Most of the time, we all realize that art and politics are inseparable. But on contentious issues, which obviously includes the Israel-Palestine conflict, somehow art is expected to be sanitized.
One has to ask how, exactly, Palestinians are supposed to express themselves and yet keep the occupation out of it. No one who had been to a Palestinian town, much less a refugee camp, would believe such a thing was possible, regardless of their views of the larger political questions. The occupation permeates every aspect of Palestinian life.
Yet this is, apparently, what is expected of the Al-Ghad Folklore Dancing Troupe of Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem. The troupe’s performance at a high school in Old Saybrook, Connecticut was cancelled this week after an angry grandparent complained about an earlier appearance. Apparently one of the group’s dances included a depiction of the ill treatment Palestinians receive from Israeli soldiers.
This is the experience of Palestinians, and asking them to exclude it from their art is no different from asking African-Americans to exclude their experiences with racism or women their experiences with sexism. This is the substance of Palestinian lives under occupation. Its appearance in an artistic forum is not a political statement, it is a statement of the facts of their lives.
The minister of the church that hosted the performance that touched off the controversy said: “I saw nothing there that was anti-Jewish. It was a cultural program … Anything of this nature, given the realities of where they live, the political realities are a short distance away…They were very careful [not to make a political statement]. They were asked to share their dance, and share their story living in the occupied territory. They did so through music.”
However, two Jewish students were “frightened” by the depiction of the Israelis. This is understandable; very little is taught to young Jews who do not actively seek the information about the behavior of soldiers in the Occupied Territories. Beign suddenly confronted with it can certainly be disquieting.
While the grandmother of these two teenagers apparently did contact the local chapter of the Jewish Federation, it appears from reports that her complaint, along with several other parents, was sufficient to persuade the school to cancel the performance. The Federation strongly supported the decision, however.
The school superintendent said “This was not framed as a political debate, it was framed as a cultural arts experience,” and canceled the performance despite it having been approved by the school’s social studies chair because the “school principals had not previewed the performance” and they were obviously afraid of opening a politically contentious can of worms.
People must be able to voice their opinions when they find something objectionable, of course. But how are our children ever to learn anything, about Israel-Palestine or any other political issue, if the slightest concern of controversy is enough to close down discussion, and even performances? One must also wonder, if the roles had been reversed and a Palestinian was upset by the portrayal of her people as suicide bombers, would the same sensitivity have been shown? It would seem unlikely, and in either case, the attempt to remove the daily realities of people’s lives from their art is absurd and wrong.
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