In New York City today a strange spectacle is being staged: Theater artists are taking a stand against theater.
When the Lincoln Center Festival announced it was staging a four-night production this month that is subsidized by the state of Israel, dozens of big-name professionals from New York’s theater world, including highly regarded actors, writers, and directors, demanded the play be scrapped.
In other words: How dare Israel back a play that isn’t about how horrible Israel is to the Palestinians. And Lincoln Center must steer clear of this moral atrocity by canceling the play. Baker, who is herself Jewish, added, nonsensically, “I think the phrase ‘cultural boycott’ scares people, and it’s important to remember that a) it’s not a boycott against individual artists or nationalities, and b) it has historical precedent as an extremely effective way to call attention to apartheid (yes, Israel is an apartheid state) and influence policy.”
This is straight-up balderdash from the BDS playbook. Boycott? The letter says, “We call on Lincoln Center to avoid complicity with Brand Israel by cancelling these performances.” These artists are free to avoid any play sponsored by any entity they don’t like, but now they are trying to prevent everyone else in New York from seeing this play. This is very much more sinister than a mere boycott.
Though the play is sponsored by Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs, it’s an anti-war piece, not simple-minded cheerleading for the state of Israel.
Even assuming you agree that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is unconscionable (and I don’t), why should Israel’s theater community be punished for this by denial of state subsidies? Alternatively, is alleged cruelty to Palestinians the only subject allowed in state-sponsored Israeli theater? These artists wouldn’t hold their own country to that standard: They certainly wouldn’t demand that any National Endowment for the Arts–subsidized play recount the horrors of slavery or the administration of Donald Trump, though you can be sure that they abhor these two institutions in equal measure. Adalah scolds the two Israeli theater companies that produced the play for performing in West Bank settlements, but would they apply that guilt-by-association logic to any other artistic group on earth? The Rolling Stones once performed in Cuba. Would these artists demand that Madison Square Garden ban them from the building because the Stones are guilty of having normalized a repressive authoritarian regime?
You would think that progressive-minded artists who toil in an industry that is heavily dependent on public subsidies would be the last ones to suggest that a political test be imposed on any government-backed theater. How well is that policy likely to work out for them in eras when Republicans control Congress? The term of the current chairman of the NEA, Jane Chu, expires in less than a year. It would be condign punishment for America’s artistic community — no, it would be hilarious punishment, the equivalent of God reaching down and personally administering to Wallace Shawn a cosmic wedgie — if Chu were to be succeeded by Dinesh D’Souza.
To her credit, the president of Lincoln Center, Deborah Spar, politely told Adalah-NY to stuff it, and the play will go on. But the episode is a reminder that the ugly behavior by a pair of Trump supporters who tried and failed to shut down a performance of Julius Caesar in Central Park this summer was an outlier. To the extent art is threatened by the censorious impulse, that threat usually bears the stamp of the Left.
— Kyle Smith is National Review Online’s critic-at-large.