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Cultural boycott as a weapon of change?

January 29, 2014 at 3:57 pm

How far should artists and academics be held accountable for the actions of their government? The question was powerfully raised when the Israeli national theatre group, Habima, performed at London’s Globe Theatre in May. Their performance of the Merchant of Venice, part of a series of productions in different languages, was met with protests and calls for a boycott. The peaceful protesters outside summed up the debate: pro-Palestinian activists held signs saying “No to occupation and colonisation”, while the placards of pro-Israeli demonstrators proclaimed “boycotts divide”. In one powerful act of protest, an audience member shouted “hath a Palestinian not eyes?” during the trial scene.

Those lobbying for a boycott cited the fact that Habima relies on the Israeli government for 30 per cent of its funding – a government involved in occupation, wide-scale human rights abuses, and violation of international law. The company had also performed to settler communities in the Palestinian Occupied Territories – land that does not belong to Israel. Habima’s defence was that it is creatively independent from the state, and brought challenging ideas to the conservative settler communities. The Globe’s artistic director made explicit the division between politics and art, saying in a speech before the performance that he saw no reason that the Hebrew language should not be spoken on stage in London.

The column inches dedicated to this incident illustrate the high profile nature of cultural boycotts, as does the attention given to the decision by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Alice Walker, to not allow an Israeli edition of her book The Colour Purple.

The Palestinian Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was launched in 2004 by a group of Palestinians intellectuals and academics, and is one of the main voices within the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement calling for a cultural boycott. The campaign calls for academics worldwide to “comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonisation and system of apartheid.” Their guidelines stipulate that all cultural products commissioned, sponsored, or funded by an Israeli official body should be boycotted. It states that individuals should not be shunned – unless they are tied to an institution which has links to the state.

Although interlinked, this campaign is vastly different to an economic boycott of Israeli goods and companies. While the logic around state-funding is easy to follow, to an extent it collapses the barrier between state and citizen, and is explicitly based on the assumption of “inherent and organic links” between institutions that allow “colonial subjugation and apartheid”. Organisers cite the academic and cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa as an example of these tactics being used successfully. Yet with the obvious issues of freedom of expression and the flow of ideas, it is also easy to see why it causes discomfort.

Hannah Weisfeld, founder of Yachad, the UK Jewish campaign for a two state solution, explains her opposition. “Ending an occupation is the point of any BDS movement.  Does putting up walls and barriers make it more likely that in the long-term you can bring them down? If you boycott culture, you stop freedom of expression and you clampdown on artistic licence. The most critical voices in society are often those that are expressed through culture – through theatre, through cinema.”

She expands on the issue of academic freedom: “When academics are boycotted because they are Israeli, you are saying: ‘you don’t have freedom of thought and we are only willing to engage with you and what you think on the basis of what your government does’.”

I put these concerns to Sami Hermez of PACBI. “We must think about the rights of academics alongside the right to live freely, and not hold academic freedom above the right to fight state oppression. In specifically targeting institutions PACBI remains mindful of this balance. We are also aware that individual academics or artists may feel pressure, but no struggle is without sacrifice, and we work closely with those academics and artists who are themselves struggling for Palestinian rights.”

He also points out that Israeli academics have rarely defended Palestinian academic freedom. During the first intifada, the Israeli military authorities closed all Palestinian educational institutions, including nurseries, in some cases for years on end – and most Israeli academics remained silent.

The debate around academic freedom is not a new one: while the South African example is most frequently cited as a successful and uncontroversial boycott, it triggered fierce debate at the time. Opponents posited that change is more likely to occur by providing information than by withholding it. The director of the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid, Enuga S. Reddy, disputed this: “It is rather strange, to say the least, that the South African regime which denies all freedoms … to the African majority … should become a defender of the freedom of artists and sportsmen of the world.”

There is no disputing the injustices committed by the Israeli state: Gaza has been described by the UN as “the world’s largest prison camp”, while Arabs in Israel are second class citizens. But this comes back to the question posed at the beginning of this article: to what extent should artists and academics be held accountable for these crimes? Moreover, while the urge to shame the dominant society in an unequal conflict is understandable, is it productive?

For PACBI, cultural figures are complicit in this oppression by their silence if nothing else. But although it is logical to boycott state-funded cultural products, it is not simple. In most countries, you would be hard-pressed to find an arts organisation which does not depend on government subsidies to some extent, and this does not automatically discredit the work produced. The Law in these Parts, a documentary made with municipal funding, went onto win the documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival and be shown around the world. It was a highly critical documentary about the military occupation of the West Bank. Would it be preferable if that film was not seen?

The idea behind a cultural boycott is to apply pressure on Israeli civil society, but it is questionable whether it will have the desired effect. “It is one thing to have political disagreement and campaign against a military occupation. It’s another thing to boycott a language and a culture,” says Weisfeld. “What you’re basically saying is, ‘on account of your government, we’re not even prepared to listen to your language being spoken’. Once people have their guard up, it becomes an isolationist policy, and it is very unlikely that Israel is going to do what the rest of the world wants to do on the basis of being isolated.”

After Alice Walker announced in June that she would not allow an Israeli edition of The Colour Purple because Israel “is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people”, several liberal Israelis argued that such an action – and other acts of cultural boycott – encourages a sense of victimhood, playing into the hands of the government.

On this, Hermez is unequivocal: “Israelis do not need cultural boycotts to feel victimhood. Like any settler-colonial community, Israelis have constantly nourished and projected a sense of victimhood since the foundation of the state on the ruins of Palestinian society. It is the inversion of roles, par excellence-destroying a whole society and ruthlessly uprooting most of the indigenous population through massacres, destruction of hundreds of villages and unspoken other crimes, and then claiming victimhood.”

He also disputes Weisfeld’s argument that isolation is unhelpful: “What BDS does is put the Israeli state and its complicit institutions under pressure to disband its system of colonial and apartheid oppression or else it will find itself increasingly isolated, as apartheid South Africa did. We believe that this isolation will result in a new politics and dynamics that will usher in a stronger Palestinian, and indeed, progressive Israeli, position.”

Certainly, it is frustrating when people argue that a boycott of Israel is a boycott of Jews. This overlooks the fact that Israel is 25 per cent non-Jewish, and that the Jewish diaspora outside Israel contains a multitude of opinions. Yet, arguably, a cultural boycott makes it easier for this conflation to be made, by shifting the emphasis away from a set of policies and abuses and onto a wider culture and language. While the narrative of victimhood is frustrating to activists and liberal Israelis alike, it is short-sighted to deny that this narrative exists. There is a segment of the Jewish community that powerfully associates en masse boycott of Jews with Nazi Germany. The comparison may be unfair, but it is indicative of the feelings of many.

In this vein, another argument made by supporters of Israel is that a cultural boycott is undue given that other conflicts involve equal or worse abuses of human rights: why no boycott of Chinese theatre over the occupation of Tibet, or of Sudanese academics over Darfur? This kind of “whataboutery” is extremely unhelpful: finger-pointing does not detract from the very real human rights abuses and oppression taking place in Israel, and it would be unreasonable to expect equal attention to all conflicts at all times. This is a conflict that has been raging for 60 years, and so wider awareness of it is hardly surprising.

While PACBI contests the claim that the Israeli academy is, in fact, the bastion of liberalism that it is portrayed as, there remains something uncomfortable about placing an embargo on dialogue. I put this to Hermez. “The implicit claim that BDS is anti-dialogue is false and deceptive,” he said. “BDS is, in fact, a form of ethical dialogue that is conditioned on not equating the oppressor and oppressed. We have very constructive co-resistance with Israeli activists who have adopted BDS as a tool and have accepted full Palestinian rights of freedom, equality and justice as outlined above. We do not believe that dialogue for dialogue’s sake is helpful or productive.

“Almost 20 years of Oslo ‘dialogues’ in official and unofficial capacities have served as a cover for ongoing colonization and ethnic cleansing by Israel against the Palestinians.”

It is certainly true that official “dialogues” have led to nothing but continued suffering for Palestine. Yet this comes back, once again, to the question of how far individuals are responsible for the actions of their government. The suggestion that oppressor and oppressed can be engaged in an equal dialogue is risible – yet this does not account for the flow of ideas between individuals, and the value of the debate within Israel. The arts and academia are crucial to allowing an unrestricted conversation and examination of liberal ideas. “Why are we so concerned with Israeli academic rights when full Palestinian rights are rarely advocated for?” Hermez asks. It is a valid point, but my own feeling is that the two are not mutually exclusive. One of the central problems in this intractable conflict is the denial of the Palestinian voice. Given this, the impulse to squash the voice of the other side is understandable, but not necessarily right. Moreover, the pressure put on the government by a cultural boycott is probably not enough to justify the corresponding risk to open and critical conversation.

It has been written that boycotts are more effective when they are closely targeted. Indeed, there is no clear evidence about the efficacy of the South African cultural boycott, with some anti-apartheid activists citing it as a major factor in ending apartheid, and others arguing that it was more a symbol of support.

Weisfeld suggests that a boycott more closely targeted on the occupation would be more effective. “If it was boycotting just over the Green Line, it would be a different conversation, it would be less hostile, because people would understand that this is not about what’s in Israel proper, but what is in the West Bank. Would you get mass support from Israelis? No. Is there a movement inside Israel where people boycott goods from over the Green Line? Yes.”

I put this suggestion to Omar Barghouti of PACBI. “Israel is guilty of occupation, colonisation and apartheid against the entire Palestinian people, on both sides of the so-called Green Line,” he said. “If we uphold human rights for all humans, then we cannot but support ending human rights violations against all parts of the Palestinian people.” According to 2011 statistics, only 38 per cent of Palestinians live in the occupied Palestinian territory. PACBI argues that supporting an end to the occupation alone, without addressing the basic violations of international law committed against the remaining 62 per cent would be morally inconsistent.

This is certainly persuasive: it would be naïve to suggest that wrongs happen only in the occupied territories. Yet it is worth noting, once again, that a cultural boycott is profoundly different to an economic one. As a passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause, I wholeheartedly support a comprehensive economic boycott of Israel – not necessarily just over the Green Line. Yet as a writer, I find it difficult to support a comprehensive cultural boycott and the associated limitation of the free flow of ideas and expression. In a conflict defined by the failure of each side to see the other as human, the arts are an area where this tragedy, at least, could be rectified.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist and former New Statesman staffer. She is also a published fiction writer.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.