WHITE: Why a cultural boycott of Israel is justified 12Apr12 April 12, 2012
by Ben WhiteÂ -Â Â New StatesmanÂ Â – Â 11 April 2012
A fortnight ago, dozens of actors, playwrights and directors called on The Globe to cancel a planned performance by Israelâs national theatre company Habima, to avoid complicity with âhuman rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied landâ.
Along with Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh and Caryl Churchill, opposition to the invitation includes Mark Rylance, founding artistic director of The Globe. The letter follows on from an earlier call by âBoycott From Withinâ, a group of Israelis who support the Palestiniansâ Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Since then, the letterâs critics have responded in an over the top fashion, successfully missed the point. Howard Jacobson reached for absurd clichĂ©s (âKafkaesqueâ, âMcCarthyismâ) while Simon Callow and Louise Mensch signed a letter describing the boycott call an example of âthe continued persecution of Jewsâ.
âTheatre ban âlike Nazi book burningâ say West End starsâ ran a headline in The Jewish Chronicle, whose editor Stephen Pollard compared pro-Palestinian protesters at the Proms to âNazi party membersâ in âWeimar Germanyâ (as did Labour MP Denis MacShane who recently linked the murders in Toulouse to Palestine solidarity motions in UK trade unions).
This shameless blustering ignores the specific reasons for the Habima boycott call, namely that the company performs in illegal West Bank settlements â colonies that form a key part of Israelâs apartheid regime â and indeed promised Israelâs Minister of Culture that it would âdeal with any problems hindering such performancesâ.
The wider context is the decision by Palestinians to call for BDS as part of their efforts to secure basic rights and freedoms. That call, endorsed by trade unions, faith groups, political factions, and civil society organisations, includes cultural boycott. Groups like the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) play a critical role in mobilising support for the Palestinian struggle.
Culture does not operate in some special, apolitical space â just like academic institutions in Israel are also not removed from complicity in systematic human rights abuses. As the Habima general manager put it, the invitation by The Globe is an âhonourable accomplishment for the State of Israel in generalâ.
Furthermore, the Israeli government and advocacy groups are deliberately seeking to use culture as a means of ârebrandingâ a country increasingly linked in the pubic imagination to its crimes against the Palestinians.
In 2008, Israelâs Foreign Ministry hired a British firm to âcraftâ a ânew imageâ for the country based on âIsrael’s scientific and cultural achievementsâ. After the Gaza massacre in 2009, Israel announced more money for âcultural diplomacyâ, with an official declaring a plan to âsend well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibitsâ to âshow Israelâs prettier faceâ.
No surprise then that Israeli artists like Idan Raichel admit how: âWe certainly see ourselves as ambassadors of Israel in the world, cultural ambassadors, hasbara ambassadors, also in regards to the political conflictâ. Or that a touring Israeli chef is open about the governmentâs intention to use âartists, singers, painters, filmmakersâ to improve Israelâs image âthrough cultureâ.
Aside from outright denial of Israelâs violations of international law and systematic racial discrimination, a common objection to cultural boycott (or BDS in general) is some version of âWhy Israelâs musicians and not Chinaâs?â
But this misses the point. Boycott is a strategy, not a principle. And as such, itâs a response to a call from Palestinian civil society, which is seeking to mobilise international civil society as a way of realising their basic rights. It is a familiar tactic, used to resist local and global injustices. Are Palestinians prohibited from resisting colonial occupation â and looking for allies as they do so?
In summary, the Habima boycott call â a microcosm of the BDS campaign â is a case of institutional complicity in clear human rights abuses, and a response to an appeal for support from a people dispossessed and occupied for decades. Thatâs it. No wonder the simplicity of it has Israelâs apologists reaching for the most well-worn smear of all.
Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy.