The board of London's Tricycle Theatre delivered an ultimatum to the organisers of the UK Jewish Film Festival, which it has hosted for the last eight years: either cut your ties with the Israeli embassy, which gives a £1,400 subsidy to the festival, or find another venue.
UK Jewish Film refused that instruction, along with the Tricycle's offer to make up the financial shortfall, and is now looking for a new home. No doubt the Tricycle believed it was taking an admirably principled stand on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which flared anew after the truce that had held for nearly 72 hours broke down. But the theatre has made a bad error of judgment.
Some have made the argument that, if receiving money from a state implies endorsement of that state's policy, then the Tricycle ought to return the £725,000 it receives from the taxpayer-funded Arts Council, lest that be read as backing for, say, UK participation in the invasion of Iraq. Of course, few would see the Arts Council as an arm of the state in that way. And a similar mistake seems to be at work here. For the Israeli embassy in London is not merely an outpost of the Netanyahu government. It also represents Israel itself, its society and its people. It was this connection with Israel as a country that UK Jewish Film refused to give up. Hard though it may be for others to understand, that reflects something crucial about contemporary Jewish identity: that most, not all, Jews feel bound up with Israel, even if that relationship is one of doubt and anxiety. To demand that Jews surrender that connection is to tell Jews how they might – and how they might not – live as Jews. Such demands have an ugly history. They are not the proper business of any public institution, least of all a state-subsidised theatre.
The controversy has gained extra heat because of the alarming increase in anti-Jewish racism. As we reported today, during the course of a single July week, eight synagogues in France were attacked, one of them firebombed by a 400-strong crowd, whose chants and banners included "Death to Jews" and "Slit Jews' throats". More chilling still, given that country's history, Molotov cocktails have been hurled at synagogues in Germany, where chants heard at pro-Palestinian protests have included "Jew, coward pig, come out and fight alone", and "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas". The lay leader of Germany's Jews told the Guardian that "these are the worst times since the Nazi era". In Britain too there has been a spike in antisemitic incidents, with monitoring groups saying July was the second worst month in 30 years. It is the same spike they see every time the conflict in the Middle East escalates. The common thread here is the conflation of Jews with Israeli conduct.
It should not need saying, but it does: people can be as angry as they like at the Israeli government, but to attack a synagogue, threaten children at a Jewish school, or throw a brick through the window of a Jewish grocery store is vile and contemptible racism. It cannot be excused by reference to Israeli military behaviour. The two are and should be kept utterly distinct.
Some may counter that that is impossible, given the strong attachment of most Jews to Israel. But this is less complicated than it looks. Yes, Jews feel bound up with Israel, they believe in its right to survive and thrive. But that does not mean they should be held responsible for its policy, on which some may disagree and over which they have no control.
Nor should they be required to declare their distance from Israel as a condition for admission into polite society. We opposed such a question being put to all Muslims after 9/11 and, though the cases are not equivalent, the same logic applies here. This is a test for those who take a strong stance in support of the Palestinians, but in truth it is a test for all of us.