Unwelcome in Edinburgh

Prestigious arts festivals in the Scottish capital have been marred by anti-Israel - and at times overtly anti-Semitic - protests and performances.

movie camera 88 (photo credit: )
movie camera 88
(photo credit: )
Two days after the cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah went into effect earlier this month, Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir was told he might be in danger - in Scotland. A director of documentaries, Shamir had arrived in Scotland to screen his latest project at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, one of three major arts festivals that runs each summer in the Scottish capital. Shamir himself was welcome at the festival, he was told by organizers, but the screening of his film, which was to have been sponsored by the Israeli embassy in London, could not go forward as planned. The Israeli goverment's official participation in the event had been rejected by event organizers, and Shamir was informed by Shane Danielsen, the festival's artistic director, that he personally might not be safe. "I thought it was right to warn him as a courtesy and a gesture of hospitality," Danielsen told the Jerusalem Post by telephone earlier this week. Shamir ultimately attended two showings of his film at the festival, but the uncertain lead-up to the screenings reflected what many said was an environment overtly hostile to Israel - and even to individual Jews - at this summer's Edinburgh arts festivals. In particular, critics have decried what they say is the overt anti-Semitism on display at several performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world-famous arts fair where shows can be staged by anyone and typically feature performances in a wide array of artistic disciplines and genres. Israeli-Lebanese violence did much to influence the atmosphere at this year's Fringe Festival, which kicked off August 6 and concludes Monday. A protest sponsored by Edinburgh's Stop the War Coalition took an aggressively anti-Israel position in the first days of the festival, according to Ellie Ruhan, a Jewish festival-goer from England. A spokesperson for a Leeds-based organization called Jewish International Performing Arts, Ruhan said SWC petitions calling for boycotts of Israel intimidated Jewish and Israeli visitors and deflected attention from the event's artistic offerings. "There was a definite [anti-Israel] presence on the street," Ruhan said, recalling that anti-Israel protests lasted the entire time she was in Edinburgh, continuing even after the Israel-Hizbullah cease-fire began. Members of the Jewish community "didn't feel comfortable" at the Fringe Festival, she said - a view echoed in an angry op-ed piece published in the Times of London by Jewish festival-goer and comedy writer Jamie Glassman. An alumnus of Da Ali G Show, a satirical program that frequently lampooned racism and anti-Semitism with its own racist, anti-Semitic title character, Glassman wrote that several acts at the Fringe Festival crossed the line between comedy and outright Jew-hatred. Australian stand-up comedian Steve Hughes, Glassman reported, railed in his act against the Bush administration, at one point telling the audience, "I want to bash Condoleezza Rice's brain to bits and kill that [expletive] Jew Richard Perle." Also at the festival, Glassman wrote, a comic proposed that children should be taught to play "Nazis and Jews" instead of "cowboys and Indians" - a suggestion that caused some audience members to call out, "Throw them into the oven." (About half the audience, he said, responded with shocked silence.) In an e-mail, the Fringe Festival's director, Paul Gudgin, answered objections to Hughes' act by invoking freedom of speech. "I would imagine a great many Fringe performers would be vehemently opposed to some of the content in Mr. Hughes' show," he said, "but many would also defend his right to tackle controversial material." Elsewhere in Edinburgh, American stand-up comic Reginald D. Hunter dabbled in his own version of Holocaust humor. Referring to the recent arrest in Austria of the well-known Holocaust denier David Irving, Hunter suggested that he would visit Austria, where it is illegal to deny the genocide, and claim that genocide didn't occur. Once arrested, he said, he would tell the judge that he had been referring to the "holocaust" in Rwanda. It was official sponsorship by the Jewish state that proved the problem at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, a separate event that began August 14 and finishes Sunday. Festival organizers decided before the festival even began, Danielsen said, to reject money provided by Israel's London embassy for the screening of Shamir's 5 Days, which documents Israel's Gaza withdrawal from a number of perspectives and was shown at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Festival organizers were approached by angry protestors - many of them Scottish Muslims - about rejecting funding from the Israeli embassy, with the pro-Palestinian activists threatening to disrupt the event if it happened as planned. It was, Danielsen told them, too late - festival planners had themselves already decided not to accept Israeli sponsorship of the screenings. "This organization is run as a collective," he said of the organizers' decision, "so we put it to a vote. Some members were more passionate than others." But "there was never any question not to invite Shamir," he said. Shamir opted to disregard Danielsen's warnings not come, attending the festival under a false name and accompanied by a bodyguard. In the end, he said, he was pleased with the decision. "Making this film led me to think about non-violent conflict resolutions in general," he said. "It was important for me to go because the dialogue generated by the film was important." The screenings took place August 16 and 18, just days after the start of the Israel-Hizbullah cease-fire. "I was a bit afraid that it would be hostile," Shamir said, reflecting on his experience. In reality, the festival turned out to be anything but violent. "We (in Israel) think we're at the center of the world," he said "when really people come to see art and have a beer." The question-and-answer sessions following the screenings were uneventful. "It was very British, very polite," Shamir said.