Bradford Literature Festival: using culture to normalise occupation

Bradford Literature Festival: using culture to normalise occupation
6 min read
20 Jun, 2022
The Bradford Literature Festival is once again in the eye of the storm, this time over its sponsorship by pro-Israel groups. This further emphasises the importance of cultural spaces and the solidarity they can serve, writes Ibrahim Abul-Essad.
Bradford Literature Festival must cut ties with pro-Israel sponsors, writes Ibrahim Abul-Essad. [GETTY]

The Bradford Literature Festival is an annual cultural event held over the months of June and July in Bradford, West Yorkshire. The festival aims to empower “diverse and marginalised voices” within the UK, by hosting live music, theatre productions, lectures, and family-orientated events.

One has to question, then, why funders of the Israeli military, as well as of prominent settler organisations would see fit to sponsor the festival?

Judging by the event’s website, it seems there is a strong link between the festival and several prominent Zionist organisations. This is shocking, given the level of solidarity expressed specifically towards the Palestinian cause by the residents of Bradford, a town with a rich history, comprising of radical legacies and proud achievements.

On the other hand the news may not be such a surprise to some given Syima Aslam, the founder of the Bradford Literature Festival, has in the past spoken at an event hosted by B’nai Brith - a non-governmental organisation that is deeply entrenched within the Israeli lobby machinations.

''The Bradford Literature Festival has stepped into hot water with these overtures to the Israeli lobby within the UK. The people of Bradford will not stand for this kind of normalisation by stealth, and will use their best endeavours to resist Israel’s effort to normalise its ongoing occupation in Palestine.''

Founded in the US in 1843, this international organisation dedicates its efforts towards “supporting Israel”. It is a key member of the World Zionist Organisation, which strives to promote “Zionism and the Zionist idea and the Zionist enterprise”.

In the past, B’nai Brith had submitted observations co-written by the ‘UK Lawyers for Israel’ against “the alleged state of Palestine.” Moreover, within this lobby group there is a Bureau of International Affairs whose task it is to “engage with the British Foreign Office Embassies on behalf of Israel”.

In other words, it defends a state recently found guilty by Amnesty International of practicing apartheid against the Palestinian people.

The particular event hosted by B’nai Brith that Aslam addressed on September 21 2021, was entitled ‘The History of Interfaith Dialogue through Culture, Art, Literature and Politic’. During this event, the concept of culture, specifically how it can be used as a tool to normalise relations with Israel, was discussed at length. Following this, the selected speakers then used the discussion as an opportunity to smear Pro-Palestinian activism, brandishing such activity as ‘anti-Semitic’.

It is also worth noting that Elizabeth Harris-Sawczenko, an employee for the Abraham Initiatives spoke alongside Aslam at this event. One of the roles of the Abraham Initiatives is to specifically “increase the synergy between the UK and Israeli bodies and agencies”. In other words, to whitewash Israeli apartheid in Palestine.

In the past, the Bradford Literature Festival has been largely described and received as a South-Asian, Muslim-led affair. That said, some of the cultural partners listed in the program tell an interestingly different story.


According to the brochure released by the Bradford Literature Festival, there are several cultural partners of relevance to the question of Zionism: Jewish Renaissance, The Aspen Institute and Simon & Schuster.

The Jewish Renaissance has sponsored the Bradford Literature Festival since 2016. The president of the Jewish Renaissance Magazine is a businessman named David Dangoor. In the past, Dangoor has funded Zionist organisations such as the Henry Jackson Society, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, as well as the Jerusalem Foundation.

It is worth noting that the latter organisation continues to play a fundamental role in supporting the ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign taking place within Palestinian communities in the occupied East Jerusalem. Specifically, by building settlements that would only accommodate Israeli Jews arriving into the region. These settlements were deemed to be illegal by the International Criminal Court.

The board of Jewish Renaissance also features at least three figures from the Board of Deputies, the largest Jewish communal organisation in the UK. According to its 2020 Trustees report, the Board of Deputies has “a close working relationship with the Israeli embassy” in order to “strengthen links to the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the IDF”.

The Aspen Institute, is a non-profit organisation that is closely associated with the Crown family, who has raised funds for the Friends of the IDF. In addition to this, Lester Crown is a board member of the Jerusalem foundation.

In the past, the Aspen Institute invited Ohad Zemet, the spokesperson of the Israeli Embassy to speak at several events. Moreover Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer, whose family shipping company was used by Israeli intelligence to carry out its assassination campaigns in Iran, is part of the Honorary Chair of the Middle East Strategy Group within the Aspen Institute.

The Simon & Schuster publishing company, founded in 1924, is another cultural partner listed on the brochure released by the Bradford Literature Festival. They published the book Israel: a simple guide to the most misunderstood country on earth written by Noa Tishby, the Israeli government’s Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism and the Delegitimization of Israel.

Last month, Noa Tishby outlandishly claimed that Palestinians had used the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran Palestinian journalist who was murdered by an Israeli sniper on May 11 2022, as an opportunity to “riot and attack Israel”. This statement was released soon after innocent pall-bearers were brutally attacked by Israeli occupation forces as they were carrying her coffin.

In addition to all of these cultural partnerships, it has also previously been revealed that the Bradford Literature Festival had received funding from the Home Office. Specifically, from a counter-extremism program called ‘Building a Stronger Britain Together’.

Fears of a new boycott against the Bradford Literature Festival due to this particular relationship has brought back memories of 2019, when at least six writers scheduled to appear, pulled out and held an alternative event due to the counter-extremism funding.

Clearly, the Bradford Literature Festival has stepped into hot water with these overtures to the Israeli lobby within the UK. The people of Bradford will not stand for this kind of normalisation by stealth, and will use their best endeavours to resist Israel’s effort to normalise its ongoing occupation in Palestine.

The Bradford Literature Festival must regain its integrity by severing sponsorships with these prominent Zionist organisations, who intend to whitewash Israel’s crimes in Palestine.

Ibrahim is a UK-based Palestinian researcher and activist. He received his masters degree in Middle East Studies from Leiden University, specialising in the formation of Palestine since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

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