The Edinburgh Fringe’s renowned open platform for all forms of artistic expression produced a curious juxtaposition this year, as Palestinians deployed creativity to shatter the bonds of political repression while Israeli state apologists cloaked a discredited political message in threadbare cultural clothing.
The gulf between the two was demonstrated in the pages of Scotland’s press, the airwaves and in the streets, as well as in performance and display spaces across the city.
A major Fringe hub, the Pleasance Courtyard, was home every lunchtime for a week to Café Palestine, featuring Alrowwad, a youth theatre and dance company from Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem. The fourteen young performers were in Edinburgh as part of an extensive tour of the UK arranged by the actor/director Justin Butcher with the charity Amos Trust.
They were featured on the BBC’s World Tonight on Aug 23 and attracted enthusiastic audiences included the Scottish National Party’s spokesman in Westminster, Tommy Sheppard MP. Sheppard praised their energy and passion and said, “It is vital that the Fringe continues to provide a platform for performers to share their experiences, particularly for those who have such an important political message to share.”
Butcher partnered Alrowwad with different UK artists daily, contextualising their performances with short films, projected commentary and the eloquent words of the theatre’s founder Abdelfattah Abusrour. His aim, he said, was to inspire the young performers with his philosophy of “beautiful resistance”.
“I want them to live for their country, not die for their country,” said Abusrour. These short films, below by Phil Chetwynd of the Network of Photographs for Palestine, and from Scottish TV, demonstrate the company’s life-affirming vitality.
Also included in the Fringe programme were the El-Funoun dance company working with Shams and Marhabtain from Lebanon to present two separate pieces, The Rooster and Partial Memory.
Photographer Hamde Abu Rahma, from the West Bank village of Bil’in, succeeded this year, unlike last, in persuading the British visa authorities to allow him to accompany his work to Edinburgh. Supported by the Network of Photographers for Palestine, he exhibited his pictures and spoke at a number of venues about his experiences documenting the resistance to Israeli occupation. He is pictured below at Edinburgh’s Tollcross Community Centre.
Abu Rahma’s book, Roots Run Deep, is dedicated to his cousin Bassem who was killed taking part in peaceful protests. Abu Rahma’s family home was raided by the Israeli army while he was in the UK, as reported in the Herald newspaper. The picture is from their website.
Meanwhile an exhibition outside St John’s Church on Princes Street of work by four photographers from Gaza was vandalised – almost every picture deliberately slashed with a razor blade or penknife. Phil Chetwynd from the photographers’ network said the power of the pictures remained undiminished and they would continue to exhibit them unrepaired.
Israel’s contribution to the 2016 Fringe was sneaked onto the online programme after the printed version was published in the spring. The International Shalom Festival on August 17 was 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.
In the past, Israeli artists appearing on the Fringe attracted the attention of pro-Palestinian boycott campaigners because of backing from the Embassy or other state institution. Artists were being used as cover by the state’s Brand Israel PR operation.
In this case advocacy for the state of Israel was the openly stated purpose and took clear precedence over any artistic goal. Performers were not even named until after the initial public launch which included a slick PR video featuring Mark Regev, Israel’s ambassador to the UK. This is the man who, as Israeli government spokesman during the assault on Gaza in 2014, outraged even hardened TV presenters by his insistence that Israel bore no responsibility for the deaths of children slaughtered by its armed forces.
And yet Shalom Fest organiser Nigel Goodrich, a Christian Zionist who heads COFIS, repeatedly claimed in newspaper articles that the event was all about dialogue and building bridges and had no connection with the Israeli state.
The Shalom fest Facebook page reflects its lacklustre nature and demonstrates who it was targeting for its bridge building exercise – not the Palestinian people with whom Israel is in conflict, but fundamentalist Christian communities in Britain who are largely ignorant of the political realities of the Middle East. These are the groups setting up Friends of Israel organisations like Goodrich’s around the country. It can be no coincidence that the Regev video appeared on Revelations TV and the Shalom Fest was hosted by the Baptist Church-owned Central Hall.
Goodrich was allocated ample space in the Herald newspaper to brand pro-Palestine activists as antisemitic hate-mongers while painting a delusional picture of his propaganda fest as a multicultural cornucopia. This applied even while the paper was reporting on a protest letter from high profile cultural figures that it had declined to publish! It took many attempts by members of Edinburgh Action for Palestine (EA4P), working together with Artists for Palestine UK (APUK), for the Herald to publish a counterbalancing piece. While repeating Goodrich’s claims and downgrading the number of artists supporting the Artists Pledge for Palestine from more than 1000 to 100, it at least included a rational explanation of the protest.
The Herald quotes a Fringe Society spokeswoman saying its open access principles “guarantee artists the freedom to present their work to the public.” This is a commendable principle, but as EA4P and APUK pointed out in posters and leaflets, it is grossly hypocritical for Israel to demand the freedom to present its propaganda to the public while suppressing Palestinian cultural voices and destroying their infrastructure.
This was evident to comedian Mark Thomas who visited a city centre display focusing on the case of poet Dareen Tatour, one of more than 150 Palestinians arrested between October 2015 and February 2016 for Facebook posts unpalatable to Israeli censors.
These and other protests in the days leading up to the Shalom Festival on August 17 gave Edinburgh residents and festival visitors ample opportunities to learn about Palestinian life, art and resistance.
A conference organised by Scottish PSC and a series of lively street displays and actions attracted activists from all over the UK and beyond.
On the day itself the busy traffic intersection outside Central Hall was festooned with flags, banners and placards as supporters of many Palestinian solidarity organisations, from Scottish Jews for a Just Peace to French EuroPalestine, gathered to sing, chant and listen to poems and speeches.
It was noisy and exuberant, but entirely non-violent and could only be seen as threatening by friends of Israel determined to ally themselves with a state which regards as incontrovertible its own right to deploy violence with impunity.
Campaigners will be continuing the dialogue opened up this year with the Fringe Society, in order to prevent a repeat of the Shalom Fest travesty. The distinction between artists seeking a platform for self-expression they are largely denied, and a powerful propaganda machine cloaking a political message in cultural garb, must now be clear for all to see.