Kamila Shamsie: Why I signed the artists’ pledge for Palestine

On Saturday 14 February, a 600 word piece was published in the Guardian Saturday Review by novelist and pledge signatory, Kamila Shamsie, which we reproduce in full here:

Kamila Shamsie 14.02.15It doesn’t take long in the West Bank and Jerusalem to work out that ‘apartheid’ is the only word that will do. It is present in the extensive infrastructure of military might, 3G phone coverage (not allowed to Palestinian mobile providers), and no-Arabs-permitted bus routes that cater to settlers in the West Bank whose presence there is illegal. It is present in the implementation of laws that make it virtually impossible for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to acquire residence permits for their spouses from the West Bank and Gaza. It is present in the security checkpoint in the middle of a once-busy market street in Hebron where Israeli guards inspect your paperwork to make sure you aren’t Palestinian – absolutely everyone else is allowed through. It is present, most starkly, in the Separation Wall.

Other forms of apartheid exist, of course, starting with the gender apartheid of Saudi Arabia. But the rest of the world is placed in a unique position vis a vis Palestine, as it previously was vis a vis South Africa, because the call to participate in the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement comes from inside Palestinian civil society. No comparable call has been made by the women of Saudi Arabia, the Baloch of Pakistan, the Kashmiris under Indian occupation etc. It is the ‘boycott’ part, as it applies to culture and academia, that seems to cause the most unease. Even so, more than 700 artists, including Mike Leigh, Kate Tempest, Gillian Slovo, Brian Eno, Alexei Sayle have signed a pledge to accept neither invitation nor funding from any institution linked to the Israeli government until Israel complies with international law and principles of human rights. I don’t know how many of those 700 plus stand by the broader principles of BDS, but certainly quite a number do – including me. It’s worth pointing out that BDS has refined the South African principles of boycott and doesn’t targets individual artists according to the content of their work, the beliefs they espouse, or any domestic sources of funding they utilise. It is when Israelis use state funding to travel abroad that BDS kicks in. It isn’t culture per se but the use of culture as a propaganda tool by the Israeli government that BDS targets.

The Israeli activist Ofer Neiman, from the group Boycott from Within, recently participated in a boycott discussion in London and read out parts of a contract, revealed by the Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor in 2008, that Israeli artists who accepted state funding to travel abroad were required to sign. It included such clauses as ‘The service provider is aware that the purpose of ordering services from him is to promote the policy interests of the State of Israel via culture and art.’ Within the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs there is a department responsible for ‘attaining prominence and high exposure abroad for Israel’s cultural and scientific activity, as an important tool for the promotion of its political interests.’ Taking the line that artists who accept Israeli state funding abroad should be allowed to be kept out of politics starts to look a little ridiculous in the face of all this.

Neiman’s voice is, of course, also an important one for its reminder that a nation is not indistinguishable from its government – you may hold the strongest of ties with the former while de-linking yourself from the latter. Ultimately for me it comes down to this: if a beleaguered civil society asks you to participate in non-violent pressure tactics that have proved successful elsewhere, on what grounds do you refuse? Kamila Shamsie has written the forward to The Case for a Cultural Boycott of Israel (available to buy here)


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