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The Tricycle Theatre Scandal: No One Expected the Spanish Inquisition

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This week, the Tricycle Theatre set the UK Jewish Film Festival (UKJFF) an impossible ultimatum. Sever the festival's ties with the Embassy of Israel, the theatre said, or take your films elsewhere. In the history of the anti-Israel boycott movement in the UK its painful repercussions for Jewish communal life have seldom been more apparent.

In northwest London, home to a thriving Jewish community, a UK government funded cultural institution has presented that community with an edict: allow us to dictate the terms of your identity, or find a new home. UKJFF, after an eight-year association with the Tricycle, did not expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition, but then, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Many have argued that the Tricycle's proviso was fair and reasonable. Some might even in good faith believe that to be so. After all, they say, the festival only sought to boycott the modest sponsorship donation of the Jewish state and not the Jewish films.

But the cultural connections between Jewish communities and the world's only Jewish state are, one would hope understandably, inextricable. And, the largest Jewish public body in the world is the State of Israel. Films made in Israel receive government funding, including films that would be beyond uncomfortable for Israel's democratically elected ruling parties - films that the UKJFF brings to British audiences. Because Israel is a democracy; undoubtedly imperfect, but artistically free.

It is unthinkable that a Jewish Film Festival would decline to show Israeli films, or that the State of Israel, as an official public body, would not wish to be associated with them. And the Tricycle certainly demonstrated no shortage of self-regard to expect that one of the Jewish community's flagship cultural programmes would snub a connection with rather deeper historical and spiritual roots than its 8 wonderful years at a theatre in NW6.

Others have pointed to the double standards of the Tricycle's demand, citing its UK government public funding, despite concerns over British wars, and its willingness to host events sponsored by other not uncontroversial foreign governments. I endorse those arguments but others have made them so well I feel no need to rehash them.

Some have described the theatre's conduct as an illustration of the latent anti-Semitism that pervades much of the discourse on Israel. I sympathise with that view too but must add the prerequisite caveats - it is of course blindingly obvious that criticism, and even outrage, towards Israel need not be anti-Semitic, though it often can be. And although anti-Zionism has often been in effect an anti-Jewish position, it is possible to be an anti-Zionist without being an anti-Semite. Some of my best friends are anti-Zionists.

But to debate whether this de facto boycott is or is not anti-Semitic is a semantic distraction. It opens the door to the boycott advocates, including the anti-Semites among them, who say that Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism are nothing more than a mendacious attempt by Israel's supporters to deflect criticism from Israel's perceived crimes.

Indeed, the very word anti-Semitism, online at any rate, automatically invites some bright spark to write that "Arabs are Semites too", an attempt at insight that reveals nothing but the semi-educated ignorance of the person writing it. Arabs are indeed Semites too, but the word anti-Semitism was coined in the 19th century by haters of Jews keen to define their hatred.

Does anyone believe that the good people of the Tricycle harbour a 19th Century hatred of Jews as a racial enemy to be destroyed, as professed by Houston Stuart Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler or the Hamas Charter? Notwithstanding an eccentric auntie or two, I would say that the answer to that is no. But if anti-Semitism is defined in such terms it becomes far too easy for those engaged in acts of cultural hostility towards Jewish communities to evade responsibility.

And what of the prevalence of Jewish individuals themselves within the anti-Israel boycott movements in the UK and internationally? Indeed, the chairman of the Tricycle's board of trustees is called Jonathan Levy, not exactly a name you'd want to introduce yourself with on an NF rally. One might joke that Jews punch above their weight in many fields, including anti-Semitism, but the presence of Jews seen advocating for a range of anti-Israel measures, from cultural boycotts to Israel's destruction as a Jewish state further complicates the equation, making the use of the word anti-Semitic even more complex.

In fact, when I first heard about the Tricycle's rejection of 21st Century Jewish cultural life, I imagined the theatre announcing that to make it absolutely clear that they are not anti-Semitic, they would instead screen a documentary narrated by Gerald Kaufman MP entitled "But Arabs are Semites too." The film, I imagined, would feature members of the public holding up signs saying #ButArabsAreSemitesToo while eating a salt beef bagel. Contributors would include Alexei Sayle, Lenny Abrahamson and a very cute Neturei Karta boy with a massive kippah, immaculate payot and a Hamas scarf.

Yet for the statistically tiny diaspora Jewish communities in Europe, an action does not have to be anti-Semitic per se to constitute an act of hostility towards Jews and Jewish communal life.

The Tricycle's decision was not anti-Semitic, but then, neither was the Spanish Inquisition. After all, in late 15th Century Spain, the notion that Jews and Muslims should convert to Christianity, leave or be killed was not predicated on racial hatred but on theological love. What after all, could be more generous than giving heretics an opportunity, albeit a sternly administered one, to repent their sins and avoid an eternity of damnation?

The edict of the Tricycle is clearly not equivalent to the Edict of Grace that heralded the arrival in a town of the Spanish Inquisition, though other forms of historical hyperbole are currently in vogue. But the edict of the Tricycle was, in its modern, secular way, a demand that a Jewish organisation should take a public oath of disassociation from the State of Israel in order for its culture to be considered acceptable.

Jews can be accepted, embraced even, by people who love the films of Groucho Marx and Woody Allen, despite the allegations against him, and think that Waltz With Bashir was an amazing critique of war, despite its Israeli government funding. But for that to happen they must publicly purify themselves, absolve themselves of their indelible connection to the concept of Jewish self-determination in their homeland and the institutions that maintain it. But for a community in which, according to a 2010 survey, 72% call themselves Zionist and 82% consider Israel central or important to their Jewish identities, this is an impossible demand.

To quote the one man Jewish film festival Mel Brookes, singing the role of the first Grand Inquisitor of Spain, Tomas de Torquemada (who incidentally had a Jewish grandmother):

"We're gonna teach them wrong from right
We're gonna help them see the light
And make an offer that they can't refuse."

I do not accuse the Tricycle Theatre of anti-Semitism. And their actions are genteel compared to the recent scenes from Paris where, with echoes of the 1890s, protesters have shouted "death to the Jews" while attacking synagogues. But for carrying out an act of hostility on organised Jewish communal life in this country, whether your surname be Rubasingham, Sands or Levy: J'accuse.

The Jewish Film Festival did not expect the Spanish Inquisition. No one does. But in northwest London in 2014, a Jewish cultural organisation has been issued an edict - purify your culture from its connections to the world's only Jewish state, or go elsewhere.

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