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Protests Outside Israeli Dance Troupe’s Performance

Protests Outside Israeli Dance Troupe’s Performance

By Jamie Neikrie

This past weekend, protests erupted outside Wellington’s St. James theatre, which was hosting a performance by an Israeli dance troupe, Batsheva.

John Minto, a key organizer in the 1980 protests of the South African apartheid protests, led a pro-Palestinian group of 40-plus strong. Using much of the same rhetoric used in the South African protests, the protestors denounced the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli government.

While the protestors allowed visitors to enter the performance, many of the guests were discouraged from attending. The pro-Palestinian supporters highlighted the fact that the dance troupe received funding from the Israeli government. “I’m sure many of these dancers are lovely people,” acknowledged protestor Dougal McNeill. “But by coming to New Zealand and representing Israel, they are attempting to normalize an apartheid state and unjust treatment of the Palestinian people.”

David Zwartz, a leader in Wellington’s Jewish community, led an equally powerful and animated pro-Israel response to the protests. Chief among Zwartz’s criticism of the protest was the decision to picket an arts performance. “There are numerous examples in history of countries and governments using cultural outreach programs,” Zwartz said. “The New Zealand government sends dance troupes, symphonies, and other arts programs across the world. This is not a novel idea.”

The pro-Israeli side also took offence to the use of the word “apartheid.” “To compare to Israel to South Africa, or compare the Palestinians to the blacks in South Africa is patently false, and disingenuous.” Zwartz claimed*.

An unlikely ally came to the aid of Zwartz and the pro-Israel side in the form of the Flaxmere Christian Fellowship. Over 20 of the church’s members, many of them Samoan and Maori, had travelled all the way from Auckland to aid the pro-Israel side. “From a spiritual sense, we feel it is out duty to come to aid of Israel,” said Fellowship member Doug Ho, a leader in the church’s youth program. “But we also feel that protesting a dance troupe just because they are Israeli is also wrong.”

The protests largely felt like an unproductive shouting match between two equally staunch sides. But information distributed by both sides, as well as their presence at a public event, will help to advance public debate over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

***

* For an opposing view of the aptness of the apartheid metaphor, see this interview with the Israeli journalist Amira Hass

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