It is always difficult to judge the impact of direct action by civil society, but a series of emails from Hillary Clinton when she was US Secretary of State reveal just how effective such resistance can be. Without realising that it was taking on the Goliath of the American political system, the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign set out a decade ago to stop Israeli government-backed artistes from performing in their capital city at one of the world’s best known festivals. As SPSC’s campaign grew and other groups and individuals added their support it became increasingly difficult for Israeli-backed productions and artistes to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival.
In recent years the group’s direct action involved leafleting and raising public awareness, as well as pressurising art groups and theatre companies not to work with groups funded by Tel Aviv. On one occasion members even disrupted a performance by the Jerusalem Quartet which was being recorded by the BBC. “Chants during the string quartet’s performance included ‘End the siege of Gaza, genocide in Gaza’,” recalled Mick Napier, co-founder of SPSC. “We really decided to go for the musicians after the pro-Israel media boasted that the quartet members with ‘a rifle in one hand and a violin in the other is the ultimate Zionist statement’.”
While other Israeli troupes not sponsored by the Zionist state have appeared unimpeded at the series of arts and cultural events held every August in Edinburgh, those sponsored by Israel have been targeted and thwarted at every turn.
SPSC learned this week just how powerful its campaigns proved to be when an article in The Scotsman newspaper revealed how Hillary Clinton tried to exert pressure on film festival organisers to accept financial backing from Israel. The article followed hot on the heels of another by the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, outlined on the SPSC website, which reported that years of protests in Edinburgh have finally taken their toll with Israeli State-sponsored theatre groups deciding to stay away from the Scottish capital this year.
“We are amazed by the news because Clinton’s emails were obviously never intended to see the light of day,” commented Mick Napier. “Every email proves that we can change things although until now it was kept secret just how successful our actions were. We had no idea this was going on behind the scenes.”
The veteran activist gave credit to the Scottish government for resisting this sort of pressure. “We can now say that this is an Edinburgh anti-apartheid, clean air act; in other words, the festivals are an Israeli-state-sponsored-free zone.” When Edinburgh has the Palestinian equivalent of Glasgow’s Nelson Mandela Place, he suggested, then we will be able to say that the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign played its part in the struggle against Israeli Apartheid and genocide.
The Clinton emails give an insight into how the former US Secretary of State attempted to pressure the British and Scottish Governments after the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) returned funding from the Embassy of Israel just a few months after Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” against the Gaza Strip. In that 2008/9 war more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops, more than a quarter of them women and children.
After acclaimed filmmaker Ken Loach joined forces with SPSC, the EIFF agreed to sever its links with the Israeli state. Rather than accept sponsorship from the embassy to fund an Israeli film maker’s travel to the opening of her film, the EIFF agreed to pay for her trip.
“To be crystal clear,” wrote Loach to the woman in question, “as a film maker you will receive a warm welcome in Edinburgh. You are not censored or rejected. The opposition was to the Festival’s taking money from the Israeli state.”
SPSC chair Sofiah MacLeod said that a key aspect of the boycott is to make the Israeli state aware that there is a price to pay for its crimes against the Palestinians and to bring an end to the complicity of countries like Britain in those crimes. “Clinton’s emails demonstrate that the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS) is working,” she pointed out. “Not only did Israel suffer a PR humiliation back in 2009 when its sponsorship money was publicly returned, but it has also now learnt that, in spite of the efforts of the second-most powerful official in the US at the time, neither the British nor the Scottish governments were willing or able to intervene on Israel’s behalf.”
Pointing out that exactly 12 months ago more than 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children were killed and thousands were maimed and made homeless as a result of another Israeli war, MacLeod noted that Israel continues with its abuses of Palestinian rights on a daily basis. “While Clinton’s failure to stop BDS is undoubtedly a morale boost for the Palestinians and all those who act in solidarity with their struggle for justice, we ask more Scots to join us as we redouble our efforts to end those abuses.”
Israel, added Sofiah MacLeod, should expect BDS actions around the world to escalate until it meets its obligation to recognise the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination. “Put simply, Israel needs to comply fully with the precepts of international law.”