Multicultural festival confronts ambassadors of Israel’s colonial system

February 5, Brooklyn, NY – On Saturday evening, February 4, about 100 New Yorkers braved an icy wind to protest the appearance of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, and to do some dancing themselves, as part of a North American campaign for a boycott of the group’s tour.

Batsheva is being boycotted by advocates for Palestinian rights due to its role as what Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls one of Israel's greatest cultural ambassadors. Batsheva’s North American tour is supported by the Ministry. The dance company is part of the Israeli government’s “Brand Israel” initiative that uses art and culture to “show Israel’s prettier face” and divert attention from Israeli repression.

The street dancing attracted attention from ticket-holders and passersby. It featured a brass band, Palestinian dabka dancers, and a dance parody based on the current repertoire of Batsheva. The radical marching band the Rude Mechanical Orchestra and the Freedom Dabka Group brought arts out of the theater and into the wintry street, infusing bodily movement with a political movement sensibility.

A small group of protesters from the anti-Arab hate group the Jewish Defense League (JDL) protested in support of Batsheva, shouting “there’s no such thing as Palestine,” "settlements will rise," "terrorist Arab monkeys,” and "Isis wants you” at those who came to support Palestinian rights. Hani Ghazi of Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel linked the protest to other current US social justice struggles, saying “As we stand in solidarity with Palestine tonight, we acknowledge that we are on indigenous land and we proclaim our solidarity with the Sioux Tribe in Standing Rock, with our Black brothers and sisters, and with other communities resisting institutionalized racism.”

While many performance attendees strode past the festive protest, some were surprised by the activities and stopped to investigate. Several people decided to skip the show. One woman who was planning a Middle East sojourn with her mother and is active in anti-Trump protests said she felt “humiliated” to find how little she knew about the issues involved.

The JDL, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a "radical organization that preaches a violent form of anti-Arab, Jewish nationalism," has had no active US chapters in recent years. However, news reports suggest that they are planning a revival in the US under the Trump administration, concurrent with the rise of neo-fascism and white nationalism in Europe and the US. The small group threatened that their presence at this protest was just the beginning of renewed actions in New York City. 

In addition to the New York protest, Batsheva’s January 27 performance in Chicago was met with a demonstration. Human rights advocates plan protests at Batsheva’s upcoming February performances in Seattle, San Francisco and Orange County.  In 2016 musician Brian Eno told them to stop using his music due to their partnership with the Israeli government.

Twenty groups from cities on Batsheva’s current North American tour have signed onto a January 19 open letter to Batsheva, calling on the troupe to cut its ties with the Israeli government and refuse to participate in Brand Israel. The letter states, “If [Batsheva artistic director and choreographer] Ohad Naharin stands against the occupation, as he says he does, we invite him to show this by ending Batsheva's complicity with it. We ask that you disavow your role as Ambassador of the State.” Batsheva did not respond to the letter.

The New York protest was organized by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, which supports the Palestinian civil society call for people of conscience to use boycott, divestment, and sanctions to pressure Israel to comply with international law. The action is part of Adalah-NY’s cultural boycott campaign, which also includes a letter to PEN America, signed by over 200 notable literary figures, calling on it to reject Israeli government sponsorship for its World Voices Festival in April.  

Click here to see protest photos.