Scoop report by Jamie Neikrie
There were protests this weekend outside Wellington’s St. James Theatre, which was hosting a performance by an Israeli dance troupe, Batsheva.
John Minto, a key organizer in the 1980 protests of the South African apartheid protests, led a pro-Palestinian group of 40-plus strong. Using much of the same rhetoric used in the South African protests, the protestors denounced the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli government.
While the protestors allowed visitors to enter the performance, many were discouraged from attending. The pro-Palestinian supporters highlighted the fact that the dance troupe received funding from the Israeli government. “I’m sure many of these dancers are lovely people,” acknowledged protestor Dougal McNeill. “But by coming to New Zealand and representing Israel, they are attempting to normalize an apartheid state and unjust treatment of the Palestinian people.”
David Zwartz, a leader in Wellington’s Jewish community, led an equally powerful and animated pro-Israel response to the protests. Chief among Zwartz’s criticism of the protest was the decision to picket an arts performance. “There are numerous examples in history of countries and governments using cultural outreach programs,” Zwartz said. “The New Zealand government sends dance troupes, symphonies, and other arts programs across the world. This is not a novel idea.”
The pro-Israeli side also took offence to the use of the word “apartheid.” “To compare to Israel to South Africa, or compare the Palestinians to the blacks in South Africa is patently false, and disingenuous.” Zwartz claimed.
An unlikely ally came to the aid of Zwartz and the pro-Israel side in the form of the Flaxmere Christian Fellowship. Over 20 of the church’s members, many of them Samoan and Maori, had travelled from Auckland to aid the pro-Israel side. “From a spiritual sense, we feel it is out duty to come to aid of Israel,” said Fellowship member Doug Ho, a leader in the church’s youth program. “But we also feel that protesting against a dance troupe just because they are Israeli is also wrong.”
News release from John Minto – February 22
A protest will take place tonight against the visiting Israeli dance troupe Batsheva. The protest is part of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign to isolate Israel and its apartheid policies towards Palestinians. The protest will take place outside the St James Theatre in Courtenay Place, Wellington from 7.30pm.
The government has given visas to this dance company despite appeals from Palestinian solidarity groups and 2014 being declared the United Nation’s “International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People”.
The Batsheva Dance Company is part of the Israeli propaganda effort to deflect criticism of its appalling policies towards Palestinians. It is largely funded by the Israeli Ministry of Culture & Sport, the City of Tel Aviv and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs who praise the troupe as “ambassadors of Israeli culture”.
The troupe’s participation in the NZ Festival is also partially sponsored by the Israeli Embassy in Wellington.
The protest will be calling for an end to Israel’s unashamedly racist treatment of its Arab-Israeli citizens; the construction of illegal Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land; the brutal military occupation of the West Bank Palestinian territory and the inhuman blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The BDS campaign was launched in 2005 by some 260 Palestinian civil society organisations as the best way for the international community to support the Palestinian struggle for justice and human rights.
While some may hide behind the excuse that art and culture is somehow apolitical, many (including Stephen Hawking, Emma Thompson, Miriam Margolyes, Elvis Costello, Brian Eno, Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel) are taking a stand.
For the same reasons New Zealanders called for the end to rugby links with apartheid South Africa we are calling for the cutting of ties with apartheid Israel and a boycott of the Batsheva performances in New Zealand. This call is being made by a combined network of Palestinian solidarity organisations in New Zealand.
The National Party was on the wrong side of history in the struggle against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and seems determined to continue on the wrong side of this issue.
As University of Auckland Dance Studies Associate Professor Nicholas Rowe puts it:
‘If Ohad Naharin and Batsheva Dance Company would have the courage to refuse to offer their bodies up to the Israeli Defense Forces for annual military service, if they would have the courage to publicly condemn the illegal military occupation of the West Bank and the ongoing theft of land and property by the government that pays them to tour in the name of Israel, if they would have the courage to publicly state that they do not judge people by their religion or ethnicity and so would welcome the return of non-Jewish refugees back to their homes inside what is now Israel, then they would be touring to New Zealand as dance artists, and not just as political puppets. Anybody who seeks to watch Batsheva should be aware that Ohad Naharin and Batsheva have these choices to make. ‘