Thursday, 7 August 2014

A review of ‘The Protest’ at the Tricycle

I love my local theatre, The Tricycle. It’s literally around the corner from me and I go at least once a month. I’ve seen great plays there like Red Velvet and Once a Catholic. I’ve particularly enjoyed some of their more political shows, such as The Bomb and a couple of one-man shows by Mark Thomas. The cinema, with its cheap tickets on Monday nights, is my screen of choice.

Today I went there to protest, but left having seen a remarkable show.

I reject the theatre’s decision to effectively boycott the UK Jewish Film Festival (UKJFF). The theatre gave the UKJFF an ultimatum: either forego the £1,400 it received in sponsorship from the Israeli embassy, or lose the venue. They placed the festival in an impossible situation. If the festival rejected the embassy’s funding, they risked alienating other sponsors, giving succour to the BDS crowd, losing the support of many of their target audience, and politicising the festival. So they refused and lost the venue.

The incident raises many questions. Questions about the singling out of Israel and about artistic freedom; questions about anti-Semitism and about intentions and consequences. Archie Bland and others have already discussed these questions admirably, so I won’t go into detail explaining why I oppose The Tricycle’s decision. Suffice to say that a Jewish cultural event should not have to first denounce or distance itself from Israel for venues to agree to host them. Whatever the Tricycle’s intentions, the consequence is likely to be that Jewish cultural life in London will be diminished by their decision. 

So I protested. The stage was a stretch of Kilburn High Road, just in front of one of the entrances to the Tricycle theatre. About 200 protestors were there, many with placards stating ‘Don’t Punish London’s Jews’. Some protestors brought the (inappropriate?) accessory of an Israel flag, and one, particularly annoying protestor, brought a foghorn.

The protest was put together hastily and unfortunately it showed. There was a lack of clear direction to the evening, nor any high-profile speakers. But to the organisers' credit, at short notice they had assembled a crowd and printed dozens of placards. Most importantly, they had brought a loudspeaker, from which came a repetition of call and response style chants: ‘no to boycotts - no to boycotts - no to anti-Semitism – no to anti-Semitism’.

In between these chants, a couple of people did speak, although who they were or why they had been chosen to speak was unclear. One speaker made the bizarre comment that he wouldn’t step inside the Tricycle again unless it was as his ashes. I suspected that with more time, the organisers might not have chosen him to be one of the evening’s orators.

The British national anthem was sung three times during the evening. The symbolism was unclear. Was the aim to prove our Britishness, as though to say: we’re British so why should we suffer because people are anti-Israel? If so, the message was probably diluted soon after by the singing of the Hatikvah. The chanting of ‘IS-RA-EL! IS-RA-EL!’ probably didn’t help either. Thankfully it only happened once and only lasted for about 30 seconds.

The climax of the show took place at the edge of the stage. There stood a line of policemen wearing high-vis yellow jackets, and beside them a man dressed in jeans and a shirt, with an earpiece clearly visible. CST, I suspect. But beyond them stood a lone Palestinian, protesting against Israel, shouting ‘Free Free Palestine’ and ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’. When someone spoke to him, I heard him explain that he was a Palestinian, and that he was protesting against the killing in Gaza. He seemed sad and angry. If I was a Palestinian, hearing the Hatikva and chants of ‘IS-RA-EL’ and seeing Israeli flags and a man in an IDF T-shirt, I would probably be angry too. I certainly wouldn’t be persuaded that this is just a protest about Jewish cultural life. It looked and sounded very much like a pro-Israel rally.

Then one of the Jewish protestors went to the police and began pressuring them to arrest the Palestinian protestor. ‘You should arrest him’ he said, ‘he’s harassing us... why don’t you do your job and arrest him?’ Here was a man exercising his right to free speech by protesting, yet expecting the police to deny that same right to someone else. Double standards?

The police were firm, saying they could only arrest him if he actually committed an offence. Yet the plucky man continued ‘you need to arrest him now!’

I intervened, arguing that whether to arrest a person is a matter for the police to decide. Then another Jewish protestor tapped me on the shoulder and admonished me for intervening. ‘This doesn’t concern you – don’t get involved’. I enjoyed the irony of someone getting involved in my conversation to tell me off for getting involved in someone else’s. But it was lost on the other guy, who seemed to take offence at my view that the police are probably the best judges of whether an action is a criminal offence. I think he just wanted the Palestinian arrested and didn’t like me backing up the policeman’s position that he can’t arrest someone if they haven’t committed an offence.

The next scene inspired me. It was my cousin, moving to speak with the Palestinian protestor. Not to shout at him – as sadly another protestor had done, crying ‘it’s our land and we can build on it’ – but to show him respect by listening to him and then speaking with him. I couldn’t hear much of their discussion, but they spoke for at least an hour and shook hands. 

I’m proud of my cousin. All too often the tendency is to dismiss those shouting at you as haters, and to hate them in return. But that only perpetuates a cycle of hatred. It also blinds us to the reasons the other side are angry in the first place. Only by actually talking, like my cousin did, might such a cycle be broken. I look forward to hearing more about their conversation.

There was one comedy scene in the evening. A spat erupted over a sign that said, in German, ‘Jews aren’t welcome here’, placed next to the Tricycle’s logo. I think the organisers thought they were drawing some kind of clever parallel between the boycotting of Jews under the Nazis and The Tricycle’s decision vis a vis UKJFF. But it backfired when one woman misunderstood its intended political message, thought it was antisemitic, and proceeded to pull it down and stamp on it. An argument ensued between her others about whether the sign was anti-semitic or combating antisemitism. 

The sign struck me as an instance of Godwin’s Law, and a frankly absurd and offensive abuse of the memory of The Holocaust. If it’s wrong to use the memory of the holocaust to make comparisons with Gaza (which it is) then it’s certainly wrong to use the memory of the holocaust to make comparisons with the Tricycle Theatre. Kilburn might be edgy, but 1930s Europe it aint. 


  1. What is wrong with protesters waving the isreali flag

  2. It was billed as a protest against antisemitism rather than for Israel. Waving flags destroys that distinction.