From Greta Gerwig to NYU, Israel has deep reservoir of cultural support in U.S.

Anyone who is fighting for the recognition of Palestinian human rights must concede that Israel enjoys a deep reservoir of cultural support in the United States. It’s really in the water, especially in cultural centers.

For instance, this morning on WNYC, my public radio station, Brian Lehrer, a progressive host, interviewed the neoconservative Elliott Abrams about Middle East policy. You would think that progressives would have had enough of neoconservatives at this point, given their track record of tearing up societies in the Middle East; it ought to be like hosting Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association on gun rights or Steve Bannon on immigration policy. But no, Lehrer greeted Abrams warmly and didn’t even mention “your support for regime change and the Iraq war.” Because both Lehrer and Abrams are Israel supporters; Lehrer never hosts Jewish anti-Zionists.

Here are two sad examples of the extent of Israel’s good reputation in places that matter.

Later this week, The Siege, a play dramatizing the Israeli siege of a Bethlehem church during the Second Intifada, will start a run at the Skirball Center at NYU. The production is special because it is by the Jenin Freedom Theatre and presents a Palestinian point of view in U.S. mainstream culture. Of violent events. (But when American lands were occupied, Americans were violent too, and we have holidays for those people).

Pro-Israel groups are alarmed that this point of view is getting such a stage (with the help of the EU and the British Council). Recall that the board of the Public Theater in New York rebelled when it was listed at that venue a year ago; and the Public Theater cancelled the production!

Pro-Israel groups are already painting the forthcoming production as anti-Israel; and in Sheldon Adelson’s Israeli newspaper, an official of the Skirball Center responds, defensively, that the play doesn’t represent the position of the center. Plus Skirball is going to balance the play:

[Jay] Wegman said that the center also plans to host an event organized by the Taub Center for Israel Studies with Lior Lotan, the Israeli negotiator during the events in question.

Here’s the listing for Lotan. Right at the beginning of the run: The Other Side of the Siege.

Colonel Lior Lotan, chief Israeli negotiator in the Siege of the Church of the Nativity, will speak on his experiences immediately following the screening [of a PBS documentary on the siege].

Lotan was till recently a spokesman for the Israeli army. He has argued that Israeli forces should kidnap 200 Palestinian militants for every Israeli soldier captured, so that Israel can have a “full hand” during negotiations for release of prisoners.

So, just to be clear: NYU can’t stage the Palestinian point of view without needing to counter it with an Israeli military official. Art is answered with propaganda!

Zohra Drif is a former Algerian freedom fighter who blew up occupation targets in Algiers 60 years ago. She spoke at NYU without being balanced by a counter-speaker! I’m sure this is about pro-Israel board members and other officials, donors, etc.

Here’s the second sad example. Last summer the actress/director Greta Gerwig, who came to stardom out of experimental theater, signed a letter to Lincoln Center  along with 80 other artists asking the institution to cancel a production of a play based on David Grossman’s book, To the End of the Land, because it was sponsored by the Israeli government in its “Brand Israel” campaign aimed at changing the country’s image.

Here’s some of that superb, straightforward letter:

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…  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.

But Gerwig now has a film out that is in Oscar contention: Lady Bird. So she has withdrawn her name from the letter, saying that a friend hoodwinked her into signing it, she really doesn’t know that much about the situation. When have you ever heard of anyone taking their name off a letter? And Gerwig studied philosophy at Barnard, per Wikipedia!

Deadline Hollywood, last week reported Gerwig’s letter to Page 6 of the NY Post, retracting her name.

“This past summer, a close friend asked me to lend my name to a letter. I am generally careful about the causes I support, but in this case I was not. I was unfamiliar with the complexities of the letter and I did not take the time to study them. Instead, because the letter had already been signed by many other friends and collaborators I know to be thoughtful and honorable people, I agreed to add my name. While I respect the passion and integrity of others who signed this letter, for me to put my name to something outside of my personal realm of knowledge or experience was a mistake — my mistake — and I am sorry for any confusion or hurt I may have caused.”

The context, from Deadline Hollywood:

Page Six earlier had reported that an anonymous source had snarked… “There is an Oscar campaign afoot for Gerwig, and her team doesn’t want her controversial anti-Israel opinions hurting her chances.”

CAA co-head of television Adam Berkowitz, WME head of TV Rick Rosen and Propagate Content co-CEO Ben Silverman are among the Hollywood brass who have signed a letter supporting Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ rejection of a request to cancel upcoming performances by a troupe underwritten by an agency of the Israeli government.

Why is there such cultural support for Israel? It is reductive to say that It’s Jews. Philip Giraldi argued that recently and lost a job for doing so. His mistake was eliding all the big Jewish organizations and rightwing Zionist Jews into Jewry as such (something people do every day when it’s evangelical Christian political actors, and no one points out that there’s a failure to differentiate among millions of people).

And I think it goes beyond the lobby (a loose coalition, famously) and the Jewish presence in cultural industries in the U.S. to a broader cultural consensus: other establishment leaders and influencers have signed off on the Israel bargain. Because of the Holocaust, because of Jewish achievement/contributions/capital, because of a long history of anti-Semitism. Whatever the reasons, that’s the landscape.

So any slight to Israel must be countered; but anti-Palestinian bigotry is acceptable. We can change that.