The Russians are withdrawing. Not from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, but from Washington D.C. where the Woolly Mammoth Theatre has just canceled its festival of four plays from Moscow. As the political climate chilled, the Moscow Cultural Ministry decided to pull its funds from the festival, and Woolly Mammoth was unable to make up the difference.
This is the second controversial play cancellation this season in the nation’s capital. Theater J was forced to cancel performances of The Admission, an Israeli play modeled on Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Like Miller’s play, The Admission focused on a family haunted by possible complicity in wartime wrongdoings.
After a sustained campaign by Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) to shame Theater J’s donors into withdrawing their funds, The Admission had its run shortened, and the production was scaled back to a workshop, rather than a full staging. Ultimately, a local restaurant and another D.C. theater stepped in to keep the show going.
The partial victory won by COPMA is, presumably, the exact kind of tool the BDS movement (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) is hoping to bring to bear on Israel, although the two groups aim at completely different results. Like COPMA, BDS supporters aren’t confining their efforts to the business sphere but have moved on to the marketplace of ideas and culture.
In late 2013, the American Studies Association, an organization of American college and university professors, voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. They became the second academic consortium to approve a boycott, following the Asian American Studies Association, which voted to intellectually divest in April 2013.
Conventionally, sanctions are a punitive tool of foreign policy that are intended to bring the offending country back to the bargaining table. Or, in extreme cases, to make life under the intransigent government so uncomfortable that the citizens push for regime change, whether democratically or otherwise.
An arts and academia boycott doesn’t quite fit the bill. The pain of restrictions on researchers or experimental theater companies is unlikely to trickle down to voters or up to politicians. But, even worse, when the time comes to broker some kind of détente, both sides will be worse off for losing the weak bonds of shared culture and learning. In the case of academic boycotts, the world as a whole will be worse off as researchers end up siloed and isolated from their peers, as mathematician Edward Frenkel was until he caught a lucky break.
Unfortunately, the United States has behaved just as shortsightedly as Russia during this crisis. While Moscow has held back artists, Washington has directed NASA to stop collaborating with their Russian counterparts. Extra-terrestrial blustering has been curbed a little by pragmatism; NASA is still allowed to coordinate plans for the International Space Station, and, of course, all launches of American astronauts, which will occur on Russian soil until 2017 at the earliest.
While boycotts and divestment can do good, both by putting pressure on foreign leaders and by singling out regimes on the world stage, bringing sanctions to the actual stage or to laboratories or lecture halls undermines both sides ability to understand one another and to be prepared to work together when negotiations resume.