Israel-Palestine Conflict Takes to Stage in Brooklyn

By Sommer Saadi

Protesters lined the gates of the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at the Feb. 21 performance of the Israel Ballet. (Sommer Saadi/Journey to Jerusalem)

NEW YORK –- Patrons of the Israel Ballet’s performance on Sunday, Feb. 21, began their afternoon at the theater with an unexpected, and in most cases unwelcome, opening act: 45 protestors lining the front gates of the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts. Some were dressed in blue and white tutus, others were playing instruments like the drums, trombone and clarinet, and all were chanting slogans demanding a boycott of the ballet company’s United States tour.

Protestors carried signs that read, “No tutu is big enough to cover war crimes” and “Don’t dance around Apartheid. End it.” Others chanted, “Pas de deux or arabesque/The occupation is grotesque.”

The protest was one in a series coordinated by an organization called Adalah-NY: The Coalition for Justice in the Middle East, a Palestinian rights advocacy group that denounces what they call Israel’s “apartheid and colonial policies.” Their strategy is to boycott Israeli cultural and academic events. The ballet performance, which is funded by the Israeli government, is what the advocacy group considers a tactic to draw attention away from state policies and toward cultural affairs.

“People want to separate art as if it has nothing to do with politics,” said Una Osato, a New York City teacher who dressed up for the protest as an Israeli ballerina. “We want to show that in this case it does.”

Osato and two other mock ballerinas spent most of the two-hour protest calling out slogans like “We’re stretching to cover apartheid” and extending their arms into the air, or dancing to the Rude Mechanical Orchestra that was dressed in red, green and black—colors of the Palestinian flag.

The mostly elderly crowd of ballet ticket holders—many dressed in floor length fur coats and dapper blazers—barely acknowledged the demonstrators. They followed the path of nearly 20 police officers straight toward the theater.

One woman waiting for her date by the entrance between the protestors muttered under her breath, “All these people are crazy. Why protest the dancing? It’s not a question about dancing.”

But bringing the greater conflict between Israel and Palestine into all aspects of the Israeli culture–even dancing–was the point of the protest. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel that launched in April 2004 aims to “comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions” until a range of Palestinian rights are restored.

On March 9 the group is co-sponsoring a protest at the New York Gala dinner of the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces at the Waldorf. Last week, the group held a demonstration outside the Madison Avenue store Leviev owned by Lev Leviev, a diamond mogul who has financed settlement activity in the West Bank.

On this U.S. tour, the Israel Ballet company faced demonstrators yelling slogans and handing out mock programs at three consecutive performances. First on Friday in Burlington, Vt., protestors stood in front of the stage at the beginning of the performance hall with two banners that read: “No Tutu is Big Enough to Cover Up War Crimes” and “Sponsored by Apartheid Israel.” Protests continued on Saturday in Worchester, Mass., and finally in Brooklyn on Sunday.

“The main message is that while Israel is denying Palestinian rights, we will not let business go on as usual,” said Bryan Pickett, who was one of the protestors that stormed the stage in Vermont.

Although the protestors, which included a mix of religions and ethnicities, attempted to focus their messages on the political conflict, familiar religious tensions emerged.

There was no Jewish counter protest, but several theatergoers expressed their own opinions as they passed the demonstration. One woman walked toward the gates of the campus and called to some Jewish protestors, “You should be ashamed of yourself as a Jew.” And the reply, “This is a proud moment as a Jew.”

Another patron asked a protestor, “Genocide doesn’t embarrass you? You don’t remember they put us in an oven?” To which the protestor said, “That’s a different thing. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

The entire afternoon was interspersed with familiar banter. Jonathan Terebelo, a representative for the Bnai Raphael Chesed Organization, which operates a food pantry in Brooklyn, stood outside the performance hall to hand out information on how to make donations. He says he didn’t know about the Pro-Palestinian protest when making plans to pass out pamphlets.  Regardless of his initial intensions, however, watching the protestors inspired him to offer his own opinions to passerby.

“This is disturbing,” he said while pacing between the protestors. “Jews do not enforce apartheid. We are not killers. They are. They want to make it a Muslim world.”

Quickly protestor Richard Greve, who was passing out fliers listing the Palestinian grievances, interjected. “This is not a question of religion,” he said. “It’s a question of human rights. I would be here if any group was depriving rights of another group.”

And still, with a conflict deeply rooted in a region of religious significance, separating the political and the religious is an ongoing task that often distracts from the greater message.

“We just want people to be more aware,” said Emma Grigore, a protestor who traveled two hours from Philadelphia. “Even if that means just getting people to ask ‘why are you protesting?’ My hope is that people will at least educate themselves on what is going on in the area.”

3 Responses to “Israel-Palestine Conflict Takes to Stage in Brooklyn”

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  3. I understand that Israel has it’s own lobbyist group in washington (AIPAC – gee I wish the citizens of our country had a lobbyist group of their own), and that Israel also receives over 2 billion dollars from the USA annually. Perhaps throwing this insulting monkey wrench into the peace process, was just their way of saying “thanks”. After all this, there are still some people who say “they’re our closest ally in the region”. Want another tired old saying? …With friends like these…and I am Israeli!

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