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Jamie Neikrie: Pro-Palestinian Protests Paint Unfair Picture

Pro-Palestinian Protests Paint Unfair Picture

By Jamie Neikrie

This past weekend’s protests outside the St. James Theatre demonstrated the ugly side of public debate.

Protests by John Minto and a pro-Palestinian coalition clashed with responders from the Wellington Jewish community and the Auckland-based Flaxmere Christiam Fellowship, outside a performance by an Israeli dance troupe, Batsheva.

While both sides offered literature to advance their stance, the protests soon devolved into a shouting match, with microphones from the pro-Palestinian side blaring “Shame! Shame! Shame!” across Courtenay Place.

I understand the pro-Palestinian point of view. They are seeking to represent the rights of a minority whom they see as unfairly oppressed and repressed. And they see the Batsheva’s performance as an attempt to distract from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

But their presence outside of the performance was wrong. Yes, Batsheva receives funding from the Israeli government. But that does not mean that they represent the will or the interests of the Israeli government. In fact, the dance troupe’s 18 dancers hail from seven difference countries, representing different cultures and opinions. The troupe has existed since 1964, and its only outreach and education programs seek to bring dance and the arts to communities across the world.

Cultural boycotts have long been a staple of New Zealand activism. New Zealand’s boycott of the South African Rugby garnered world support and led to the International Olympic Committee expelling South Africa from the 1964 and 1968 games. John Minto has been consistent in his boycotting techniques, but he seems to have lost sight of the goal. The South African Rugby team was the pride and joy of the country, a dominant force sent around to world to demonstrate South Africa’s power. Refusing to play South Africa and denying their sporting dominance sent a message to the government of South Africa, and to the world. But what does protesting an acclaimed dance troupe say?

Nearly every country employs art programs as a means of cultural outreach. Such diplomacy serves to exchange ideas and history and foster understanding between nations. The United Kingdom has the British Council, Germany has the Goethe Institute, and France has the Alliance Francaise. When the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra undertook a worldwide tour in 2005, they weren’t supporting John Key’s economic programs or calling for the Labour party to retake control. They are only representing the cultural and artistic achievement of the country, something for which New Zealand should be proud.

I am drawing a fine line in the sand between Batsheva and the South African Rugby team, but it is one that needs to be recognized. By viewing cultural outreach programs as propaganda, we are encouraging cultural ignorance and nativism.

To claim that the pro-Palestinian protests didn’t hurt the dance troupe would be disingenuous. One of the protestors boasted that their efforts had resulted in at least a dozen people choosing not to attend the performance. It’s possible that these people, after reading the pro-Palestinian pamphlets, were convinced that attending the performance would be to tacitly support an oppressive regime. It’s also possible that they felt the “Shame! Shame! Shame!” that the protestors forced on them. Either way, the actions of the protestors had a negative effect on the dance troupe, punishment that was wholly underserved.

The other unfortunate side of the pro-Palestinian protests was their use of the word “apartheid,” and their comparison of South Africa to Israel. The Palestinian people are the minority. And they are largely separated in public life from the Israelis. But unlike the blacks in South Africa during apartheid, they aren’t members of the same country. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank have their own governments (one of which is seen as a terrorist organization in much of the world) and leadership, and Palestine is recognized as a sovereign nation by most countries in the world. As a people, the Palestinians wield far more rights that the blacks in South Africa did.

And to claim that the Palestinian people are an unfairly maligned people, oppressed by the Israeli bully, is to ignore a large part of the narrative. The Palestinian government continues to deny Israel’s right to exist, making any diplomacy nearly impossible. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is geographical and political, but it is also a product of cultural, historical, and religious clashes that create a far difference scenario from the South African apartheid.

Israel is far from innocent, but the separation of the Palestinians from the Israelis is as much a safety valve as it is a cultural divide.

When Great Britain gave Jerusalem to the Jews after World War II, it was condemning Israel to a religious war. The situation has been unfortunate for every side, including Palestine. But Israel has continued to maintain Jerusalem as an open homeland for the three major Abrahamic religions and welcome Palestinians into the city. Painting Israel as the oppressive bully, the modern South Africa, is a misleading narrative. Using this narrative to protest an Israeli dance troupe with no political ties is even worse.

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