How a London theater became a BDS battleground
Israel’s UK ambassador and his allies in the British government viewed a 2014 row over the sponsorship of a film festival as a key battle against the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, according to documents released under freedom of information rules.
London’s Tricycle Theatre had agreed to host the UK Jewish Film Festival that summer. The festival was partly funded by the Israeli embassy in London.
Yet with Gaza under a major attack, the venue’s board decided in August that it would not accept Israeli government sponsorship for the event.
After learning of the theater’s decision, Member of Parliament Sajid Javid, then Britain’s culture secretary, acted swiftly to have it overturned.
Amid a media uproar, he publicly described the theater’s decision as “misguided.” Privately, Javid also sought a meeting with Indhu Rubasingham, artistic director at the Tricycle, a detail not reported before now. He appears to have used the meeting to put pressure on the theater.
Javid later boasted that he had “made it absolutely clear” to the theater “what might happen to their funding if they, or if anyone, tries that kind of thing again.”
He appears to have threatened that the Tricycle could lose assistance it receives from the publicly funded Arts Council.
Praise from Israeli ambassador
Daniel Taub, then Israel’s ambassador in London, praised Javid for opposing the theater’s stance. Javid’s intervention “constituted an important statement at a time when calls for cultural boycotts and shutting down cultural ties are regrettably gathering stream,” Taub wrote, in a letter acquired under Britain’s freedom of information rules.
Israel’s grant to the festival was small – less than £1,500 ($2,500 in 2014).
In August 2014, Rubasingham said, “at this moment, the Tricycle would not accept any sponsorship from any government agency involved in the conflict,” referring to Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza. Her comment was made before her meeting with Javid was held.
While the Tricycle offered to pay the equivalent of Israel’s grant from its own funds, the organizers of the festival decided to withdraw the event from the theater.
Following Javid’s pressure, however, the Tricycle climbed down. Later in August, it was announced that the theater would be willing to hold the festival “with no restrictions” on Israeli funding. In the end, the festival took place elsewhere.
In a joint letter to Javid, the two groups pointed to how previous questioning of Israeli arts sponsorship in Britain had been made by Palestine solidarity activists. In the row over the film festival, it was a venue in receipt of British public funding that “was making the political demands – not a group of protesters.”
The groups admitted that there were “limits” to government influence over such venues and claimed to appreciate “artistic independence.” Yet they argued that “Tricycle’s behavior crosses the line into political activism,” adding, “we hope you will find a way to make your views known to the theater.”
The Arts Council had been contacted by some members of Parliament during the row. In contrast to Javid’s threats, the council’s then CEO Alan Davey made clear that it was not involved in the management of activities by organizations that it funded. “It is not for the Arts Council to second guess whether a sponsorship fit is appropriate,” Davey stated.
Daniel Taub regarded the Tricycle’s eventual U-turn as a victory for Israel.
In his letter, Taub thanked Javid for his “quiet and effective intervention.” Taub added that he had recommended to the festival’s organizers that Javid be invited as “a guest of honor” to its opening.
The government department Javid headed at that time has acknowledged it “kept closely in touch” with Taub during the row over the film festival.
Javid has been one of Israel’s most vocal supporters in the British government over recent years. After holding the culture and media portfolio, he was appointed business secretary in 2015. He used the new post to advocate an expansion of trade between Britain and Israel.
The close ties between Israeli diplomats and some British politicians were recently revealed in a four-part documentary series by Al Jazeera. The investigation showed how lobby groups within Britain’s political parties maintain close working relationships with Israel’s London embassy.
Riya Hassan, a representative of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, said British government attempts to punish arts groups or other bodies that take a stance against Israel were “unabashedly repressive and anti-democratic.”
The attempts, Hassan emphasized, “may also indicate the kind of corruption and co-optation that the recently broadcast Al Jazeera investigative film captures so well.”
Miranda Pennell, a filmmaker involved in Artists for Palestine UK, said it was “absolutely outrageous” that Javid “summoned the theater’s director to a private meeting at which he appears to have threatened the [Tricycle’s] funding.”
The affair “shows how UK ministers involved in Conservative Friends of Israel are not only in hock to Israel over foreign policy but are also willing to use underhand conduct and bullying to intimidate independent arts organizations here in Britain on Israel’s behalf,” Pennell added.
“Political interference of this kind in the affairs of a cultural institution is an abuse of power more fitting of an authoritarian state than a mature democracy.”