On the eve of a discussion with colleagues in Prague about Chinese Cultural Diplomacy, my attention has been grabbed by the spill-over into culture of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. I write this as an agnostic about Cultural Diplomacy, someone who is still trying to work through the relationship between the cultural and political.
The Tricycle Theatre in London, which had been due to host the UK Jewish Film Festival in November, has asked the organisers to 'reconsider' its sponsorship by the Israeli embassy. The Theatre's artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, said: "Given the situation in Israel and Gaza, we do not believe that the festival should accept funding from any party to the current conflict" and offered to replace the embassy's money with its own (The Tricycle Theatre and the UK Jewish Film Festival).
On the surface there seems little merit in the Tricycle Theatre's decision. It is possible to argue that all governments subsidise culture; it is difficult to know how many of the smaller cultural industries, performers and artists could survive without government subsidies. And subsidising does not necessarily mean interference or control. What we know from the case of the Jewish Film Festival is that funding from the Israeli embassy was not donated with any preconditions about what can and cannot be shown; there was no interference in a programme which included a Palestinian story, participation by a Palestinian actor, and a documentary examining in a critical way the role of the Israeli security forces in Gaza.
However, the Tricycle Theatre decided to let culture be culture, and that the Jewish Film Festival is best served by ensuring detachment from institutionalised politics; that the films themselves may or may not be political, but the power of interpretation ultimately lies with the audience; and that the artistic integrity of the Jewish Film Festival is far more important that the £1,400 offered by the Israeli embassy. The danger is that by accepting government money such Festivals are associating themselves - and their staff, volunteers and even their audiences who have no say in the matter - with political agendas beyond their control. It is worth reminding ourselves that although the media reporting this story have used the word 'boycott', there is no evidence of any intention to boycott the Festival, only the sponsorship offered by the Israeli embassy; the Tricycle Theatre agreed to fund its involvement in the Jewish Film Festival.
Cultural Diplomacy is founded on the principle that culture can transcend politics; that in times of crisis it can promote mutual understanding, build relationships, and generate familiarity with otherwise unfamiliar ways of looking at the world. Regardless of Israeli sponsorship these aims may have been satisfied. However, Cultural Diplomacy works best when the cultural industries maintain as much distance as possible from government, government agendas and government money. Accepting sponsorship by the Israeli embassy at such a difficult and sensitive time may have unnecessarily politicised the films, confused for many audiences the differences between Israeli and Jewish (the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe is a disturbing and a thoroughly ugly response to Israel's offensive in Gaza), and thereby undermined the credibility of the Festival's Cultural Diplomacy credentials.
And lest anyone is sceptical about the ability of culture to transcend politics, even in the context of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, take a look at the work of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Founded by conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late cultural commentator, Edward Said, the Orchestra brings together young musicians from Israel, the Palestinian Territories and other Arab nations. Not everyone has seen the merit of this conversation, and the Orchestra has been subject to abuse and even boycotts; but the musicians agree that sharing their joy of music with each other and with audiences is far more important than their political identity. Watch an introduction to the Orchestra here: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra