For the second August in a row, advocates for Israel have used Edinburgh’s huge annual cultural gathering as cover for an attempt to whitewash the state’s decades of oppression and racist discrimination against Palestinians.
Under the rubric of coexistence and cultural cooperation, this year’s International Shalom Festival, staged over three days at a community secondary school, sought to avoid the opprobrium heaped upon its blatantly propagandistic 2016 incarnation.
Last year the event’s organisers, known for working with the Israeli Embassy to undermine and oppose campaigning work in support of Palestinian rights, proudly proclaimed it as a major “Israel advocacy” initiative. This year the same groups – the Confederation of Friends of Israel Scotland (COFIS) and StandWithUs – have tried to entice audiences with a vision of Israel as a haven of tolerance and harmony offering “real examples of coexistence”.
Dispensing with the workshop on the deadly martial art of Krav Maga, which raised eyebrows when it appeared on the programme for last year’s Shalom (“Peace”) jamboree, their blurb on the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe website describes a range of attractions, from entering a Bedouin tent and enjoying Druze cookery to watching films and theatre, to hearing from coexistence author Dr Lee Perlman and “Jewish/Arab Israeli women from Afula who come together to paint.”
The formula has been successful in persuading some politicians to associate themselves with this Israeli propaganda exercise – a fact celebrated in the staunchly Zionist Jewish Chronicle. One of them was Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who was due to grace the event with her presence on Aug 8 but failed to turn up. Edinburgh’s Lord Provost, the SNP’s Frank Ross, did appear however. Michael Freeman, Counsellor for Civil Society Affairs at the Embassy of Israel, presumably in attendance for no other reason than to turn his hand to some Druze cooking, tweeted his delight at being pictured with Ross.
Artists’ Open Letter
Many leading cultural figures saw through the deception from the first and wrote to the Sunday Herald newspaper about it.
Paul Laverty, screen writer on many of Ken Loach’s films including the acclaimed I, Daniel Blake, was among signatories to an open letter (see full text below) which said:
“The Shalom Festival is part of the State of Israel’s attempts to counter BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions]. It claims to support peaceful coexistence in Israel/Palestine, while whitewashing Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights. This is the language of the Israeli state itself, and is code for continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people and the ongoing denial of the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees.”
Edinburgh-based activist-filmmaker Jon Pullman was invited by ShalomFest organisers Sammy Stein and Nigel Goodrich to join a panel discussion about one of the films they planned to show. When Pullman, a committed supporter of the BDS movement, saw footage from Eyeless in Gaza which is promoted as a documentary correcting media bias against Israel, he was shocked at its blatant propagandist tone and content.
Explaining his reasons for declining to take part, Pullman wrote: “Far from being a vehicle for “peace” it is propaganda of the worst sort, attempting as it does, to justify Operation Protective Edge, the horrific 51 day military attack on the besieged people of Gaza three years ago… the entire blame is placed on the people of Gaza themselves, or rather Hamas, the governing authority they democratically voted for.”
Pullman has written to Fringe Society Chief Executive Shona McCarthy pointing out the duplicity behind the Shalom Festival presenting itself as, in the words of Embassy official Freeman, “a celebration of culture and diversity.”
Even though the parents’ council of Drummond Community High School protested in writing about the inappropriate use of the school premises, the Fringe Society response was to insist that, short of illegal acts being committed, it cannot justify preventing a powerful propaganda machine cloaking a partisan political message in cultural garb.
Ostensibly offering a platform to a prominent pro-Palestinian activist like Pullman is a familiar ruse by the Israel lobby to give the appearance of genuine commitment to dialogue, all the better to pursue their campaign of shutting down avenues of free expression for Palestinians and their supporters.
The real motivation behind the ShalomFest was crystal clear from the stalls and materials on show in the school hall (which was virtually empty when this writer visited). Glossy display panels and piles of leaflets and brochures from StandWithUs and Christians United for Israel, an extreme rightwing Islamophobic organisation with a large following in the United States, pressed Israel’s biblical claim to the whole of the Holy Land and demonised BDS as a movement in sympathy with ISIS terror.
Even the most innocuous-seeming elements of the festival betray its role as a manipulative form of normalisation, portraying a few atypical examples of collaboration between non-Jews and Jews in Israel as if showing the true face of Israeli society.
Fancy a piece of “beautiful and inspiring jewellery” crafted from rockets landing in Sderot from besieged Gaza? Many of the pieces centre around a heavy piece of metal in the shape of the whole of Israel/Palestine, inscribed in Hebrew: “Nation of Israel Lives”. As one of the exhibitors commented ironically, noting the sharp point at the Sinai end, “you could use that as a weapon.”
Visitors can enjoy dressing up in top of the range fashion from Maskit. But be aware that Maskit (Hebrew משכית), meaning an ornament, or something small and beautiful, is an Israeli fashion house founded in 1954 by Ruth Dayan, wife of Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan.
The women from Afula who come together to paint, turn out to be predominantly Israeli Jewish women producing a series of works portraying olive trees, entirely devoid of any awareness of Israel’s destruction of more than a million Palestinian-owned olive trees over recent decades. Their project is run by the Women’s International Zionist Organisation WIZO.
Normalisation projects like the Shalom Festival are just as reprehensible when used to whitewash Israeli apartheid as they would have been in the service of South Africa’s racist regime before international solidarity action helped to bring about its demise.
JULY 2017 OPEN LETTER – Boycott “International Shalom Festival”
We, the undersigned artists, media workers, academics and campaigners note that supporters of the State of Israel are planning a so-called “International Shalom Festival” during the forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe. The purpose of this “festival”, which includes the Israeli state-funded company Incubator, which was the subject of a successful boycott in Edinburgh in 2014, is to attempt to undermine the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli apartheid state.
BDS has been called for by the overwhelming majority of political and civic organisations representing the Palestinian people. In his testimony in support of BDS, Archbishop Desmond Tutu says: “I know firsthand that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation. The parallels to my own beloved South Africa are painfully stark indeed.”
The “Shalom Festival” is part of the State of Israel’s attempts to counter BDS. It claims to support “peaceful coexistence” in Israel/Palestine, while whitewashing Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights. This is the language of the Israeli state itself, and is code for continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people and the ongoing denial of the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees.
We call for a boycott of the misnamed “Shalom Festival”, which promotes, not “peace”, but the apartheid State of Israel and its occupation.
Ken Loach (filmmaker); Paul Laverty (scriptwriter); Gavin Mitchell (actor); Wael Shawish (vice-chair, Association of Palestinian Community, Scotland); Hugh Humphries (secretary, Scottish Friends of Palestine); Levette Callander (chair, Scottish Palestinian Forum); Rev. Canon Dr Nicholas Taylor (vice chair, Scottish Palestinian Forum); Sofiah MacLeod (chair, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign); Dr Douglas Chalmers (vice-president, Universities and Colleges Union, in personal capacity); Liz Elkind (Jewish activist); Dr Henry Maitles (Jewish activist); Pauline Goldsmith (actor); John Bett (writer, actor, director); Anji Darcy (actor, singer); Tam Dean Burn (actor); Clare McGarry (theatre director); Robert Rae (film and theatre director); Nicola Roy (actor); Dr Mark Brown (theatre critic); Dr Iain Ferguson (social work academic); Dr Eurig Scandrett (senior lecturer in public sociology); San Ghanny Choir, Edinburgh; Karen Douglas (theatre director); Liam O’Hare (journalist); Craig MacLean (photographer); Jim Aitken (writer); Jane Frere (artist)