When American Theatre Magazine asked a small group of theater artists to pen statements on their views of a proposed Israeli cultural boycott, representatives of the magazine thought they were asking a mere dozen or so people. But when one of the respondents took the survey a step further, circulating it to an e-mail list and eliciting a flurry of fiery responses from a wide swath of the theater community, a small maelstrom ensued.
The original question posed by American Theatre Magazine, a national publication with an estimated readership of 66,000, was intended to procure brief responses for a short piece on the hot-button issue. An article culling the responses is slated to appear in its upcoming May/June issue, which is devoted each year to international theater. This year’s specific focus is theater from and about Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
In response, Ari Roth, artistic director of the established Jewish theater company Theater J in Washington, put the question in the public domain by forwarding it to his e-mail list and then posting the torrent of responses — including his own — on his blog.
“I think this is both a poorly worded proposition… as well as, to my mind, an offensively naive question to theater artists who are part of American Theatre Magazine’s community,” Roth wrote in an answer published on his blog. “What’s GOOD about a cultural boycott?”
This touched off an impassioned online conversation. The responses came fast and furious, from both Jews and non-Jews and from such far-flung cities as Nairobi, Kenya, and Belgrade, Serbia. The responses, as at least one observer who was privy to the initial e-mail blast noted, were roundly dismissive of the notion of cultural boycott.
“Unsurprisingly, no one wants a cultural boycott of Israel,” playwright Tony Kushner said in an e-mail to the Forward. “Equally unsurprisingly, at least in the responses I read, the idiotic idea of a cultural boycott distracted from the very real and very difficult events to which it was meant to be a response.”
Kushner also criticized American Theatre Magazine, which is owned by Theatre Communications Group, for sending out the survey. “It never became clear to me who was seriously proposing a boycott, or that anyone is, and so the original question from TCG seemed like pointless and irresponsible provocation,” he said.
For its part, the editor in chief of American Theatre Magazine, Jim O’Quinn, said that the survey was sent out as part of the larger discussion that the May/June issue will explore. “Since the magazine aims to be a forum for debate about issues, and we love to have the voices of the artists, it seemed to be a topic that fit into the subject,” he said.
Alisa Solomon, a theater critic and scholar who wrote a separate story slated for the same issue, defended the idea of the magazine’s survey. “Because some Palestinian artists have called for a cultural boycott, it makes perfect news sense that this issue ought to be discussed in the context of a special packet of cultural articles on Israel and Palestine,” Solomon said. “In fact, it would have seemed strange and journalistically irresponsible had they not said anything about the boycott in this context.”
The original question, which was sent out by a senior editor at the magazine, Randy Gener, was framed as a survey of Palestinians and Israelis “on the subject of the cultural boycott.” “In December 2006,” Gener wrote, “Palestinian academics and artists and a number of Israeli public figures… issued a world-wide call for a cultural boycott of the state of Israel. Should playwrights, actors, directors and international companies outside Israel bring their work or let their plays be produced in Israel?”
A loose coalition of Palestinian intellectuals and academics did sound a call urging their international colleagues to boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions. The coalition issued a statement of principles under the banner of the “Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.”
According to O’Quinn, about a dozen theater artists were invited to write responses to Gener’s inquiry. Those surveyed included Najla Said, an actress and comedian who is the daughter of the late Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said; Sinai Peter, an Israeli theater director; Leila Buck, a Lebanese American performer and writer, and Roth of Theater J.
Buck, who is married to a Jewish man, also included in her response to Roth’s e-mail her personal reply to American Theatre Magazine, within which she wrote: “If I were invited to do a production in Israel of my latest work, ‘In the Crossing,’ about my journey to Lebanon with my Jewish husband before and during the Israeli-Hezbollah war of 2006, would I go? My initial answer — of course…”
Peter said in an interview with the Forward that he himself has been the victim of cultural boycott. In the spring of 2007, when Peter wanted to direct a play by British playwright April De Angelis, the writer’s agent said that she preferred not to have her plays produced in the Jewish state. Peter added that he opposes the boycott because it penalizes Israeli artists for the policies of the Israeli government. “If you don’t differentiate,” he said, “you are holding all Israelis responsible for a bad policy, instead of making a division and being in favor of the Israelis who support the right cause.”
Robert Brustein, a theater critic, producer, playwright and scholar who founded the American Repertory Theatre and Yale Repertory Theatre, also responded to Roth’s email with a firm denouncement of cultural boycott. “Even in regard to the most repressive regimes, which Israel clearly is not,” Brustein wrote, “democratic countries have never considered boycotting their artists or scholars.”