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How pro-Palestinian artists are being canceled by British cultural institutions

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Even before October 7, Taghrid Choucair-Vizoso, a Lebanese cultural worker living in Britain, was used to tough questions from art venues when she presented work on Palestine.

“I have received very restrictive questions from some venues when pitching the work of Palestinian artists, which has not happened when I have pitched other artists,” she said.

“Before even giving me a chance to talk about the work, I had questions about whether there was any balance in including an Israeli position, or whether we anticipated protests happening.”

Choucair-Vizoso once had a project withdrawn because it contained the word “Palestine” in the title.

Before October, these conversations often took place behind closed doors. However, since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza, a slew of venues, including the Arnolfini arts center, the Barbican and the Chickenshed Theater, have publicly hosted events featuring Palestinian or pro-Palestinian artists.

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In each case, the locations issued statements citing security concerns or the “complexity” of the situation in Gaza.

For Choucair-Vizoso, the speed and extent of censorship have increased since October.

“I have never seen this happen on this scale before,” she told Middle East Eye. “It has never been so public, and now during a genocide.

“It is very difficult because my village in the south of Lebanon has been destroyed and I have to deal with this,” she said.

“I think there are so many (events) that we don’t know about. Imagine all the work that didn’t even reach the programming stage.”

A pattern of intimidation

In March, HOME, a Manchester-based arts centre, announced the cancellation of a Palestinian literature event, Voices of Resilience, after the venue received a letter from the Jewish Representative Council of Greater Manchester & Region claiming that a well-known writer, Atef Abu Saif, was anti-Semitic and a Holocaust denier.

“The venue was very supportive of it initially,” the event’s co-producer and director Dani Abulhawa told MEE. “We got some high-profile actors involved in the show, so the show attracted more attention than a smaller production would have… the show sold out almost immediately.”

The venue subsequently told organizers that they had started receiving “hundreds” of complaints.

“Initially we were told that they were getting a lot of complaints about the use of the word ‘genocide’ which was in the copy for the show,” Abulhawa said.

The organizers reluctantly agreed to remove the word from the copy.

However, the venue then raised concerns about the title of a book by Abu Saif, Don’t Look Left: A Diary of Genocide, which they wanted to sell during the event to raise money for charity.

Abulhawa and her colleagues agreed not to sell the book at the event.

Finally, the venue confirmed it was canceling the event when it received a draft of a newspaper article accusing management of anti-Semitism, fearing protests would disrupt the show.

“Obviously we were also concerned about security… but we were extremely upset by these allegations because they are completely baseless,” Abulhawa said.

In a statement on its website, the venue cited safety concerns and called itself a “politically neutral space.”

Artists remove work from HOME exhibition
Artists are removing work from HOME exhibitions in protest of the cancellation of the Voices of Resilience event

This was the same reasoning used by Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery when it canceled two events at the Palestine Film Festival in November because, as an arts charity, it was not allowed to undertake anything that “could be construed as political activity”.

In the case of HOME, the venue was forced to reinstate the event after more than 300 theater and cultural workers, including Maxine Peake and Asif Kapadia, wrote an open letter and 100 artists removed their work from exhibitions at the venue in protest.

For Abulhawa, her experience with HOME was not an isolated incident, but “part of a pattern of harassment.

“Palestinian voices are silenced as venues respond with (often) knee-jerk reactions to allegations without first investigating them,” she said.

A well-known script

For Saeed Taji Farouky, a Palestinian-British filmmaker who campaigns against the silencing of Palestinian work by British art institutions, this pattern predates October 7.

“We hear the same nonsense over and over again, it follows a very familiar script,” Farouky said.

“The event is planned, it is marketed, in some cases you would start selling tickets. And then (the venue) often receives a letter (from) groups claiming to represent Jewish communities,” Farouky told MEE.

“These letters will make very false claims about anti-Semitism, and in most cases that is enough to frighten the audience. And they cancel the show,” he said.

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According to Farouky, locations often cite safety reasons for the cancellation.

“These are locations where events have been organized for Ukraine… about the visibility of transgender people,” Farouky said.

“If you are willing to stand up for these other issues, why is Palestine an exception?”

For Farouky, who has campaigned on the issue for 30 years, event cancellations have increased, echoing Choucair-Vizoso’s sentiments.

“It’s so much more blatant now,” he said.

“Every group working hard to suppress Palestinian voices has realized how effective their strategy is… as soon as they see the word Palestine, they know all they have to do is write a poorly worded email (and) unplug.”

But according to Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour, the censorship figures are difficult to quantify because many artists can be dropped before a program is made public.

“It is impossible to know in which cases an artist was shortlisted for an event but was conveniently removed from the list to reduce the chance of political controversy,” Sansour told MEE.

“How can you even begin to assess the frequency of institutions that decide NOT to take a chance on a Palestinian artist?”

A chilling effect

In January, Arts Council England released new guidance warning organizations that “overtly political or activist statements” could pose “reputational risk” and breach funding agreements.

After a fierce backlash, the funding body was forced to revise its guidelines and make it clear that organizations would not be punished for working with artists who make political statements.

Despite the repeal, artists who spoke to MEE believed the guidelines would have a chilling effect on venues, deterring them from exhibiting Palestinian work.

“If you read it correctly, (organizations) still need to manage the risks around artistic work that deals with ‘controversial’ issues or topics. What is considered controversial and by whom?” Choucair-Vizoso told MEE.

“Where are the leaders of cultural institutions who are willing to stand up for themselves and our communities, and what is morally right?”

-Saeed Taji Farouky, filmmaker

“Organizations could be discouraged from doing Palestinian work (because) this could be a long, exhausting and traumatizing process,” she said.

According to Farouky, the venues he had negotiated with had often expressed fears that they would be reported to the Charity Commission or have their Arts Council funding withdrawn.

“The argument we always hear is: if we stand up for this cause, we risk our funding,” Farouky told MEE.

“Where are the leaders of cultural institutions who are willing to stand up for themselves and our communities, and what is morally right and what is legally defensible?” he said.

“This is not just a venue canceling an event. I think the decisions we make now will reverberate (and influence) the cultural makeup of Britain for at least a generation.”