The Tricycle loses a wheel

Nobody knows better than the Tricycle Theatre what to do with funding from war-mongering governments. They earned millions in Arts Council funding during the years of Tony Blair’s war on Iraq and a bit more besides during John Major’s supposedly attrition-lite no-fly version.

They used those state funds to become the UK arts sector’s most effective critic of the British government’s years of duplicity in Iraq, and the cruelty and wasteful loss of life it engendered.

The Tricycle is, after all, the theatre that used funding from a Labour government to stage a play titled Called to Account – The Indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the Crime of Aggression against Iraq – A Hearing in 2007, a production that did exactly what it said on the playbill.

James Baldwin in the Tricycle Theatre bar, as sketched by Fiona Hawthorne in 1987. The long haired arty git on the left is me.

The Trike has always fiercely defended its political independence – it recently refused the Labour party permission to use their theatre for a fundraiser – so it knows whereof it speaks there too. But it has always recognised, as the UK Jewish Film Festival does today, that a charity that takes funding from a government is not obliged to support it.

I myself took funding from the Dutch and UK governments – in Index on Censorship’s name – to work in Iraq, trying to help Iraqi journalists protect themselves from the fresh hell we’d just unleashed on them, in succession to the hell they’d endured before that, and the one before that. Etc.

I once refused funding from a private trust, again in Index’s name, because of the political conditions that were applied to it clearly compromised Index’s independence. And in the end it was easier on my conscience to go to the United Nations for funding to continue my work in Iraq, albeit briefly, before the hell overwhelmed us all, we buried our respective dead and got the fuck out.

So I understand that dealing with any government with blood on its hands is complicated, regardless of whether or not it’s your own. But at the time I couldn’t help feel that the very fact that a government was willing to spare a miniscule slice of its annual budget to give to its critics suggested that there was something of value buried under the layers of cant and crap.

And the UK Foreign Office were careful not to take any propaganda advantage from the fact that they were part-funding my team out there, though I never hid the fact when asked. Only once did they try to personally credit my work, and were gracious when I declined the offer.

I have no idea how much credit the Israeli government expected for their continued funding of the UK Jewish Film Festival. For the festival organisers as British Jews they had a stake in the future of Israel as a democratic state and that engagement was a way to an opportunity for the frank words and constructive criticism needed to achieve it.

I agree. I’m deeply sceptical of cultural boycotts. Boycott olives if you like, but not competing ideas and challenging visions. During the 1980s the Trike itself drew some opprobrium from the anti-apartheid movement for hosting South African dissident comedian and cultural boycott sceptic Pieter-Dirk Uys.

So the UKJFF’s stance should have made sense to an arts organisation that had resisted boycotts in the past, picked apart the UK’s corrupt strategy in Iraq win a way that the media never matched, and all the while working to mainstream minority, Black, Asian, Irish and Jewish theatre and cinema in the London arts scene.

But to use that term that Nick Cohen invests with such dripping contempt, Tricycle chairman Jonathan Levy is a “progressive Jew”. I don’t know, but I guess that what the Israeli government was doing in his name in Gaza in addition to Kilburn was more than Levy could give an Israeli official civil credit for.

Perhaps it was the idea of welcoming a representative of the Netanyahu government to the opening night, offering him a drink before engaging on a discussion about the ambassador’s view of how historic anti-Semitism in the UK obstructs a fair picture of Israel’s defensive strategy in Gaza.

I’m speculating. Officially Levy’s view was that “given the present situation in Israel/Palestine, and the unforeseen and unhappy escalation over the past three weeks, the Tricycle will be pleased to host the UKJFF provided it occurs without support or other endorsement from the Israeli government.”

The writer and freedom of expression champion Hari Kunzru wrote eloquently over the weekend about the importance of personal gestures of protest and the difference between condemning Israel and Hamas. We have no standing with Hamas. But like many of the governments whose policies we reject, we do have a standing with Israel.

Israel depends on the goodwill of Europeans and Americans to be able to implement its policies in Gaza. By publicly condemning the actions of the Israeli government, we can play a “(tiny) part in delegitimising those actions,” as he says.

To me though, public condemnation of Israel is one thing, and a cultural boycott is something else.

Anyway, Levy decided that the Tricycle couldn’t be associated with any activity directly funded or supported by any party to the conflict – not that anyone was expecting a grant for the arts cheque from Hamas anytime soon.

He oversaw a patched up compromise offer to replace the missing money if the festival returned the Israeli government funds. Perhaps he thought the UKJCC’s organisers might understand that it wasn’t personal, merely policy, maybe principle.

They understood OK, but quite reasonably refused to accept the Tricycle’s sudden decision to make use of the venue conditional on their endorsement of a cultural boycott of Israel. The two parted company. Cue a fantastic shitstorm of abuse blasted through the theatre’s foyer.

Scores of people of intelligence and creativity cast Levy and the Trike’s gesture as outright anti-Semitism. The Trike may never fully recover from the slander. Certainly it will be hard for it to rebuild its relations with the London Jewish community. One friend, a genuinely sensitive, intelligent writer that I have known for decades made overt equivalences between the Tricycle management and the Nazi party, and Levy’s feeble gesture, to Nazi ordinances banning Jews from public places.

In a typically thoughtful commentary on the Index blog, Padraig Reidy concluded that the problem is that for many seeking to register their disgust at the actions of foreign governments, boycott seems the only option. “Perhaps,” he said, “it’s time for those of us uncomfortable with the idea of shutting down free speech to figure out new avenues of expression.” Perhaps indeed.

I love the Trike. I helped produce a play by James Baldwin there in 1986 that went on to transfer to the West End. I met my wife there and held my wedding reception in its gallery. I have always respected its stalwart position as a honest, forensic, raw and sometimes satirical critic of our country at war at home and abroad. Levy was wrong. But it doesn’t make it any less of a tragedy for a wonderful theatre.

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