Why the Cape Opera is wrong to tour Israel

Mervyn Bennun analyses the apartheid-era arguments against the boycott

The reaction by Zionists to the appeal by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu for the Cape Town Opera to reconsider its proposed tour of Israel with Porgy and Bess echoes, unsurprisingly, what we used to hear from the apartheid regime when confronted with the cultural boycott of South Africa. His point is that it would be "unconscionable" for Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel while millions of people living there are denied access to culture and education.

Tutu said: "The Tel Aviv Opera House is state sponsored. By luring international artists to perform there, it advances Israel's fallacious claim to being a 'civilised democracy'. Yet, every day, millions of citizens are denied the right to educational and cultural opportunities in Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies." He drew attention to the fact that people living in an occupied West Bank village 30 minutes from Tel Aviv cannot go there, while their Jewish neighbours from an illegal settlement on occupied Palestinian territory are free to do so.

Israel's reaction is the same angry defiance of world opinion which was shown by apartheid South Africa. Now it is Israel which depicts itself as the unfairly and malevolently-selected and misunderstood victim, with the added twist that the malevolence is said to be driven by anti-Semitism. Evidence of the unfairness, it is claimed, is the fact that there are other states - especially in the Middle East - with worse human rights records.

But what has Archbishop Tutu got wrong? For exclusively Jewish occupation of land, Israel has driven Palestinians from their ancestral homes. They cannot travel at will to the theatre where the Cape Town Opera plans to perform. As in the apartheid years in South Africa, they might as well live on another planet and not just down the road from the cultural life that others enjoy.

The responses from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (Cape Council), the South African Zionist Federation and the Embassy of Israel make no attempt to deny this fact which - as apartheid's Bantustans and "group areas" did - angered the world community. Indeed, the Board of Deputies in its reply acknowledges the existence of these "Palestinian regions" and makes no effort to deny the injustice they entail.

The blame is shifted to the victims for their own hurt and anger. Boycotts, says the Board, "serve only to harden attitudes on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide". So the message, it seems, is that all would be well if only the Palestinians would accept that, not being Jewish, they must not expect equal rights and free access in what was once their own land but which is now deemed to be "Jewish" territory. If Palestinians think that they are victims, then they have only themselves to blame and should not be encouraged by any boycott to resent what has been done to them.

The Israeli Embassy claims that Archbishop Tutu's call "is yet another phase in the biased campaign. that distorts and demonises Israel". So what exactly did Tutu get wrong - are Palestinians as free to see "Porgy and Bess" as their next door neighbours? What is it that Palestinians and the rest of the world misunderstand about Zionism that leads to a distorted understanding of it and the demonisation of Israel?

In fact, the Cape Town Opera's Managing Director, Michael Williams, pulled the rug out from under the feet of the Board and the Embassy by admitting the segregation: "Cape Town Opera welcomes the opportunity to perform within Palestine as well," he said in a media release.

Another of the familiar apartheid-era arguments against the boycott, now invoked by Zionists, is that Israel is being selectively criticised when there are other countries with monstrous human rights records. The Board of Deputies claims that Tutu is "singling out Israel as a target for special criticism".

True: there are indeed regimes - and amongst them are those who are most hostile to Israel - with appalling human rights records. Further, the Israeli Embassy scores half a point when it states: "It is regrettable that Tutu chooses to single out Israel.rather than concentrating on what is happening in his own backyard." True again - South Africa is painfully open to some ugly and wholly justified criticisms, and a bitter curse on those amongst us whose vicious and dishonourable conduct make this so.

But Tutu has never been silent about what he sees as wrong with South Africa, and his stinging reproaches come fearlessly. If the Board of Deputies thinks that he is disqualified from looking beyond our borders, then what South African may do so?

Further, there is no moral law whatever that requires anyone to choose between fighting every single wrong on earth simultaneously, or none at all. What rubbish: Israel must not be allowed to hide and to camouflage itself behind the undeniable and undenied atrocities and human rights violations and injustices committed elsewhere.

But still..... yes! I acknowledge that I choose to single out Israel for criticism, and I will state why I do so.

Of all the varieties of racism spawned by humanity to be confronted, anti-Semitism naturally has for anyone of Jewish descent a particular horror. It is often an intimate and personal one, for in our own times the European Holocaust was based on the myth that Jews (and others) constitute distinct "races" - that there is a "Jewish" gene, another for the Romany people (the so-called Gypsies) and yet more genes for other humans - all according to the taxonomy of the myth-obsessed anthropology and genetics of Nazism, which placed those who could be identified by their "Aryan" gene at the top of a crazy hierarchy of humans (and sub-humans).

Despite the demolition of the myths of racism by scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould (there's a new edition of his masterpiece The Mismeasure of Man which should be on every bookshelf and read in public!), Zionists insist on equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. They demand sympathy and support for Israel from everyone and, in addition, a special loyalty to Israel from people of Jewish descent in whose name they claim to act: they equate criticism of Israel by such people with treason.

The reasoning has a familiar stench: South Africans who fought apartheid and its racist myth were regarded as traitors. Zionists brew a special venom for those whom they call "self-hating Jews", ignoring the irony that they thus parade their racism and fuel the anti-Semitic myth that there is a "Jewish" gene or race.

I am most certainly of Jewish descent and I have no choice about that, so precisely because of the Zionist claim that Israel is acting for all people of Jewish descent do I feel driven to repudiate this demand on me. Moreover, for as long as any racist myths whatever are invoked in human affairs I will be Jewish and I hope that, if yellow stars are ever issued again, I will have the guts to wear mine with defiance. Sammy Davis Jnr at least saw some humour in the racist myth: one day on a golf course, Jack Benny asked him what his handicap was and Davis replied, "Handicap? I'm a one-eyed Negro who's Jewish!"

Zionists and Israel do not act in my name against the Palestinians - I most emphatically do have a choice about making that statement, and I make it along with increasing numbers of others like me. If Zionists hadn't tried to claim my loyalty on the ground that I am Jewish (or of Jewish descent, which I prefer), then maybe I'd involve myself in some other equally-deserving human rights campaign or indulge in my hobbies instead. So yes - precisely because I am Jewish do I want to be heard on behalf of the Palestinians. If that means that I am singling out Israel, then I reply that Israel has made itself a hostage to fortune by setting itself up as a deserving target, and it is utter balderdash to suggest that this means turning a blind eye to atrocities elsewhere.

One wonders how members of the touring company (both the cast and the backstage crew) feel. Have they measured the distance of Khayelitsha from what was once called the Nico Malan? Have they considered whether - coming from South Africa, of all places - they really want to perform before segregated audiences? Should they expect Palestinians to tug their forelocks and to be grateful to Cape Town Opera, and not to feel that they are being patronised and the wrongs against them legitimised?

The touring CTO cast and crew are truly in an invidious position. There can be little glamour in their pay, and a tour must be desperately valuable for them. However, it looks very much as if an humiliating advantage is being taken of them. It is a bitter irony that Porgy and Bess was first performed in 1935 at a time when Afro-American artistes were struggling for access to mainstream American theatre and films, and to be cast otherwise than as (usually comic) characters in stereotyped roles while whites blacked-up and played Afro-American and Native American characters.

It was a time of the Klu Klux Klan, the burning crosses, lynching, and widespread racism, right down to the reluctance of the state itself to protect Black voters who were trying to assert their constitutional rights to the franchise. Paul Robeson's defiant "struggle" version of "Ol' Man River" can still bring tears to the eyes.

George and Ira Gershwin consciously wrote Porgy and Bess as a challenge to Broadway's racist stage-doors: every character in the opera is Afro-American with the single exception of a brutal white policeman. The opera was controversial from the outset, even among Afro-Americans: Duke Ellington attacked Gershwin's "lampblack Negroisms" and his was no isolated voice. The hostility from the Afro-American community even frustrated some attempts to produce it.

Wikipedia states (unfortunately, without attribution) that "Several of the members of the original cast later stated that they, too, had concerns that their characters might play into a stereotype that African Americans lived in poverty, took drugs and solved their problems with their fists." Without taking sides here, the controversy around Porgy and Bess will haunt it for ever. Despite its well-known music, no-one should be so starry-eyed as to think it was accepted by Afro-Americans as a well-aimed strike against racism.

Cape Town Opera and its cast and crew need to do some hard thinking before taking Porgy and Bess to Israel for this will cause great offence - and not only to Palestinians. Apartheid - all racism - is violent and causes violence. Just as apartheid threatened peace within and beyond South Africa, so Israel's policies are dividing not only the people who live there but others too.

Summertime, and the living is easy
Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high
Your daddy's rich, and your ma is good looking
So hush little baby, don't you cry.

One of these mornings, you're gonna rise up singing
You're gonna spread your wings and take the sky
But till that morning, there is nothing can harm you
With your daddy and mommy standing by.

If Clara sings her lullaby to segregated audiences - in Israel, and then in the Jewish Board of Deputies' so-called "Palestinian regions" (or would it be in the CTO Managing Director's "Palestine"?) - what sort of confident and tranquil future will she be thinking about for the children there, whether Palestinian or Israeli? What peace did we look forward to under apartheid - and what peace can the children look forward to under Zionism?

This is not a tour which Cape Town Opera needs or from which it can benefit.

An edited version of this article first appeared in The Cape Times.

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