The Tricycle Cinema’s refusal to host a Jewish Film Festival raises issues of immense complexity

When accusations of anti-Semitism are in the air, important distinctions are lost

Archie Bland
Thursday 07 August 2014 11:09
People walk through the entrance of the Tricycle Theatre in north London
People walk through the entrance of the Tricycle Theatre in north London

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.

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.

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.