Culture and the Right Hand of the State

Lessons from Filmbase’s “Israeli Film Days”

Between 24-27 November 2011, the Government of Israel held “Israeli Film Days” at Filmbase in Temple Bar, Dublin’s “cultural quarter”.In advance of this event, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) requested Filmbase to reconsider its decision to host the festival:

At a time when Irish peace activists have been illegally imprisoned in Israel after their humanitarian ship the MV Saoirse was hi-jacked in international waters by Israeli commandos, hosting these ‘Israeli Film Days’ sends out the worst possible message: that Filmbase is indifferent to its exploitation as a site of propaganda for the state that perpetrates such atrocities.  To cancel the event at this point would… be perceived worldwide as an honourable gesture of solidarity with the oppressed Palestinian people who have called for an international cultural boycott of the Israeli state.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) also issued an “Open Letter to Filmbase“, expressing its surprise

that a prominent Irish cultural institution would allow the Israeli embassy to carry out this audacious ‘Brand Israel’ activity on its premises hardly two weeks after Irish peace activists were illegally apprehended by the Israeli navy in international waters, humiliated, and imprisoned in Israel…

These approaches were rejected by Filmbase, despite much dissension among its employees, not all of whom supported the decision to host the event. The opening of the festival, a wet and miserable evening, saw Filmbase “defended” by a force of at least two dozen Garda­í. Members of the IPSC, the Irish Anti-War Movement, Act for Palestine  and others demonstrated noisily and peacefully, displaying Palestinian flags and placards with such slogans as “End the Siege of Gaza” and “Boycott Israel”.  The arrivals of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, and the Minister for Defence and Justice Alan Shatter were greeted with particularly vociferous cries of  ”shame! shame!”

A number of individuals engaged in peaceful direct action by infiltrating the proceedings; some of these – including a female Palestinian IPSC member wearing hijab – were ejected from the foyer. Others gained access but were ejected one by one after successively interrupting the Israeli Ambassador’s welcoming speech, during which the chanting of slogans from outside was clearly audible.

All in all, the atmosphere was fraught but good-humoured. Nonetheless, shortly after the guests had retired to a sound-proof cinema within Filmbase to view the first film, and just before the demonstration was scheduled to disperse, the Gardaí suddenly decided to clear Curved Street, thus prolonging the protest and, indeed, contriving to direct it partly against themselves. While not descending to the levels of their Egyptian or Syrian colleagues, the Gardaí behaved with a roughness they had hitherto reserved for demonstrations outside the Israeli Embassy itself.

Ironically, inside Filmbase at that very moment Minister Gilmore was referring to those who “are demonstrating outside this theatre as I speak and they are fully entitled to do so in a peaceful fashion.” Clearly his colleague Minister Shatter, the former Chairman of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties who now has ultimate responsibility for police tactics, was of a different opinion.

Those demonstrators standing in front of Filmbase were pushed unceremoniously on to Dame Lane, a side street flanking the building. Shortly thereafter, the decision was taken to march around the block to join up with the demonstrators on the parallel side street, Eustace Street. At this, the Gardaí blocked Eustace Street at the point where it meets Curved Street, thus denying access to the IFI to anyone wishing to enter it from the north and, quite ineptly, denying Eamon Gilmore – whose official car was parked outside the IFI – an escape route. At this point the luckless Tánaiste chose to emerge from Filmbase, and was forced to make an ignominious exit on to Dame Street in reverse gear.

Fintan Lane, co-ordinator of the Irish Ship to Gaza, who barely two weeks previously had been one of those Irish citizens detained in an Israeli prison with little or no support from Mr Gilmore, started to speak about his experience. At that moment, a senior Garda officer stepped up behind him and forcibly wrested the megaphone from him. The officer explained that he was confiscating the megaphone, which could be collected from Pearse Street Garda Station once the “Film Days” were over, i.e. in four days’ time. Contrary to regulations, no receipt for the confiscated property was supplied to the IPSC.

Thus ended the first protest against the “Israeli Film Days”.  Each successive day saw demonstrations of varying sizes, none as dramatic as the first, but all stewarded by a host of Gardai sometimes outnumbering the protestors.


Filmbase, by its own account, “is a not-for-profit resource centre for filmmakers. Our building… is a public space where filmmakers can network, hire filmmaking equipment, take training courses and receive support and information about working within the Irish film industry.”

There appears to be no mention here of providing cinematic showcases for rogue regimes. One suspects that the Israelis approached Filmbase rather than the nearby Irish Film Institute (IFI) because of the IFI’s decision in 2006 to cancel the Israeli Embassy’s partial sponsorship of its Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in the wake of Israel’s murderous onslaught on Lebanon that summer. The then IFI Director Mark Mulqueen stated that:

[t]he decision [was] taken in light of the current activities of the Israeli Government and prompted by the performance of your Ambassador in explaining these acts to the Irish public.

Either no such considerations deterred Filmbase, or a specific body-count must be met (a few hundred? a few thousand?) before the “activities of the Israeli Government” are deemed unacceptable.

It should be noted that Mulqueen did not cancel the showing of an Israeli film in the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, but merely rejected Israeli sponsorship (which should not, of course, have been accepted in the first place). Similarly, when the classic “shooting and weeping” Israeli film Waltz with Bashir was on show in Irish cinemas in 2008, the IPSC neither protested nor advised anybody not to see it, because there was no direct propagandistic link between its screening and the Government of Israel.

In the case of the “Israeli Film Days”, something quite different was at issue: the festival was organised, funded and presented by the Israeli Foreign Ministry (which has stated that it “sees no difference between propaganda and culture”) through its Dublin Embassy. Furthermore, the presence of two high-ranking ministers of the Irish Government alongside the Israeli Ambassador at the opening turned the entire festival into a kind of interstate love-in, and Filmbase into an ersatz Israeli Embassy.

In a letter sent by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in reply to a number of people who had protested about Irish Government involvement in the “Film Days”, we read that the Tánaiste “believed strongly that efforts to prevent the festival being held at all amounted to an attack on free speech in Ireland, which he did not hesitate to oppose. He attended the opening of the festival to make this clear.”

But, as we have seen, free speech was never the issue: had Filmbase chosen to show the films concerned without any Israeli Government backing, it would have been welcome to do so – although clearly this was never an option, as the festival was purely a money-making venture for the “cultural institution” in question.

However, the question arises: if the Government of Iran hired Filmbase for “Iranian Film Days”, would Messrs Gilmore and Shatter have attended the opening in company with the Iranian Ambassador? Undoubtedly there would be protests against such a festival, but would the Tánaiste’s purported respect for free speech nonetheless have obliged him to take such a stand?

According to the DFA’s letter,

[a]ttempts to impose a cultural boycott only play into the hands of those in Israel who claim that Ireland’s consistent criticisms of Israeli policies are based on antipathy rather than on our genuine and valid concerns about the human rights abuses arising from the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories.

However, surely “antipathy” is the only valid response to Israel’s “abuses”? The DFA’s stance seems to echo the Christian maxim “hate the sin, love the sinner”, the love being proven by trading and diplomatic privileges that allow the sinner to go on sinning against the dispossessed Palestinians.

The truth would appear to be that the Irish Government has been coming under steady pressure from Israel to “clean up its act” and dissociate itself from Irish civil society’s predominantly critical stance towards the Zionist state. A notorious article in Ynet, the most influential Israeli online news site, flatteringly described Ireland as “the most hostile country in Europe”, recycled a lie circulated online by Israel’s supporters that “Anti-Israel elements recently vandalized a Dublin auditorium [i.e. Filmbase] slated to host a concert by Israeli singer Izhar Ashdot”, and cited a statement by an Israeli official that “the Irish Government is feeding its people with anti-Israel hatred…What we are seeing here is clear anti-Semitism.”

Thus the Tánaiste’s presence, rather than attesting to his noble commitment to free speech, would appear to have been a placatory gesture to the Israeli regime. No doubt this was deemed particularly politic given the parlous state of the Irish economy, and the fervent desire of the Government to keep on the good side of its vehemently pro-Israeli EU “partners” and of Uncle Sam, provider of so much investment in our vulnerable little island.

In a sense Mr Gilmore was emulating the former Greek Prime Minister Papandreou who, in violation of Greece’s foreign policy traditions, blocked the June 2010 Gaza-bound flotilla from leaving Greek waters after Israeli Prime Minister “Netanyahu… decided to come to the aid of his newfound friend in a meeting of foreign ministers and European leaders, imploring them to provide Greece with financial aid.”

The DFA letter began with an assertion that “[t]he Government does not support academic, cultural or other boycotts against Israel.” Given that Palestinian civil society is calling for precisely such boycotts, and that this call is inspired by the campaigns that helped end Apartheid in South Africa, what Mr Gilmore is, in fact, admitting is that the Irish Government rejects the will of the persecuted Palestinian people in favour of enhanced links with the regime that persecutes them. No longer can Irish people bask in the illusion that their Government is somehow an exception to the pro-Israeli EU norm – and perhaps it is good, finally, to have this exposed.

Inevitably, given its vulnerability in the face of hostile free market norms, culture is engaged in a constant negotiation with the state. That negotiation is traditionally transacted with what Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state, the set of agents of the so-called spending ministries which are the trace, within the state, of the social struggles of the past. They are opposed to the right hand of the state, the technocrats of the Ministry of Finance, the public and private banks and the ministerial cabinets.” Thus culture survives while staving off enlistment as a mere reflection of the state’s invariably suspect self-image.

In this instance Filmbase has chosen, fatally, to negotiate with the right hand of the state, indeed to transform itself temporarily – for profit – into an arm of the state. The result has been an occupation of Temple Bar by police who, at the behest of a Zionist Justice Minister, violated the civil rights of Irish protestors in the interests of the rogue Israeli state. In the process, Filmbase betrayed many of its own constituents – those film directors and actors, for example, who signed the PACBI-IPSC “Irish artists’ pledge to boycott Israel“.

Simultaneously it betrayed Temple Bar’s self- image as a kind of utopian cultural space, preserving an ethos of bohemianism and independence. Perhaps it is also good, finally, to have this exposed.

Raymond Deane is a composer and political activist, and Cultural Boycott Officer of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He is writing in a personal capacity. Read other articles by Raymond, or visit Raymond's website.