Boycott until Israel’s apartheid is dismantled
On Saturday February 14, a letter was published in The Guardian announcing a boycott of Israel by more than 700 British artists and cultural workers (disclaimer: I am a signatory). The signatories came from the worlds of literature, art, film, stage, and music. They all pledged “to accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.”
The initiative immediately attracted international attention – and a predictable response from Israel’s allies. A Conservative minister described the boycott pledge as “reprehensible” and “unspeakably vile”. The vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews called the letter “totally racist”.
The cultural boycott, like the broader Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign of which it is a part, has begun to bite, with routine protests over embassy funding for events, and refusals of appearance invitations. In May last year, New York-based Israeli writer Reuven Namdar had written of how “the international boycott…is slowly solidifying around Israel’s cultural life”.
Just last month, curators met in Tel Aviv on the topic of “The Cultural Boycott of Israel and What It Means for Israeli Contemporary Art.” Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reporting on the conference, said “Israeli artists and art institutions” are “strongly affected by [a boycott]” that “is practiced overtly as well as covertly, officially and unofficially, and by a variety of groups within the art world”.
Coincidentally, just days before ‘Artists for Palestine UK’ launched their new cultural boycott pledge, a British All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into anti-Semitism published a new report sparked by events in July-August 2014. The report was commissioned by Labour MP John Mann, who in 2013 was found by an employment tribunal to have given “glib evidence” in support of an Israel lobbyist’s unsuccessful legal action against the University and College Union.
The All-Party Parliamentary Report included an attack on the cultural boycott of Israel, associating the campaign with “intolerance”. Stating that “cultural boycotts, implemented in the way they were during [last] summer” are “unacceptable”, the report alleges that “the boycott movement faces a challenge of how to put their tactics into effect while not slipping into anti-Semitism, unlawful discrimination or assaulting valued freedoms”.
A prominent example cited in the report was the Tricycle Theatre episode in August 2014. As Israel’s bombardment of Gaza continued, this small, independent theatre in London asked the UK Jewish Film Festival, whose events they were set to host, to forego Israeli embassy funding. The festival refused to decline the embassy’s sponsorship, and declared the theatre was boycotting a Jewish festival. This despite Tricycle’s offer to provide alternative funding to cover the shortfall.
Subsequently, Tricycle was denounced as guilty of an anti-Semitic boycott and faced a campaign to cancel donations. There was even direct intervention by the Secretary of State for Culture Sajid Javid, whose department, it was later revealed, had in their words “kept closely in touch with the Israeli Ambassador during this unfortunate chain of events”. Even critics of the Tricycle Theatre’s decision, like lawyer Adam Wagner, conceded that “its board were under a lot of pressure from funders and the Jewish community to backtrack”.
The Tricycle Theatre was also defended by many, including National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner, who said he was “greatly sadden[ed]” at how the film festival had “unwisely politicised a celebration of Jewish culture”. Jewish activists writing in the Evening Standard noted that “Israeli funding has been deployed to associate all UK Jews with Israel and sanitise the state, an insult to growing numbers of Jews who view Israel’s apartheid regime as incompatible with Jewish culture.”
Nevertheless, the pressure from donors, pro-Israel groups, and the government itself proved too much for the Tricycle Theatre, who announced on August 15 that it was withdrawing its objection, and inviting the festival back “with no restrictions on funding from the Embassy of Israel”. It is unfortunate, though unsurprising, that the Mann-commissioned report would seek to further delegitimise the theatre’s principled stand.
In the aftermath of an unprecedentedly brutal attack on the Gaza Strip, with an Israeli government that has pursued colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem while rejecting Palestinian self-determination, it is no wonder that those concerned about the growing boycott are looking to misrepresent and smear the BDS campaign.
The rhetoric about anti-Semitism, harassment and double standards, hides a simple truth. The boycott campaign, including its cultural side, is based on a Palestinian appeal for solidarity – a call from a stateless, expelled, occupied, segregated people, who in their search for basic rights, confront a powerful state that is singled out for impunity, aid and protection.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has advocated since 2004 for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions “based on the fact that these institutions are complicit in the Israeli system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights guaranteed by international law, or has hampered their exercise of these rights, including freedom of movement and freedom of expression.”
Moreover, culture in particular is explicitly used by the Israeli government and its apologists as a propaganda tool, a way of ‘rebranding’ a state becoming increasingly known for its grave violations of human rights including, but not limited to, the killing of civilians, ethnic cleansing, home demolitions, racist laws, and attacks on dissent. This politicisation of art in the services of an apartheid regime is nothing new.
In early 2009, after the shocking images of ‘Operation Cast Lead’, new funds were released to “improve Israel’s image through cultural and information diplomacy”. In the words of Arye Mekel, the then-deputy director general for cultural affairs at Israel’s Foreign Ministry: “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theatre companies, exhibits. This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”
The disparity between this propagandized cultural diplomacy and the horror of settler colonialism is best exemplified by Idan Raichel, an Israeli musician hailed internationally for his “embrace of diversity and coexistence”. Contrast this image, however, with his publicly-stated belief that the “role” of artists “is to be recruited into Israeli hasbara [propaganda]” – or his defence in 2013 of ‘Captain George’, a former Israeli army interrogator accused of torture.
Last summer, the UK Jewish Film Festival claimed it was “entirely apolitical, showcasing perspectives from both sides of the conflict in the Middle East.” Even putting aside embassy funding, this is not an ‘apolitical’ approach.
Culture is the liberal Zionist face of the ‘public diplomacy’ battle, a hope that the smoke and mirrors of ‘complexities’ and ‘multicultural identities’ will hide the Israeli soldier clubbing a Palestinian on his own farmland. If you’re engaged in, or defending, an ongoing process of violent colonial displacement, then equating the “perspectives” of coloniser and colonised – “both sides” – is an attractive proposition. Certainly better than hearing the Palestinian voice in stark, shaming clarity – including the call for a boycott until apartheid is dismantled.
Published first by al-Araby al-Jadeed