Understandably, many people have doubts about joining in the cultural boycott of Israel, either because it is a ‘cultural’ boycott, or because of its focus on Israel. In this section, we try to state each objection as persuasively as possible, and give the best answer we can.
- Isn’t boycott in general, and cultural boycott in particular, just antisemitism in action?
- What about the Holocaust?
- Given their own relationship to the British state, are cultural workers in this country in any position to make demands on their Israeli counterparts?
- Isn’t Israel quite different from South Africa?
- Won’t a boycott just harden Israeli attitudes?
- Why antagonise Israel’s cultural workers?
- Instead of boycott, why not concentrate on supporting Palestinians artists
What critics of boycott say: Antisemitism, a very specific form of racism, is a centuries- old phenomenon deeply embedded in western societies. Doesn’t the movement to boycott Israel provide an ideal and apparently legitimate channel for both underground and explicit antisemitism to find expression?
The Palestinian organisations whose call for boycott motivated the cultural boycott campaign, PACBI and the Boycott National Committee, are both explicitly anti-racist, clear that Jewish people do not stand proxy for the Israeli state, whatever many Zionist leaders may assert. Omar Barghouti, a leading figure in PACBI, put it this way in his address to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Annual General Meeting in London in 2012:
BDS is a universalist movement that categorically opposes all forms of racism, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. This is not negotiable. We should never welcome racists in our midst, no matter what.
The clear intention of allegations of antisemitism is to deflect criticism of Israel, to intimidate critics and to silence serious debate. As just one instance among many, consider the case of the distinguished British scholar of antisemitism, Oxford academic Brian Klug. He was invited to give the keynote address in November 2013 at Berlin’s Jewish Museum, at a conference on antisemitism in Europe today. A dossier with 17 individual contributions was launched, with maximum publicity, in a bid to strong-arm the museum into dis-inviting him. Klug’s crime? To analyse and authoritatively undermine the charge that criticism of Israel equals antisemitism (see report headlined A Mugging here).
The link between the hyping of antisemitism and the impulse to support Israel surfaced directly in summer 2014. Amid the uproar over Israel’s sustained assault on Gaza a new organisation, the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), was set up, and its leaders were soon on visiting terms with the Home Secretary Theresa May. One of their first actions was against the Tricycle Theatre, ‘[we] joined in with other activists’ efforts to approach the Tricycle’s donors and encourage them to withdraw. A week later the Tricycle folded.’ Although they describe themselves as ‘grassroots’, they boast that their ‘voice is heard in the media and the corridors of government.’ The motivation of the first chair of CAA, Gideon Falter was, he has said, his outrage at what he saw as the ‘deliberate stifling’ of Israel’s case in the British media. Previously as a student at Warwick he says he spent his time ‘fighting Israel’s corner’ – campaigning against twinning with the Palestinian Birzeit University, and against a student union motion to boycott Israeli goods.
There are a very significant number of active Jewish members in all the pro-boycott organisations in the UK and other countries. Membership by Jews of such organisations is sufficient to have the label of ‘self-hating Jews’ pinned on them by those who wish to discount their views.
There is a danger that fears of being thought an anti-Semite can deter genuine defenders of Palestinian rights, even when they understand the efficacy and legitimacy of boycott as a tactic. A Jewish supporter of the boycott set out to allay such fears during one controversial campaign, writing: ‘Human rights abuses do not become excusable because committed by Jews. The very idea smacks of a kind of twisted, reverse antisemitism.’
What critics of boycott say: Surely we shouldn’t forget the special circumstances of the Holocaust, which demonstrated to the whole world the need for a state where Jewish people would be safe.
Nothing in a people’s past – not even the horrors of the Holocaust – can be used to justify or excuse crimes against another people. Furthermore, many Jews reject the Zionist argument that Jewish salvation lies in separation from the rest of humanity. They do not believe that Jews in Israel are safer than those elsewhere, or that Jews in the world are safer because of the existence of an exclusivist Jewish state in permanent enmity with its Arab neighbours in the Middle East. On the contrary, the attempt to drown out the cogent arguments of the boycott movement with cries of ‘Holocaust’ and ‘antisemite’, by implicating all Jews in Israel’s crimes, stokes hostility against them.
Given their own relationship to the British state, ARE cultural workers in this country in ANY position to make demands on their Israeli counterparts?
What critics of boycott say: Cultural workers in the UK who are calling for boycott accept funding from their own state, which invaded Iraq (for instance). Yet they tell cultural festivals in Britain that unless they reject grants from the Israeli embassy, they will face boycott. This is a clear case of double standards.
Boycotts are selective, but this does not mean that they are morally tarnished. When the world responded (slowly at first) to the call to boycott apartheid South Africa, it was, in one sense, applying a double standard. It 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. Was it hypocritical for an artist who refused to perform in the Bantustan enclave of Sun City to play in Las Vegas? Only if one takes an entirely abstract view of ethics.
In South Africa, a movement of the oppressed was appealing to the world to take action to isolate and weaken the oppressor. How could an artist turn down that appeal on the grounds that the rand and the dollar were equally blood-stained currencies?
If the demands of ‘consistency’ lead to the claim that nothing can be done unless and until everything is done, then passivity is bound to be the result. This, in relation to Israel, is surely what the critics intend.
What critics of boycott say: Everyone agrees that the boycott of South Africa was morally justified, but Israel isn’t South Africa. It doesn’t have apartheid. Palestinians in Israel have a vote, and some even hold high office.
People draw parallels between Israel and South Africa because of this common feature: the existence of a dominant group, defined along racial lines, that monopolises effective power and maintains it through a network of administrative controls backed up by racially- oriented legislation and brutal enforcement. In 1973 the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (ICSPCA) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. ICSPCA defines the crime of apartheid as ‘inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group … over another racial group … and systematically oppressing them’. More than 30 years later, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Professor John Dugard (himself a South African), concluded that ‘elements of the Israeli occupation constitute forms of colonialism and of apartheid, which are contrary to international law.’
In Israel, there are colour-coded identity documents and vehicle registration plates, settler-only roads, checkpoints, aerial drone surveillance and of course the apartheid Wall – all of which make it easy to identify a person in the wrong place. Town planning controls are deployed to keep Jewish areas free of Palestinians, or to dislodge them from areas of intended Jewish expansion. Schools in Palestinian areas are kept starved of funds to ensure
a sub-standard education, and the curricula prevent children from learning about their own history and cultural heritage. The settler-only roads divide the Palestinian West Bank into overcrowded and impoverished bantustans.
There are differences, of course: one is that the basic Israeli imperative has always been quite distinct from apartheid South Africa’s – Israel wants to get rid of Palestinians, whereas the South African apartheid regime wanted to keep black people for their labour.
What critics of boycott say: Even if boycott proves ineffective, it is still likely to be taken by Israelis as evidence of world hostility, with an antisemitic undertow. The probable outcome will be a still more aggressive stance on peace negotiations, and towards the Palestinians.
There is no doubt that successive Israeli governments have moved (even) further to the right. However, at least until recently, polls showed a substantial majority of ordinary Israelis favouring a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, even though doubting that it would be achieved. The problem is that to achieve peace would require Israelis to make significant material concessions and, at present, Israelis would rather keep the status quo than make the sacrifices (of land, of control, of identity) needed to come to terms with Palestinians and their reasonable aspirations.
The solution has to be for Israelis to realise that actions have consequences. Boycott alone will not achieve that. Boycott is a step on a path which will in turn take in the withdrawal of investments, the cessation of new investment funds, and the imposition of trade and other sanctions by nations and by international bodies. Each step prepares the way for the next. Intermediate steps may produce a hardening of attitudes. That is what happened with apartheid South Africa, but in the end the inability to borrow on international financial markets and the increasing isolation of white South Africa brought even the intransigent Afrikaners to the negotiating table. Israelis and their governments need the same incentives.
What critics of boycott say: Israel’s cultural workers are more sympathetic to Palestinian rights than most Israelis. Their work often challenges the status quo. Why antagonise them with a boycott?
There are forthright supporters of Palestinian rights, including the right to self-determination, among Israeli cultural workers, as indeed there are in many sectors of Israel’s population. They are regrettably few, however, and those who actively support Palestinian rights are isolated figures within their peer groups. Liberal Zionists may bemoan the occupation, but only in order to preserve the Jewish state and fend off the threat of being forced into sharing one state equally with Palestinians. Consider the well-known and distinguished liberal authors David Grossman, Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua. In earlier incarnations they were prominent figures in the Israeli peace movement. By 2008 they were supporters of the Cast Lead assault on Gaza in which more than 1,400 died, including hundreds of children.
Even so, it is important to point out that the cultural boycott is not directed against individuals. It is institutional, aimed at bodies that receive Israeli state funding for international visits and tours. None of the major Israeli arts institutions have so far aligned themselves publicly with the suffering of the Palestinians. In a situation as extreme as that of Israel, with death, dispossession and humiliation being dispensed just a few minutes’ drive from Israeli artists’ own front doors, public silence is complicity.
What critics of boycott say: Boycott is so negative. Why not concentrate on positive support for Palestinian artists, and encourage other artists to go and see the situation for themselves?
These are not two competing alternatives. The arguments for cultural boycott are, we believe, cogent. And nothing in the cultural boycott of Israel conflicts with supporting Palestinian culture.
Boycott offers a field of action to people who might not have the resources to make a difference to Palestinian art and culture. Some UK cultural workers who support boycott will be able to use their positions and networks to help make things happen. We must hope they will make opportunities to support Palestinian artistic creativity, which, considering the context in which it operates, shows remarkable vibrancy. Artists who visit the Occupied Palestinian Territories are likely to receive the warmest of welcomes, as well as getting an education in what living under occupation actually means.