July 10, 2018, New York, NY - Fifty human rights advocates held a vibrant, musical protest on the sidewalk just outside New York’s Joyce Theater to oppose the opening night performance by the Batsheva Dance Company, a leader in helping the Israeli government to whitewash its violent repression of the Palestinian people (view photos). Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs touts Batsheva as "perhaps the best known global ambassador of Israeli culture,” and uses the troupe to convey a positive image of the country and divert attention from its human rights abuses, as part of the government’s “Brand Israel” PR initiative.
The protesters support the growing international movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel to end its human rights abuses. The Palestinian-led BDS movement is a nonviolent campaign for Palestinian rights inspired by the international boycott campaign that helped to abolish apartheid in South Africa. July 9 was the 13th anniversary of the Palestinian boycott call. New York BDS supporters have also protested past Batsheva performances.
Batsheva’s performances at the Joyce Theater from July 10 to 22 are supported by the Consulate General of Israel in New York and are part of the Israeli government’s Dance Fest Israel 70. Dance Fest Israel 70 is a component of the Israeli government’s celebration of the anniversary of the establishment of the Israeli state. For Palestinians, 1948 is commemorated as the Nakba, the catastrophic loss of their homeland, as over 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and prevented from returning.
Jenna Laila from Adalah-NY told the protesters, "We’re here to let Batsheva, and the Joyce Theater, know that they cannot use art to distract us from Israel’s crimes. While Batsheva performs as part of Israel’s celebration of the establishment of the Israeli state, Palestinians are being killed demanding freedom and basic rights. As the growing global BDS movement turns 13, we renew our commitment, and redouble our efforts to fight for Palestinians’ rights to freedom, justice, and equality."
Two people who had tickets for the performance decided not to attend once they learned about the Israeli government sponsorship. One of the two, and a passerby who had grown up in Palestine, joined the protest.
The radical marching band Rude Mechanical Orchestra provided a lively accompaniment to the protesters’ chants and songs calling for justice for Palestinians. Chants included, “Batsheva gets no ovation, ambassador for occupation”, and “Dancers have to take a stand, no excuse for stealing land.” Responding to a call from Gaza, the protesters also observed a moment of silence while holding photos of some of the more than 100 unarmed Palestinian protesters from Gaza who were killed by Israeli snipers over the last three months while demanding their right as refugees to their homes.
A small group of protesters from the anti-Arab hate group the Jewish Defense League (JDL) protested in support of Batsheva, the Joyce Theater and the Israeli government, holding signs saying “Thank God for Trump”, and “Punish Gaza.” The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the JDL a "radical organization that preaches a violent form of anti-Arab, Jewish nationalism." A Canadian and an American member of the JDL were indicted for assaulting a Palestinian protester in Washington, D.C. in March 2017.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry official explained Israeli government efforts to use the arts to rebrand Israel to the New York Times in 2009, saying, “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits” to “show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” Israel’s current Consul General in NYC, Dani Dayan, the Joyce’s partner for these performances and also a leader of Israel’s right-wing settlers, recently reiterated the Brand Israel approach, saying, “There are diplomats who see culture as miscellaneous ... I see it as an integral part of our effort here.”
In response to a letter from Adalah-NY: Campaign for the Boycott of Israel criticizing the Joyce for hosting Batsheva and collaborating with the Israeli government, the Joyce’s Executive Director Linda Shelton wrote that the Joyce would “let the art speak for itself,” and asserted that artists' work “has the potential to transcend violence and political conflict.” Ms. Shelton did not explain how dance sponsored by and in support of a government that is perpetrating systematic violence could transcend that same violence.