Artists for Palestine UK Respond to JJ Charlesworth’s Criticism of the Cultural Boycott of Israel

Published at artnet News, Monday, March 2, 2015

In answering JJ Charlesworth’s broadside (See: The Cultural Boycott of Israel Isn’t Solidarity, It’s Condescension) against the Artists Pledge for Palestine, now signed by over 1000 British artists, we should start by recalling what the pledge actually says.

Those thousand artists, and more coming in all the time, say they will not accept professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to Israel’s government. This is not an act of “moral condescension by the self-righteous and self-regarding,” as Charlesworth alleges. It is a response to a call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) from across the whole of Palestinian civil society, including both individual artists and their representative organisations.

In an article that raises many common arguments against cultural boycott, but fails on nearly all counts to understand the position he is attacking, JJ. Charlesworth presents an unsustainable caricature of the motives and actions of artists and cultural workers who’ve signed the pledge. He makes some points that are serious and deserve serious answers. But there is a morass of soft thinking and loose argument to clear out of the way first.

The artists who have signed have not been bounced into making “whose-side-are-you-on” decisions, nor has Artists for Palestine UK (APUK) turned them into “mouthpieces” for a “deeply conformist” political outlook. Each artist has made her or his own decision, and 70 of them have posted highly individual statements of their reasons for signing on the APUK website.

Charlesworth would have it that the signatories are falling over themselves to adopt a fashionable posture. If anything the reverse is true. There are much stronger pressures on artists not to sign, indeed, not to take any step that challenges the myth of Israel’s supposed tolerance and pluralism. Late last year the Tricycle Theatre was bulliedinto reversing a related decision (to do with Israeli government funding for an event due to be held there) by a combination of funders, the Israeli embassy, and the Secretary of State for Culture all acting in cahoots. It takes some guts to stick your head over this particular parapet.

We were astonished to read Charlesworth’s assertion that if the signatories were serious about their “solidarity” they would “raise money, send weapons, go fight even, if you care so strongly about the cause of the Palestinians.” The irresponsibility of this statement is luckily undercut by its ludicrous implausibility. After all who would want to be helped by an irregular militia of cultural folk? And maybe he hasn’t noticed that Israel has the fifth largest high-tech army in the world. He most certainly hasn’t noticed that the essential moral as well as practical power of the cultural boycott, and boycott as a whole, is that it is completely non-violent.

That is only one aspect of Charlesworth’s violent interpretation of the pledge initiative. He sees boycotters as seeking Western military intervention: “We” bomb and sanction Syria, Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe etc., etc., so the logic goes, why not Israel too?” What a baroque construction, held up only by gossamer threads of supposition and extrapolation. On the other hand, he neglects to mention, in even half a sentence, the real violence that Palestinians experience every day, as refugees and under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

Recall that South Africa achieved its liberation from apartheid largely through boycott and sanctions, including cultural and academic boycott, and so avoided the bloodbath which could so easily have befallen it.

Charlesworth at least understands that the boycott is not antisemitic: it targets a state, not a religious group. But he is contemptuous—one might almost say condescending—towards artists that, he writes, are applying double standards:

His argument comes down basically to the old saw about people in glass houses not throwing stones. The United Kingdom does awful things “bombing Serbs, Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, and Syrians.” (Actually we aren’t bombing Syrians, but let that pass.) Instead of “wagging our fingers” at Israel and other badly behaved countries abroad, “UK artists should look to see if their own house is in order first.”

Let’s look at that last quote. Why “first”? Why not “as well”? Is Charlesworth saying that we cannot be concerned about injustices in other countries, however grave, until our own is cleaned up? That is an argument that in effect rules all concern for violations of international law and human rights round the world as strictly off limits. And what makes him think that UK artists aren’t looking at their own house? What possible grounds has he for thinking that they don’t? We don’t know personally even a half of the people who’ve signed the pledge, but we do know that there are dozens of signatories who have taken a stand as cultural workers and as citizens against policies of the British state and government.

Why, he asks, are UK artists rejecting “Israel’s cultural funding ‘blood money,'” but accepting state support from the British Council, the UK Film Council, or the Arts Council? One straight-forward reason is that the Palestinians have asked us not to (just as the South Africans did 50 years before) and it is a way of expressing our solidarity with a sorely oppressed people that is available to us. The second lies in the calculated way that Israel deploys culture as a weapon of state policy. Their explicit “Brand Israel” strategy aims to repackage an apartheid state as a vibrant democracy and beacon of free speech: as an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman put it, to use culture “to show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” So going on an official jolly to Israel has an extra dimension. Israel celebrates the arrival of each noted cultural figure as a victory.

When we boycotted the South African regime, but not the USA, which was engaged at the time in violent secret wars in Latin America, Africa and Asia, were we applying “double standards”? As in present-day occupied West Bank and Gaza, in South Africa a movement of the oppressed was appealing to the world to take action to isolate and weaken the oppressor.

The boycott campaign is not a dominatrix seeking to inflict exceptional pain on Israel. The situation is the reverse. Many countries around the world face retribution by some or all of the “international community” for breaching international norms. Right now Syria has its foreign assets frozen, Zimbabwe faces embargoes on international loans and arms imports, Iran has suffered decades of effective economic and financial blockade, and the US and EU have imposed an array of sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses. Not Israel. Despite its egregious record on human rights, international law and the violation of United Nations resolutions it gets billions in economic and military aid. If Israel’s constant pressure on the Palestinians weren’t tolerated by our government, there’d be no need for an artists’ pledge. Treat Israel as a normal country—remove its impunity.

Maybe JJ Charlesworth needs to unscramble his own “muddled thinking and double standards” and answer his own question: Whose side is he on?

By Jonathan Rosenhead and Farhana Sheikh for the APUK organising collective.

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