Taking the struggle into the arts

Promote a second front

Boycotting Israel and its military suppliers can make a real difference when it comes to the court of public opinion. But, complains Tam Dean Burn, some do not take cultural politics seriously

There has been a range of cultural aspects to the Palestine solidarity struggle recently. For example, the South By Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, Texas saw over 100 bands withdraw because the US army was the festival’s “super sponsor”, while arms manufacturing companies, which are supplying Israel right now, also have ties.

It seems that the festival has moved more towards a big-tech event, with the organisers ludicrously justifying the military’s involvement by saying:

The defence industry has historically been a proving ground for many of the systems we rely on today. These institutions are often leaders in emerging technologies, and we believe it’s better to understand how their approach will impact our lives. The army’s sponsorship is part of our commitment to bring forward ideas that shape our world.1

All Irish bands pulled their gigs and made a strong statement at another live performance - read out by the Gurriers’ drummer, Pierce Callaghan, from the stage. The statement made some forceful political points:

Sponsorship of the festival from defence contractors and those sending arms to destroy innocent lives is an act we find disgusting and reprehensible. We as Irish people have a lot of solidarity with the people of Palestine, as we share a history of occupation and oppression by colonialist countries.2

It went on to give the example of the Dunnes Stores strike against apartheid back in the 80s: “This one act triggered a blanket boycott in Ireland, which was mirrored worldwide. If we could all band together then and make a real change, we definitely can now.”

In sharp contrast, the Scottish bands listed to take part chose to ignore the boycott - apart from two: Neon Waltz and VLURE. Most surprising amongst them was the Glasgow band, Mogwai, whose members have long been looked on as a radical force - Mogwai is listed to appear at a Palestine fundraiser at the Union Chapel, London, on April 18. I can only presume that its appearance at SXSW, without any statement on the boycott, encouraged other Scottish bands to do likewise. It should be noted that of the 100-plus bands pulling out around 60 were from the UK.

I think it is fair to say that all this sent shockwaves through the radical community in Scotland and provoked Bella Caledonia, the left nationalist online magazine, to organise a cultural boycott statement that was then signed by many, including writers Irvine Welsh and James Kelman, the band Young Fathers and myself.3

As well as expressing solidarity with the Palestinian BDS campaign, the statement goes further, calling on all cultural workers not to “participate in events supported by the military and arms companies enabling war in Palestine”.

Some of the arms dealers represented at SXSW - Raytheon and BAE Systems - have plants in Scotland that have been targeted recently by activists. In fact the British army has been making inroads into culture with its ‘Army at the Fringe’ yearly programme at the Edinburgh Festival. It has even managed to develop partnerships with the Scottish Society of Playwrights (affiliated to the Scottish Trades Union Congress) and the Scottish Poetry Library, which last year organised a ‘Bard at the Barracks’ programme. Last time I was at the library was for a celebration of the late radical poet, Tom Leonard, and I know for certain that he would have been apoplectic at such a disgraceful turn of events.

Freedom Theatre

Very recently I gave a talk at the second Communist Culture Club livestream under the title, ‘The Third Intifada will be Cultural’.

This was an idea proposed by the late Juliano Mer Khamis, founder of the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp in occupied Palestine. Juliano was the son of Communist Party of Israel members, so I looked at its website to see if it had anything I could use in my talk. The party site had several current news items on the Gaza onslaught, but on the ‘Party life’ page there was nothing more current than 2014!

Juliano did seem to follow his mother Arna’s more anarchistic turn than his father’s following of the party line and indeed his documentary, Arna’s children, about her work in Jenin is a brilliant piece, available on YouTube.4

I met Juliano when he came to Scotland in 2007 - he has long been an inspiration as an actor who heroically turned his back on a successful Israeli film career to devote himself to the Palestinian cause through youth theatre. He was assassinated outside Freedom Theatre in 2011, whilst sitting in his car with his two-year-old son on his lap - a crime that still remains unsolved.

Also inspiring was his radical struggle against the conservatism of the camp, particularly with regard to the participation of girls and young women in the theatre’s activities, and criticisms of the Palestine Authority in a production of George Orwell’s Animal farm, where PA figures became the pigs! Whether he was killed by forces within the camp will probably never be known, as the Israeli authorities took away his car, laptop and other possessions.

Freedom Theatre has continued to operate since then, but has suffered severe attacks by the Israeli Defence Forces - indeed producer Mustafa Sheba still remains in an Israeli jail after three months’ “administrative detention”. Many other members of FT staff have also faced detention - and even torture - for running a youth theatre, for fuck’s sake!

But none of this has dampened the determination by FT to make Juliano’s words come true and indeed in the very week when I was giving my talk an incredible website resource called Cultural Intifada was launched by Freedom Theatre and Artists On the Frontline.5

I spoke of this valuable resource in my talk, but that was undermined by last-minute procedural changes at the event, when a new item was added to the agenda - a pre-recording of Tony Greenstein discussing the Al Jazeera TV documentary, October 7, that was tagged onto the front of my 15-minute talk. The discussion after I finished concentrated entirely on the documentary, and even contained a lengthy polemic against Tony by Daniel Lazare. This was particularly pointless, since, as I have said, Tony’s was a pre-recorded contribution, because he was at another meeting. The chair, Tina Werkmann, then went straight on to the next item without asking me to respond. When I pointed this out, I was then offered the chance to come back at the very end of the broadcast.


So, all in all, it was a frustrating event. I would have thought that the issue of a cultural intifada is a lot more important for Marxists right now than Daniel Lazare’s thoughts on George Orwell, or a review of the film Dune 2. The Al Jazeera documentary is very important, but hardly culture.

At the time of writing the segments still have not been made available as stand-alone videos, so I cannot promote the issue of a cultural intifada elsewhere, as I had hoped. I have taken part in both Communist Culture club nights and all contributions have been from old white men (like myself), even when celebrating International Women’s Day!

This is in stark contrast to what I have been finding in Palestinian and climate activism, where young women are so clearly leading the way. It might have been understandable in Marx’s day to be so dominated by male voices, but surely not today.

There is such a wealth of cultural activity going on across the world right now in support of Palestine and resolutely against Israeli apartheid that could be described as a resistance movement - or an intifada. There have also been shameful efforts to counter it - examples I have seen range from an exhibition organised by young artist Georgina Porteous, which was cancelled less than a week before it was due to open at the Moray School of Art in the University of the Highlands, to a short play written and performed by a British-Palestinian writer-performer, Gemilla Shamruk, which was pulled after two nights from the Chickenshed Theatre in London. Porteous did find an alternative venue and continues to demand an explanation from the gallery.

Such determination bodes well for the rising resistance movement - and so does the militancy of the cultural intifada itself.

  1. accessaa.co.uk/sxsw-issues-statement-after-artists-pull-out-of-event.↩︎

  2. www.nme.com/news/music/irish-bands-sxsw-boycott-statement-palestine-radar-3601576.↩︎

  3. bellacaledonia.org.uk/2024/03/22/a-scottish-cultural-workers-boycott-of-israel/#comment-638523.↩︎

  4. youtu.be/DvtzDPdHeeU.↩︎

  5. See www.theculturalintifada.com.↩︎