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Column: Culture, politics and the freedom of speech

Protesters last week tried to shut down an Israeli film festival in Dublin’s Temple Bar -but culture is the best way to help Irish and Israeli people understand each other better, says Boaz Modai, the Israeli ambassador to Ireland.

Boaz Modai Israel Ambassador to Ireland

THIS MONTH HAS seen an upsurge of activities by extremist anti-Israeli groups in Ireland.  At the start of the month, there was the attempt to break Israel’s naval arms blockade of the Gaza Strip by two boatloads of provocateurs posing as bringers of humanitarian aid to the people there.  Over half of the 27 activists were from Ireland, most of them representing small parties holding about one-tenth of the seats in the Dáil.

Meanwhile, near a shopping centre in the heart of Dublin, another group of extremist activists have staged demonstrations of street theatre aimed at giving a lop-sided, distorted picture of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The aim of these activities has been clear: to try to hijack Irish public sentiment and opinion and turn it against Israel, making it impossible for Israel to present its point of view or argue its case.  There have been times in the past three years when the activists may have felt that they were succeeding.

The latest example of this insidious campaign to shut down the free exchange of views is the attempt by anti-Israelis to prevent the holding last week of the Israeli Film Days, a festival of Israeli movies and music held at Filmbase in Dublin’s Temple Bar – the first event of its kind in Ireland.

Back in 1820, the poet Heinrich Heine wrote “where they have burned books they will end in burning human beings”.  His prophetic words were proved accurate a century later.  The freedom to express one’s culture is the cornerstone of any democracy.

The attempt to intimidate the venue from hosting, and the public from attending the festival was a resounding failure.  Not only did two Government ministers attend the gala opening night of the festival, but over 1,000 Irish people in total came along during four days to see a variety of movies portraying Israeli life in its many aspects.

One notable feature of the festival was the way in which the popularity of Irish culture in Israel shone through – as shown in the film ‘Irish Love in Tel Aviv’ as well as in the Irish-influenced rock music of  Izhar Ashdot and his band on Saturday night.  We hope that this event will be the first step to promote the reverse effect – a love and appreciation for Israeli culture in Ireland.

Gilmore: Political disagreement should not stop Irish people taking a new and different look at Israel

In his speech, Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore made clear the real issue at stake.  While expressing his Government’s ‘open disagreement with many aspects of Israeli policy’, and upholding the right of demonstrators to make their views known in a peaceful fashion, he indicated that political disagreements should not prevent Irish people having a chance to take ‘a new and different look at Israel and the Israeli people from a wide variety of perspectives’.

I believe that the medium of culture is the best way to bring people closer and help them to understand each other better.  Our two peoples should be exposed to cultural messages rather than propaganda and empty slogans.

Let us be under no illusions about the nature of these extremist activists who, as I said in my opening speech at the festival, ‘pretend to understand the reality of our region better than those who live there, both Israelis and Palestinians’.  These are no idealistic two-state-solution campaigners eager to help in mediating a peace settlement between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours.

On the contrary, people attending the festival were shocked to hear them chanting the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”, a cry that can mean only one thing – that Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, must be abolished and exterminated, and a single state of Palestine substituted in its place.

In the words of Labour Party councillor Richard Humphries of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, their attempt to shut down the festival shows “a chilling contempt for the legitimacy of the Israeli perspective”.  It makes no sense that only a short while ago an Iranian film festival was held in Dublin with no disturbance and no demonstration, and that only Israel, according to these activists, should be deprived of the right to express and exhibit its culture and society.

The activists’ slogans, chanted mindlessly over and over, allow no argument.  Theirs is not the language of rational debate but the language of hate, using terms borrowed from other conflicts such as apartheid and ethnic cleansing that have no relation to the very different circumstances of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.  Israel is an island in the Middle East – an island of liberalism, freedom of speech and equality.  It is the only democracy in this region, where Arab people have more rights than in any Arab country and where women, gay people and all minorities have rights that bear no comparison with any of our neighbours.

The totalitarian mindset of the extremists gives a foretaste of what the people of Israel could expect if they were to get their way.  But it also shows what the people of Ireland could expect if they were to succeed in closing down democratic debate, cultural interaction and the freedom of speech and expression right here in Ireland.

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About the author:

Boaz Modai  / Israel Ambassador to Ireland

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