Artists respond to JK Rowling and others

OCTOBER 2015:   

Artists respond to a letter in the Guardian organised by ‘Culture of coexistence’  which opposes our Artists’ Pledge for Palestine launched eight months before in February 2015.

The letter from JK Rowling and others (Israel needs cultural bridges, not boycotts, 23 October) is well past its sell-by date. Cultural bridges between Israel and Britain’s elite have been part of the landscape for decades – and they’ve helped lead to where we are now; they’ve given Israel the veneer of respectability it needed to camouflage its expansionist, racist policies.

Today there’s no question: an artist or intellectual who collaborates with activities funded or approved by the Israeli state is complicit in Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. It’s sad to see distinguished names attached to a collection of worn-out, provenly false cliches. But in the end, it’s a matter of personal conscience and of how seriously people take their art and their responsibility to their public.

Artists from the west who have signed up to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) have done so after much thought and soul-searching. They have taken the trouble to really learn about the situation, sometimes to see it for themselves. They sign because BDS is a democratic, conscience-led, non-violent way to try to end a 19th-century colonial enterprise still bleeding into our lives in 2015. Many are paying a price for their position. But, as one of these courageous and serious people said to me, “Our business is the truth.”
Ahdaf Soueif, writer

While it must be extremely satisfying to be able to express yourself and earn a wage through performance, I only wish that Palestinians could have the same opportunities instead of a life under occupation. Unfortunately, any support of the Israeli Arts would be a convenient distraction from a criminal situation and abuse of human rights. Personally, I couldn’t engage with any  form of Israeli Arts given what it represents. ‘Collaborate’? If only Palestinians were free to.

Lucille Howe, journalist and actress

It’s customary to speak about this crisis as though it’s a deadlock, as though nothing is moving. But that’s not true: every day armed Israeli settlers are illegally occupying more and more Palestinian land, and cutting away at the few freedoms the Palestinians still have left, with the tacit or overt backing of the army and the state. And every day the government is building new walls through neighbourhoods to fence the Palestinians off even more. Israel benefits from the crisis and uses it as cover – in the name of self-defence – to extend its control further and further into Palestinian lives. Now, having said during his election campaign that there will never be a Palestinian state, Netanyahu is trying to blame the Arabs for the Holocaust (and he’s described as one of the more sane people on the right wing of Israeli politics). Does that sound to you like a good way to initiate a dialogue about a two-state solution? Or is it more likely the prelude to an Arab-free Israel?

I respect the good intentions of the signatories to this letter and I appreciate the desire for dialogue, but what kind of dialogue is realistically possible between a largely unarmed and imprisoned people whose land is disappearing before its eyes, and the heavily weaponised state that’s in the process of taking it? Sounds a bit like the “dialogue” that the Native Americans were offered en route to being liquidated by another group of settlers.

BDS has the support of almost all Palestinians. It also has the support of many liberal Israeli Jews. In the current “Death to Arabs” climate, that’s a courageous position for an Israeli to take – certainly not the easy option. For what little difference it will make, I’ll stick with them.
Brian Eno, composer

If our governments insisted on Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law, there would be no need for a boycott.
David McDowall, writer

I am sure that none of the distinguished artists who have signed the letter calling for cultural bridge-building between Israel and Palestine intends any harm to Palestinians. I am confident that they do not wish to see Palestinian houses demolished, farms destroyed, or land seized; nor do they approve, I guess, of military occupation, separation walls and ever-tighter restrictions on the movement of people. But the effect of their call for dialogue is to create a soothing soundtrack to just such a record of brutality. “Dialogue” and “cooperation” are lovely words, but they are often disingenuously used by propagandists for Israel, to suggest a way forward that Israel’s own actions are responsible for blocking. For writers like Rowling, Mantel and Schama to put their names to a letter like this brings painfully to life a situation that they themselves have explored in fiction and history. Good intentions can come to serve bad ends.
Farhana Sheikh, writer

When, in 2005, a coalition of representatives from Palestinian civil society called for a boycott of Israel (not, note, of individual Israelis), they were asking for, and had a right to receive, solidarity from all who value justice and international law; solidarity with a people suffering a never-ending occupation, whose land and water are being stolen, whose lives are hemmed in by walls, checkpoints and an apartheid system, whose houses are bulldozed, whose olive trees are destroyed, whose children are abused and incarcerated, whose national aspirations are stifled. So this declaration by Culture for Coexistence is an act of betrayal, the moral equivalent of crossing a picket line or buying goods from apartheid South Africa. I am shocked by their political illiteracy and their arrogance.
Leon Rosselson, songwriter and children’s author

They are not actually talking about dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. They are talking about dialogue between themselves and Israel. The Palestinians are irrelevant.

(Read the full argument here and here)
Omar Robert Hamilton, filmmaker and writer

It’s a cracker isn’t……I wonder what it is like, down there in the dust, the Israeli jackboot on your neck, every aspect of your life controlled by the occupier, then you have the lack of decency to ask for peaceful support from the international community by calling for a boycott, and then you are told from afar by the great and the good you are misguided and that what you really need is peaceful co-existence and dialogue.  I wonder what you would think?

I am sure there must be a few writers out there who can let their imagination soar above the cement wall and under the barbed wire of Gaza. I wonder what the Arabic is for “pious piss.”
Paul Laverty, screenwriter

It is the height of infantile fantasy to expect anyone to coexist with white phosphate, years of siege and massive bombardment, to build bridges with bullets in your head, heart and limbs or with rubble retrieved from hundreds of erased villages.
Guy Mannes-Abbott, writer and critic

It is important to use the language of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement and clarify that this boycott does not mean dialogue is not possible, the boycott has clear and strict terms of engagements, and why boycott is important – to challenge the occupation, not to close doors of engagement.
Yasmin Fedda, filmmaker and programmer 

There was a strong boycott movement during apartheid South Africa. We must once again stand in solidarity with Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli apartheid.
Sarah Streatfeild, violinist

The Palestinian people and their culture cannot ‘coexist’ with the brutal Occupation of the Israeli apartheid state. The Israeli and Jewish artists who are doing most to advance the cause of Palestinian rights are supporters of the cultural and academic boycott of the State of Israel. The time has come to stop Israel from using art and culture as a ‘civilised’ cover for its racist oppression.
Mark Brown, theatre critic

I was sorry and frustrated to see the cultural and academic boycott of Israel once again misrepresented by its opponents. Far from being ‘discriminatory’, the boycott is grounded in respect for human rights and international law. It does not prevent cultural exchanges or co-operative endeavours between Israelis and Palestinians, but insists that these must not be funded by a government actively engaged in ethnic cleansing and illegal occupation in defense of an apartheid state.

Like its great precedent against apartheid South Africa, the boycott also asks international artists to reject commercial ventures in Israel until the conflict is resolved in a just peace. I urge signatories to ask themselves if they would have ‘played Sun City’. If not, please reconsider your support for the current status quo in Israel, where ‘cultural bridges’ serve only to strengthen a highly privileged relationship with the West. Literary prizes,  rock-n-roll concerts in Tel Aviv, and state-sponsored theatre tours of UK all signally failed to prevent Israel’s ruthless assaults on Gaza; rather such cultural events buttress a situation in which a country’s grave crimes do not simply go unpunished, but are rewarded with sympathy, respect, and eye-watering amounts of military and financial aid. In contrast, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement subjects Israel to sustained moral pressure, and provokes the honest and informed debate that all campaign proponents welcome.
Naomi Foyle, co-founder, British Writers In Support of Palestine (BWISP)

Please will someone invite JK Rowling to experience life in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
Jane Rossiter-Smith, writer

You cannot have an open dialogue promoting peace between oppressed people and their oppressors, and pretend that the participants could chat their way to peace while ignoring their relative inequality.  There is no evidence that the Israelis are interested in any action that would equalise their relationship with their victims.
Robert Wyatt, musician

While I was filming The Olive Tree in the Holy Land for our series of documentary films, The Olive Route, I interviewed and filmed people from all three faiths: Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews. I filmed the daily lives of a family of Settlers living in an enclosed, armed community in the West Bank, that is to say they are occupying territory that is Palestine as designated by the 1949 Green Line.  It took me over two years to find any Settlers who would agree to be interviewed on film, but I wanted to give every side an opportunity to express where they are coming from. In this instance, both father and mother stated that since biblical times the West Bank has been Israel’s, and that it should and will be Israel’s.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, born in the US, now a long-time resident of Jerusalem, is a founding member of Rabbis for Human Rights. Together, we visited an olive farm outside Bethlehem owned by Palestinian Christians who had been attacked by Settlers and whose olive trees had been uprooted. (The olive tree is used as a weapon of war in this zone because to take away a family’s olive trees is to take away a vital food source and a means of livelihood). Every autumn, Arik travels to the West Bank to assist Palestinians harvest their olives. They need help and witnesses, because they are regularly attacked by Settlers. This October, during the harvest, Arik was attacked by a masked Settler who attempted to knife him for his support of Palestinians. The ugly scene can be viewed if you Google it.

The situation is getting worse, not better. The violence against Palestinians is escalating, not diminishing. The land grabbing continues; the denial of basic human rights asphyxiates. What is going on in Palestine today is, in my opinion, monstrous as a mostly unarmed people are being ground down, bit by bit, day by day. And it cannot be allowed to continue.

I strongly believe that BDS, a non-violent boycott, is a means to a resolution, and it is supported by many liberal Israelis who in this era of growing militancy understand that Israel is in a downward spiral and that the violence is harming everyone including Israelis themselves. Israel is proud of its artistic heritage, quite rightly so. It does not want to be internationally shunned. A boycott might act as a desperately overdue call for change.

By signing the Culture for Coexistence letter, I believe one is tacitly complicit in the policies of Israel’s extremists whose goal is to annihilate Palestine in order to occupy the entire region as Israel, and I fear the eminent signatories will be used to justify this ugly, expansionist policy, which is about strangling a neighbouring nation.

Carol Drinkwater, writer and actress

The notion of ‘peaceful engagement’ with Israel and it’s current policies is at best disingenuous equivocation, and at worst, tacit encouragement, through acceptance, of Israel’s brutal and inhuman regime. ‘Open dialogue and interaction’ are simply not possible while Palestinians have no voice, no nation, no identity.  There is a naked obscenity to the notion that ‘cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change. It is important to encourage such a powerful tool for change rather than boycotting its use.’ It is outrageous to imply parity while Goliath is being given a platform that David can not hope to ascend; while Palestinian artists, writers and poets are subjected to travel restrictions, regularly jailed for their views and summarily and consistently silenced by the State of Israel.

Boycotts are a non violent way of making a strong point. Non-violent. Not a concept that is readily understood or embraced by Israel. But we see by the indignant response and desire to shut down any criticism of it’s actions, that this non violent boycott is effective. It calls in to question Israel’s notion of itself as a democratic and law abiding country, because non violence has longevity in terms of solution, which Israel has lost any desire for, and it has the moral high ground, which Israel has lost any claim to, and because of which it is is now being held to account.
The surest way to end the boycott is to end the occupation.
Sameena Zehra, comedian and storyteller

We should challenge the assumption that BDS is against dialogue: the guidelines do not prohibit dialogue with counterparts in the Israeli controlled territories, but call for a boycott of institutions and individuals who receive Israeli government support.
Daniel Gorman, musician

In 1977, making the documentary film The Palestinian, I lived for several months as a guest of the PLO, of Palestinians forced into exile in Lebanon. The state of Israel of course was founded on the dispossession of over 700,000 Palestinians expelled or forced to leave by terror, three quarters of the Palestinian population.  And there is no right of return for them.
I lived near and in Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut – to be the site of the massacre in the early nineteen eighties of thousands of Palestinians by Phalangist forces, with at least Israeli complicity.  I wept with survivors of the Tal al Zataar refugee camp massacre of August 1976 in which 2000 – 4000 Palestinians were butchered.  I talked with Yasser Arafat and Abu Jihad who had reorganized the resistance to Israeli oppression and terror in the ‘sixties, and who were emphatic that the heart of their fight was the demand for a democratic and secular Palestinian state in which Christian, Jewish and Muslim citizens could live together in equality and peace. Also with old women and men who had been driven to flee their homes in 1948 but still had the keys, with children who could describe those homes but had never seen them. I met those running the Red Crescent hospitals with bitterly scarce resources and a huge need for their services, the young military commander of a hilltop garrison who devoted any rare quiet time to his studies for a PhD on Shelley, and the older cadre who, as we sheltered behind a stone wall from Israeli snipers, showed me photographs of his family in Israel that he had not seen for sixteen years.
Thirty eight ever more shameful years have passed since then, the contemptible Oslo Accords, the courageous desperate intifadas, the ever intensifying Israeli state oppression, wall building, dispossession, land grabbing, racist persecution and genocidal onslaughts on Gaza. Thirty eight more years of US unconditional support for Israel, of UN resolutions, of the impotence of the international community. Above all, of the unrelenting suffering of the Palestinian people in Israel and in exile. I am 79, the Palestinians have endured and resisted their Calvary for 67 of them.
Of course we support BDS.  “Bridges”?
Roy Battersby, director

… We, too, seek to inform and encourage dialogue about Israel in the wider cultural and creative community. Indeed, we relish the prospect of a universal awareness of the realities of Zionism. We believe passionately in BDS and we broadly share the same views on the racist policies of the Israeli government. We also share a steadfast desire for the peaceful coexistence of the Palestinian people and an Israeli-Jewish population disabused of the current prevailing Jewish-supremacist opinion that holds an ethos of virulent racism and the practice of ethnic cleansing to be acceptable in the 21st century.

… Given the failure of peace initiatives and of all other approaches over decades, Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions, including cultural boycotts singling out and isolating Israel are now the only remaining route to peace. Peace, by any other means, is no more than a euphemism for the complete submission of the Palestinian people to live under their Israeli masters as a ghettoed underclass on the discontinuous bantustan fragments of the systematically-resource-impoverished rump of their own land. That is not going to happen. “No justice, no peace” is not merely slogan; it is also a plain fact…
Jimmy Powdrell Campbell, writer and composer

As an education development consultant in the 1990s I witnessed first hand the subtle oppression of the Palestinian people at the very time the Oslo accord was supposed to be ushering in new peace talks. Time and time again the state of Israel has mobilised propaganda to deflect from their persecution of the people of Palestine through encouraging settlers’ occupation and annexation of the land designated Palestinian. No artist of conscience can sanction their open disregard of human rights by providing a semblance of a dialogue of equals.
Carolyn Yates, writer 

I would also reply to Culture for Coexistence that it is fine to have culture links, but to talk of coexistence in a situation where the existence and wealth and territorial possession of one section of a population over another is not co-existence but apartheid.
Pat Bryden, teacher, literature 

Many of those signed up to the “Culture for Coexistence” statement have form as partisans of the Israeli state, and as apologists for its brutal and remorseless campaign of politicide: their spurious concern for ‘coexistence’ is a commitment to Israeli supremacy, and need not detain us. It needs to be demanded of the others, some of whom perhaps even signed in a good faith (if incredible and wilfully myopic) belief that this is the best hope for peace, why they choose to deny oppressed Palestinians – including countless Palestinian artists and writers – the solidarity for which they have, for over a decade, been calling.
China Miéville, writer

‘Culture for Co-existence’ could be seen as wilfully naive or an intentional distraction from the realities of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. How can you have ‘dialogue’ with a violent oppressor (Israel) who does not listen & has no respect for world opinion or international law, as shown by its continual flouting of UN resolutions & war crimes against an oppressed people? How would ‘building bridges’ stop Israel from confiscating Palestinian land, demolishing homes, building illegal settlements, dropping bombs on & shooting unarmed civilians?

The conflict has been going on for far too long to be engaging in such mealy mouthed appeasement. The cultural boycott is a means of grassroots international pressure while our governments not only do not take action against Israel, they sell it arms.
Deborah Fink, soprano and music teacher