Palestinian festival sparks controversy

A Belgian government Web site has begun advertising a performance of Palestinian clowns that conveys «the real life of Palestinians separated from their water, their land, their history and their relatives by the wall of segregation».

The group of Palestinian clowns from Ramallah will tour Belgium in February as part of the Masarat festival of Palestinian art announced by the French Community of Belgium. Under the unique Belgian system of government, the French Community is an official institution of the Belgian government responsible for the education system and cultural life of some four million French-speaking Belgians.

While the festival is meant to be a cultural festival - the French Community has sponsored similar seasonal events showcasing the cultures of Congo and Benin - some observers of Belgium in the Jewish world are worried it will become politicized.

As part of the festival, an official Web site of the French Community, www.agenda.be, lists the clown performance with the title «Circus Behind the Wall». The Web site describes the visit as «a clown, acrobats and a circus as a means of resistance and struggle». According to French Community Minister of International Relations Marie-Dominique Simonet, the festival focuses on Palestinian culture separate from Israel because Israel is a «rich country» - outside the «north-south» framework of the festivals, which try to showcase a poorer southern nation. At the same time, the minister added, Israel already enjoys cultural and scientific cooperation with Belgium's French Community.

Meanwhile, the French-speaking Belgian newspaper La Libre quotes Palestinian representative in Brussels Leila Shaid as saying that, in the paper's words, «we should not always talk of Israel when we talk about Palestine and... it should be possible to show 'simply' artists of a country».

But some people are not as confident that the festival can be disconnected from politics, and anti-Israel politics at that.

Reached by phone on a visit in Israel, Joel Rubinfeld, president of the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations of Belgium, said that «there is a strong political message behind this. When you speak about Palestinians or Israel today, everything is political. Buying a Jaffa orange in the supermarket is a political gesture».

Rubinfeld calls himself a «pro-Palestinian Zionist, since I want to see a Palestinian state», and he believes Simonet may not know about the political messages being explicitly portrayed throughout the festival, including in the «resistance» message of the circus performance. Yet, he says, it is Simonet's «responsibility» as the minister in charge of the initiative.

Over the past few year, flare-ups of violence in the Middle East have resulted in some vandalism and attacks directed at Jews in Belgium.

«I will tell Minister Simonet that she has to be very careful that political activities aren't being carried out under the cover of culture, that this isn't the sort of thing that will excite young people to go into the street to throw a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue or attack a rabbi in the street», Rubinfeld said.


Article de Haviv Rettig paru dans The Jerusalem Post du 31 janvier 2008