Why an Indian theatre artist decided to boycott the Israel Festival to be held in 2018

On 6 December, 2017, reports said that Donald Trump announced that the United States of America recognises Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. Although Israel has made such a demand for a long time, it has never been accepted internationally. More than hundred Jewish studies scholars in the United States of America have condemned Trump’s move. Artists and performers including Julie Christie, Peter Gabriel, Aki Kaurismaki, Mark Ruffalo, Roger Waters, Eve Ensler, Caryl Shurchill, and Tilda Swinton have deplored Trump’s disregard for international law. A Palestinian response to Trump’s decision can be read here.

Meanwhile, in India, Mallika Taneja, a theatre artist based in Delhi, has declined to perform at the Israel Festival, although her decision was made before Trump’s announcement, on 24 November. After Trump made his call, she decided to make her letter public in a Facebook post. Taneja has performed her solo performance piece, Thoda Dhyan Se, at several reputed festivals, as well as protest gatherings, to wide acclaim. Her latest work is Rukaawat Ke Liye Khed Hai. Here we publish her Facebook post which contains her letter to the organisers to the Israel festival.

Mallika Taneja in a moment from the play Thoda Dhyan Se | Image courtesy the Facebook page of the play

I was recently approached by the Israel Festival to explore the possibility of presenting my work at their festival. I had declined their offer and had written a letter of boycott. In light of Trump’s announcement and the latest violence in the region, I have decided to make this letter public. I urge all artists to carefully consider participation in Israeli State led festivals and other cultural initiatives.

24 November, 2017
To the Israel Festival,

Thank you very much for your interest in my work and for the possibility of presenting the work at your festival. I apologise it has taken me so long to reply to your emails.

I see on your website that your festival has been recognised as an important one in the region as a “cultural promoter for a more peaceful society”. I also see that your festival is funded by the State of Israel and like you mention, the Indian Embassy is interested in presenting artists at your event.

It has taken me a while to gather my thoughts in order to respond to your interest in my work. Let me try and explain my difficulty.

Last year, I watched a play here in India. One scene from this play in particular has stuck with me. A man is fleeing his village. But he carries on himself a very large Zaitoon tree. He is weighed down by it. We cannot see his face. His back is bent. Only his voice can be heard. He tells us that he is carrying a piece of his land on his back, a piece of his identity, a marker of who he is and where he comes from. This tree had been like a child to him. He has nurtured it, saved it from the forces of nature, given it a healthy life. He couldn’t leave his child behind. His home and his country have been snatched away from him.

As I watched, I wondered to myself, what would happen if someone snatched away my home, my identity, my dignity from me? Who would tell my story? Or will the world carry on as if nothing happened?

I think we might have lost count of how many homes, trees, identities, dignities and children have been lost in the face of the ongoing Occupation of Palestine by Israel, and by the operations of the apartheid state inside Israel.

I am also aware that the forebears of the people of Israel endured the most horrific violence and I have always sympathised with their suffering. I am therefore even more pained when I see the Israeli State perpetrating a brutal colonial Occupation on Palestinians.

I do not know if you have seen any of my work previously. As an artist, my word and my body stands firmly with the cause of equality, justice and freedom for people all over the world. It is what gives me my voice. I believe in the power of the arts to transform people and minds. I believe the arts need to tell stories that no one else tells. I have witnessed festivals being sites of deep connect and healing. I believe that the arts must be political, in its content as well as its intent. I also believe that we, as artists, must be aware of the stage that we stand on, and what that stage stands for.

As I read about the the history of the State of Israel in using culture as a tool to distract from the violence in Palestine, I asked myself how I could stand for freedom and justice on one stage, and promote quite the opposite on another? How can this bring about a peaceful society?

I must decline to present my work at the Israel Festival in 2018. I stand firmly opposed to the Occupation and apartheid that Palestine has been subjected to for decades. I also take great exception to my own government’s increasing blindness to Israel’s illegal Occupation. It will always be my endeavour, as an artist and an individual, to stand for freedom and justice and against ethnic violence within my country and outside of it.

Mallika Taneja
Theatre Artist
New Delhi

Courtesy: Indian Cultural Forum



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