Scotland has a proud record of standing up with persecuted minorities, including those who are targeted purely for their faith, ethnicity or culture. It is the only European country where there is no history of Jews being persecuted or threatened by state institutions. From the Middle Ages to the present day, anti-Semitism across Europe has too readily and frequently resulted in pogroms and exile, but not in Scotland. In the mid-20th century, of course, such persecution culminated in the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and the systematic murder of six million Jews and numerous others deemed to be “undesirable” by Adolf Hitler and his murderous minions.
The Scots may be relatively small numerically, but they are well-known for punching above their weight when it comes to offering shelter and aid to those less fortunate than themselves. In recent times, ministers from the Scottish Parliament have taken part in demonstrations and rallies in support of refugees and asylum seekers while their counterparts in Westminster have not given anywhere near the same sort of welcome or assistance.
Within this context, then, you can imagine the disappointment expressed this week following a decision by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to give open support to a cultural event organised by the Embassy of the State of Israel, which represents the brutal military occupation of Palestine; the imprisonment and slaughter of children (as well as women and men); the building of illegal colony-settlements on occupied land; and the denial of human rights to Palestinians.
The ironically-named Shalom Festival will showcase the Zionist State at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next month, which is now the largest arts festival of its kind in the world. Shalom organisers boast that the festival will help Israel “build cultural bridges and celebrate coexistence and peace.”
According to Mick Napier, though, the partners organising this event are answerable to the Israeli Embassy. “They defend every Israeli massacre, bulldozing of homes and the brutal siege of Gaza that constitutes collective punishment and causes such suffering,” explained the co-founder of Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign. “When not organising events to deny the harsh reality that Palestinians live under, the organisers can be found trying to close down events in support of Palestinian freedom.” In a well organised division of labour, he pointed out, the Israeli State uses harsh, violent methods to crush Palestinian aspirations while the Embassy and its agents here promote the aims of the apartheid state and smear those who stand up for justice.
Tom Smith, an SPSC member from Stirling, was equally blunt. “Our First Minister and the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale, need to withdraw their endorsement of the Shalom Festival,” he argued. “They are supporting something that is very dark indeed. They should look at the evidence from Scottish supporters of Israeli genocide that chimes with the warning by Israeli General Yair Golan that Israel today is very reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s.”
The SPSC says that it is hopeful that Sturgeon and Dugdale will reconsider and withdraw their support, especially in light of a protest involving nearly 90 actors and Hollywood executives – including winners of four Pulitzers, three Tonys, and nine Obies – who have issued an open letter opposing Israeli government-sponsored performances by Israel’s Ha’Bima and Cameri theatre companies in New York’s Lincoln Centre this week. The letter states that the group of artists are deeply troubled that one of the world’s leading cultural institutions is helping the Israeli government to implement its “brand Israel strategy” to use the arts and culture to divert attention from the Zionist State’s record of “violent colonisation, brutal military occupation and denial of basic rights to the Palestinian people.”
Calling on the Lincoln Centre to avoid complicity in these crimes, the group urged the cancellation of the performances. The grassroots campaign organisers Adalah New York helped to organise the protest and there is now a huge debate underway in America, with widespread media coverage of the Israeli theatre companies, which are sponsored by the Israeli government.
Critics accuse both groups of being complicit in the occupation and colonisation of the West Bank by performing repeatedly in illegal settlements, despite past opposition from artists, including some of their own actors. The New York venue’s president, Debora Spar, defended the performances. “We do not make political statements,” she insisted, “and hope that the art we present can stand on its own.”
However, as Scotland’s First Minister will discover, supporting such events which receive Israeli government funding and backing is a political statement in and of itself. Does Nicola Sturgeon really want to break with centuries of Scottish tradition by standing with the oppressor and backing an apartheid regime which is hell-bent on the oppression of Palestinians through a brutal military occupation in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem? She will lose her country an awful lot of international goodwill if she does, and for what? Kind words from a regime which treats international laws and conventions with contempt? She really does need to think again, and quickly.