The 2016 Edinburgh Fringe once again offers a much-needed platform for Palestinian artists to demonstrate their talent, creativity and vitality despite the extraordinary difficulties they face in their daily lives and in producing, exhibiting and performing their work. But this year “the biggest arts festival on the planet” has shocked friends of Palestine with a last minute addition to the programme organised by groups committed to promoting Israeli interests and undermining those of Palestine. A letter of protest from Artists for Palestine UK is attracting growing support and a local campaign is gathering strength.
Sneaked onto the online programme after the printed version was published, the International Shalom Festival scheduled for August 17 is an initiative of COFIS, the Confederation of Friends of Israel Scotland, and StandWithUs – two pro-Israel advocacy organisations that work with the Israeli Embassy to undermine and oppose campaigning work in support of Palestinian rights.
They promote the one-day event as a “celebration of the diverse culture, music, art, dance and food of Israel” featuring “Arab, Jewish, Christian, Druze, Bedouin and Samaritan performers from all over Israel,” and “aiming to build cultural bridges and develop international friendship.”
There is no mention by name of the Palestinians who make up one fifth of Israel’s population as well as the entire population of the occupied territories, besieged Gaza and numerous refugee camps across the Middle East, nor of those in exile around the world. Israel’s “cultural bridges” bypass the people it has dispossessed, seeking “international friendship” with those prepared to ignore a decades-long injustice to collaborate in an empty dance of dialogue.
The programme of exhibitions leading up to the advertised gala evening on August 17 offers a risible glimpse into the organisers’ vision of Israeli diversity. It is reminiscent of the widely ridiculed “swagbag” offered to top Oscar nominees in February.
Exhibitors listed to appear at Edinburgh’s Central Hall on August 17 include a cosmetics company exploiting Dead Sea salts to make beauty products, a Christian Israel advocacy organisation, an exhibition of metal roses sculpted from rockets allegedly fired from Gaza (perhaps an ironic reference to the artworks Palestinians have long used to subvert the Israeli military assaults they face), a website promoting news about 21st century Israel and practitioners of a deadly martial art , Krav Maga, which is being promoted globally as “a reality based Israeli self defense system that can be applied in every day life.”
“This is a bizarre way to mount a festival with the word Shalom – Peace – in its title,” said actor, writer and director Justin Butcher, who is curating Cafe Palestine with Bethlehem-based Alrowwad at the Pleasance Theatre Courtyard on August 22-26.
The evening Gala headlines ann RF, an electro-ethnic-Reggae group originating in Shaharut, a settlement community in the southern Israeli desert. They are pictured wearing ethnic garb and described as creating “music that combines the beauty of different cultures and bring people together in a joyful celebration of unity. ” Strange then that Shaharut falls into a special category of Jewish-only settlement promoted by the right-wing Gush Emunim movement. No Palestinian voices here, that’s for sure.
Also on the bill is the Yamma Ensemble, which “integrates musical elements from middle east with Western forms of music.” Yamma is headed by music and media producer Talya Solan. In 2014 she borrowed the name of a respected music festival in the UK, MusicPort, and established Music Port Israel with the stated aim of supporting mobility and promotion of Israeli musicians around the world. According to Solan, “Israeli musicians and their artistic work are the best ambassadors Israel has got.”
Chris Somes-Charlton, partner and manager of renowned Palestinian musician Reem Kelani, said Music Port Israel’s business is “cynical propaganda which is entirely political in purpose and which risks corrupting young Israeli musicians.” Kelani has added her endorsement to the Artists for Palestine UK letter.
Another prominent Palestinian artist opposing the Shalom fest is photographer Hamde Abu Rahma whose work will be on show at the Tollcross Community Centre for the coming week. He urged full support for the boycott as a civil society answer to Israel’s persistent infringements of Palestinian human rights.
Both Abu Rahma and Abusrour can testify to the destructive impact of Israeli domination on their work as artists. Palestinians are routinely denied the right to artistic expression that Israel so loudly demands for its cultural ambassadors. APUK will be joining forces with Edinburgh Action for Palestine to mount a mobile exhibition on August 16 highlighting recent examples, with the focus on poet Dareen Tatour, detained for posting her work on Facebook.
In a meeting with APUK, Fringe Society Chief Executive Shona McCarthy said the Fringe was dedicated to openness and there was nothing in the Society’s statutes to exclude the Shalom Festival.
Justin Butcher was far from satisfied with this explanation. He said: “Cultural openness is a vital principle, but it surely does not extend to giving a platform to propaganda for a militarised, racist state that practices apartheid and breaks international law.”
Please add your voice to the campaign opposing Brand Israel on the Fringe.
Send polite emails to Fringe Society Chief Executive Shona MCarthy
Join the protest actions taking place in Edinburgh on and before August 17
Follow APUK on Facebook for news of the Dareen Tatour exhibition