Letter calling on Lincoln Center to cancel Israeli government's “Brand Israel” theater performances

Katherine Farley, Chairman of the Board, Lincoln Center
Debora L. Spar, President, Lincoln Center

Dear Ms. Farley and Ms. Spar,

As supporters of the arts and human rights, we are writing you to express our grave concern that Lincoln Center will be hosting Israel’s Ha’bima National Theatre and the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv from July 24 – 27 for performances of the play “To the End of the Land.”  Lincoln Center’s website notes that these performances will occur “With support of Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs in North America.”  It is deeply troubling that Lincoln Center, one of the world’s leading cultural institutions, is helping the Israeli government to implement its systematic “Brand Israel” strategy of employing arts and culture to divert attention from the state's decades of violent colonization, brutal military occupation and denial of basic rights to the Palestinian people. We call on Lincoln Center to avoid complicity with Brand Israel by cancelling these performances by Ha’bima and Cameri.

In 2006 Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) launched its “Brand Israel” public relations strategy which aimed to “rebrand” Israel by representing the country as “relevant and modern,” while “avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians.”  An important component of “Brand Israel” involves promoting the country as a progressive center of the arts and culture.  This was articulated by a MoFA official who, following one of Israel’s periodic military assaults on the Gaza Strip, told the New York Times, “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits …This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”  The advertised support by “Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs in North America” for Ha’bima and Cameri’s performance at Lincoln Center fits precisely within that Israeli government strategy.

In addition to this government partnership, both Ha’bima and Cameri Theaters have long been actively complicit in the occupation and colonization of the West Bank, by performing repeatedly in illegal settlements there, despite calls by conscientious artists in Israel and around the world asking them not to do so.  In 2016 Ha’bima performed in the radical settlement of Kiryat Arba in Hebron, and Ha’bima and Cameri gave multiple performances in the settlement of Ariel, which cuts 12 miles into the occupied West Bank, in flagrant violation of international law.  Many courageous Israeli artists have protested over performances in Ariel, and have refused to appear there. The protests by Israeli artists were joined in 2010 by over 150 international theater and film professionals. In the UK in 2012, a group of prominent actors, playwrights and directors published a letter in the Guardian calling on Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to cancel Ha’bima’s performance there due to its role in legitimization of Israeli settlements.  Nonetheless, Ha’bima and Cameri continue to perform in these settlements.

Given this context, Lincoln Center cannot claim that hosting these theaters, with Israeli government support, is simply apolitical patronage of the arts, when these Israeli institutions are directly involved in supporting the repression of the Palestinian people, including Palestinian theater artists. To give just a few of the many examples of Palestinian artists being the targets of Israeli government repression: performers and staff from the Jenin Freedom Theater have repeatedly been subject to arrest and harassment.  In June 2015, the Israeli government cut funding of one theater run by Palestinian citizens of Israel, and threatened the funding of a second theater over artistic decisions related to Palestinian rights. The Palestinian National Theater in East Jerusalem has been the target of years of persistent harassment and threats of closure by the Israeli government. The freedom of movement of all Palestinians artists is frequently restricted by Israeli occupation authorities, while Israeli artists travel the world freely.

We are not raising concerns about any artists' content, or their nationality, but rather about institutions' structural complicity with a repressive state agenda that repeatedly violates international law.  Lincoln Center's other programming, including the other performances in the international Festival from July 10 - 30, indicates its admirable intentions in highlighting varied voices in the region, allowing the arts to function as they so valuably can to raise critical awareness, facilitate active questioning and open space for intercultural understanding.  But by hosting the Ha’bima and Cameri theaters, and partnering with the Israeli government in doing so, Lincoln Center too is actively supporting Israel’s decades of denial of Palestinian rights.  It is now 50 years since Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been subject to a regime of military occupation and colonization, and 69 years that they have lived inside Israel as unequal citizens now subject to over 50 discriminatory laws, or as refugees in diaspora, denied the right to return to their homeland as guaranteed by international law.

These are our reasons for urging Lincoln Center to respect the Palestinian civil society call for a boycott of those Israeli cultural institutions that are complicit in the denial of Palestinian rights.  This call is modeled on the global boycott movement that helped to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa.  To help to pressure the Israeli government to end 69 years of Palestinian dispossession and exile, and 50 years of military occupation, we ask you to cancel Ha’bima and Cameri’s July performances.  

We would be very happy to meet with you to discuss these issues further.

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