tweeted, then deleted, the hashtag #FreePalestine after eight minutes. She claimed its publication was an accident.
9/21 John Legend
The singer waded into the debate on Twitter when he wrote: 'So sick watching our Secretary of State have to grovel so hard to tell Israel how much he loves them while Israeli cabinet shits on him'.
10/21 Bar Refaeli
Leonardo DiCaprio's former girlfriend added to the debate when she posted a quote on her Instagram account, which she attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately it was actually taken from a Lincoln figure encountered by Captain Kirk and Spock in Star Trek, season three, episode 22.
11/21 Bill Maher
Bill Maher received a storm of criticism after he compared Hamas to a 'crazy woman trying to kill you'. 'You can only hold her wrists for so long before you have to slap her,' he tweeted.
12/21 Jon Voight
The actor and father of Angelina Jolie unleashed a rant on Fox News. Reading from a script, he criticised Obama’s actions over the current unrest in Israel and Gaza.
13/21 Joey Barton
Despite already getting into a dispute with Yossi Benayoun over comments on the Israel-Gaza conflict: Joey Barton has continued to deplore the violence in Gaza, tweeting the hashtag '#stopisraelkillinginnocents'.
14/21 Howard Stern
When a caller attempted to blame Israel for the war with Hamas last week, SiriusXM radio host Howard Stern told him to'“F*** off!' before launching into an impassioned defense of Israel, saying: “If you’re anti-Israel, then you’re anti-America”.
15/21 Wonder Woman
Otherwise known as Gal Gadot: the Israeli actress took to Instagram, writing: 'I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens. Especially to all the boys and girls who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas, who are hiding like cowards behind women and children'.
16/21 Piers Morgan
Piers Morgan was branded 'Zionest scum' for his stream of tweets about the Israel-Gaza conflict. He declared various opinions such as 'I like Jews. I like Arabs' and 'Same nonsense made Northern Ireland a murderous tinderbox for 30 years'.
17/21 Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers didn't hold back when she was interviewed by TMZ; likening Israel's position to that of New York if it was attacked by New Jersey. Asked where she thought civilians caught up in the crossfire were supposed to go, she replied: 'I don't care, they started'.
18/21 Dwight Howard
NBA star Dwight Howard 'did a Rihanna' - tweeting '#FreePalestine' before quickly deleting it and spending the rest of the day apologizing for the 'mistake'.
19/21 Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban
Nicole Kidman uploaded a short video to her Facebook page, featuring Keith Urban with their daughters Sunday Rose and Faith Margaret, captioned: 'Keith, the girls and I are joining Reba McEntire to #PrayForPeace. xxNic'.
20/21 Simon Cowell
X Factor boss pledged almost £100,000 to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces at a US fund-raiser in Beverly Hills in 2012. The gala brought in more than £12million for the organisation, which helps to provide welfare services for IDF soldiers and their bereaved families. So far, however, he has only commented on the conflict to say that he is "praying for peace".
21/21 Brian Eno
Musician and producer Brian Eno condemned the Israeli action in Gaza as 'ethnic cleansing' in an open letter on David Byrne's website.
It’s in that context that one has to approach the business at the Tricycle. The reason I don’t believe Rubasingham and her colleagues to be guilty even of an unconscious kind of prejudice is the consistency of their approach. Their enthusiasm for the UKJFF in the past counts for something; so do their offers to make up the lost funding, and their plainly sincere vow that they would take no money from any party to the conflict.
It’s particularly worth noting that Rubasingham has consistently taken pains to avoid compromising the Tricycle’s position by allowing any political association to colour its audience’s view of its work: recently, for example, she turned down a booking for a Labour party fundraiser.
These points, I think, are an impregnable answer to the charge of anti-Semitism. But they are also rather beside the point. The problem with the inflammatory rhetoric of anti-Semitism is that it turns the whole argument into a simplistic binary. In some of the defences of the Tricycle’s position, an important distinction seems to be lost: it is possible to be entirely un-racist and still be hopelessly, foolishly, disastrously wrong.
We’ve considered the Tricycle’s decision as a matter of intent. But we also have to consider its effects. And this is where the defences prove inadequate.
The Tricycle may say, and mean, that it would turn down funding from Hamas, but it seems highly unlikely that the question of a Hamas-funded film festival in the UK will arise in the weeks ahead; and, for all that it rejects money from the Labour party, it certainly accepts it from the Arts Council, a stance that was not reversed during the war in Iraq.
It may say, and mean, that it would have happily provided alternative funding, but it must have known that to ask the UKJFF to forego funding from the Israeli embassy placed it in an impossible position. It may say, and mean, that its actions are aimed squarely at the prosecutors of a hideous war, and no one else. But it isn’t Benjamin Netanyahu who will be missing out on the latest works by Eytan Fox or Josh Aronson on a rainy Tuesday night in north London.
This is such difficult territory, where disagreement is bound to sound like disgust, and where the easiest place to be is on the sidelines, throwing rhetorical missiles at those who must take decisions that will inevitably draw the ire of someone.
But when the territory is so difficult, it is perhaps wisest not to get so bound up in questions of scrupulous consistency, such that your theoretical rejection of an application by Khaled Meshal to put a show on forms a serious part of your argument.
Instead, ask the simpler question: what will the consequences be? Who will be hurt? Who will be helped? And by asking that question, the matter swims into greater clarity. The Palestinians in Gaza will be no better off. Benjamin Netanyahu will not be discouraged. The only impact will be closer to home. As those who have followed this conflict understand all too well, it matters where you aim your fire – but it also matters who it hits.
It is sometimes argued that the particular disgust at Israel, rather more voluble than that aimed at the Syrian or Russian governments, is further evidence of racism. And I think it’s clear that this is sometimes true. But there’s a more benign explanation, too, and one that I hope motivates my own dismay at Operation Protective Edge. It’s that Israel really is a liberal democracy, really does stand for noble principles that are not often enough applied across the Middle East, that it comes in for special scrutiny. It is held to a higher standard because Israel is part of us.
But as part of us , Israelis, and certainly British Jews, must be understood as a widely various bunch. There is no definition of us that can stand if the practical consequence of the Israeli government’s actions is for so many Jewish people here to feel like they are becoming pariahs.
Instead, whether it meant to or not, the Tricycle has reminded these people that for some, they will always be an homogenous, alien them.