Earlier this month, The Scotsman reported that US presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton had tried to stop a cultural boycott of Israel in Edinburgh.
In 2009, the Edinburgh film festival returned small amount of funding from the Israeli embassy sensitivity that Israel and its supporters have to BDS.. Famed left-wing director Ken Loach had been a prominent figure in the campaign.
The festival later admitted accepting the £300 was “a mistake” and publicly returned the money.
But newly published emails revealed this month that Clinton, a strong supporter of Israel, had tried to intervene in the affair. (Her emails were released as part of the ongoing controversy in the US over her use of a personal email account to conduct official business in an apparent attempt to avoid freedom of information law.)
Addressing some of her top advisers and a leader in the US Israel lobby, she emailed asking them if they could “reach out to the community in London and Edinburgh to urge them to raise this w PM [Gordon] Brown and other govt officials? We’d like to see top down and bottom up pressure. Let me know what you think.”
The revelations have led BDS activists to condemn Clinton’s meddling. A Scottish Green Party spokesperson told The Scotsman: “Cultural boycotts are not censorship – they have an important role to play in expressing global political opposition to the illegal occupation of Palestine and the treatment of its people. The importance of such action is made all the clearer when we see that the US has been acting behind the scenes to pressurise other countries to interfere on behalf of the Israeli Government.”
The Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign said: “Clinton’s emails demonstrate that the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is working. Not only did Israel suffer a PR humiliation back in 2009 when its sponsorship money was publicly returned, but it now learns that, in spite of the efforts of the second-most powerful official in the US, neither the UK nor the Scottish governments were willing or able to intervene on Israel’s behalf.”
US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel also condemned Clinton’s interference.
I’d like to make two points on why this revelation is significant.
Firstly, it demonstrates, yet again, the sensitivity that Israel and its supporters have to BDS.
The actual sum involved not very significant, financially speaking. But morally speaking, it was massively significant, because it meant the festival was tainted by association with a state that systematically enforces a racist regime against the Palestinians and carries out regular massacres against the indigenous people of the region.
Sending back the money sent an extremely important message which the Israel lobby was outraged about, because they thought it would cause damage to Israel’s standing. They were right about that.
The second thing about this story that was most striking to me was the sheers cluelessness of Clinton. She was informed about the boycott by Bruce Ramer, a media industry lawyer who was once president of the pro-Israel American Jewish Committee.
She was enthusiastic in her support, and willing to do what she could to help; but she failed. The festival refused to accept the money. The emails reveal the reasons why, and they show why Israel’s supporters are still in the dark about the real popular, democratic grassroots nature of BDS and why it is proving a winning strategy – one they are increasingly worried about.
Clinton’s remark that she would “like to see top down and bottom up pressure” on the festival to reverse its decision is most telling. She wants to see grassroots pressure on the festival, but proffers no ideas on how to do so. The only ideas she presents are top down: contacting the prime minister of the day Gordon Brown and other government officials.
This shows that Israel’s supporters still think they can defeat BDS using top-down, authoritarian action. By making laws against it, by getting top politicians to condemn it, and so on. At best, these strategies will only succeed in slowing BDS down, and often they do not even do that, as these emails prove.
The formally-constituted Palestinians BDS movement is now a decade old. In that time, BDS has made steady progress. In historical terms, the advances have been rapid. It has gone from being ignored to being ridiculed to now being demonized and viciously combated and condemned by politicians as senior as Barack Obama himself.
I’m quite happy when I see these anti-Palestinian politicians so clueless on how to combat BDS. One follow-up email from Clinton is so emblematic of their impotent response: “What can we do about this? Let me know if you have ideas. Thx.”
An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.