On Tuesday night, the Irish band the Mary Wallopers played the Hollywood Theatre in Vancouver. During the show, a band member said something about a free Palestine.
This, according to attendee Hanah Van Borek, led to a few shouts from the audience: “Fuck the Jews!”
It was clearly audible in her area of the crowd, a person who was with her confirms, but nobody around them shut this down. There were some cheers of support, though. “My whole body went into shock,” says Ms. Van Borek, who is Jewish.
Ms. Van Borek left the venue and explained why to security staff. She says a worker encouraged her to go back inside and reassured her she was safe. “Nobody will be able to tell that you’re Jewish,” he said, according to Ms. Van Borek. (Oy.)
She did return to the show, but Ms. Van Borek was – and is – rattled. She supports the band’s right to make political statements. It was the shouts from this group – and the silence around them – that were alarming.
A representative for the band told The Globe and Mail in a statement that they did not hear the antisemitic comment, and if they had, they would have confronted the culprit and had them ejected. They also released an Instagram statement saying their gigs should be a safe space.
Given the horrific massacre of civilians conducted by Hamas in Israel on Oct. 7 and the deadly response of the Israeli military in Gaza, it is not surprising that intense emotions associated with it are bleeding into the cultural landscape. This is what artists do: think about big ideas and massive crises – sometimes of the heart, sometimes geopolitically. Sometimes both.
It is not at all wrong for an artist to express their views onstage. A pro-Palestinian message onstage at a concert is absolutely fine. Hate speech and racial slurs are not.
Echoes of the war in the Middle East have reached the cultural world – music, publishing, visual arts, even comedy. The visual-art publication Artforum issued an open letter about the war that did not mention the Oct. 7 massacre, angering many in that community, and leading to a second open letter signed by other artists condemning the first.
Last Friday, a storied New York literary series at 92NY cancelled a scheduled appearance by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. He had signed an open letter condemning Israel.
That last-minute cancellation resulted in other writers who had been booked for the series pulling out from future events in protest, including Canadian Dionne Brand. Some 92NY staff resigned in protest. And then 92NY cancelled the whole series for the rest of the season.
I understand that 92NY’s roots (it was founded 150 years ago to serve the American Jewish community) may have informed this decision, but I don’t understand not giving artists a platform to speak.
An award ceremony for Palestinian author Adania Shibli planned for the Frankfurt Book Fair last week was cancelled after the Hamas attacks. Her acclaimed novel is about the rape and murder of a Palestinian girl by Israeli soldiers in 1949, based on a true story.
This is the exact time we need to hear from the artists. I want to know what they are thinking.
Here in Canada, the novelist Jasmine Sealy, introducing a panel discussion at the Vancouver Writers Fest last week, said that because she had the microphone, she was going to use the opportunity to call for an end to the “violent occupation of Palestine.”
Some audience members were very unhappy about what they saw as one-sided support and complained to the festival (which declined an interview request, as did Ms. Sealy).
Is it Ms. Sealy’s right to say something? Of course. Was it her place, as moderator of a panel about female protagonists in fiction, to make an overtly political statement in her introduction? That’s less clear to me. But when you are the artist in the spotlight, that spotlight is yours.
The war, with so many people in the diaspora strongly connected, has created or exacerbated divisions that have pitted artists against each other. Sometimes it gets personal – and ugly.
Debate is a keystone of cultural communities. But some of these divisions have gone beyond healthy dialogue.
As patrons – not just big-bucks philanthropists but on-the-ground buyers of tickets and books – we also have a say. To support or not to support. You can buy Ms. Shibli’s novel. You can choose the store where you want to buy your next book.
As the statements – and sometimes the insults – fly, I hope to hear more, not less, from artists. And certainly there will be great art that comes out of this horrific time.