British Writers In Support of Palestine

January 5, 2017

Jenny Diski and John Berger: In Gratitude Both

One would be forgiven for thinking that the famously traumatic 2016 also claimed BWISP – my last post was in November 2015. But although my silence was in part due to a breast cancer diagnosis in June, I received the All Clear two days before Christmas, and attended a New Year’s Eve party full of Palestinian rights activists, so rest assured 2016 didn’t have things all its own way: both I and the organisation are still kicking. Though perhaps there won’t be the need to leap into action: as I said at the party, it looks like BWISP has been so effective that either Israel hasn’t dared to offer another British writer a prize, or no British writer has wished to accept one!

Joking aside, my illness, which followed a period of travel in the spring, sadly meant that I did not post a timely tribute to one of our most renowned members, Jenny Diski, whose public journey with cancer ended in her death on April 28th. Diski hated being called a ‘fighter’ of cancer – and even ‘journeyer’ probably made her wince – but she did not shy away from political conflict: as one of the 94 signatories to John Berger’s Dec 2006 letter to The Guardian, she joined the first international roll-call of supporters of the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), driving her legendary acumen straight into the mast of the Palestinian cause – and into the side of Zionism. Later she emailed support to BWISP in its early days. We never met, but also exchanged Tweets on the subject of fish and chips: a Jewish import to the East End, I had read. She replied: “We had cold fried fish on Fridays. & the Nautalus in NW6 serves fish battered with matzo meal. Gefilte fish never caught on tho”. I will be adding In Gratitude, Diski’s cancer memoir, to my growing collection of the genre, and now I’m recovering, I’ll make a trip to the Nautalus in her honour.

jenny-diski1

 

Diski’s loss is still keenly felt, and the death of BWISP ‘patron saint’ John Berger on January 2nd, felt like 2016’s final vicious swipe at the common good. Berger was a literary and political gentle giant, a man who combined an undimmed sense of wonder with moral leadership all the more persuasive for his playful nature. Like Diski’s, Berger’s death is summoning tributes from the most august journals; like hers too, few if any of these literary obituaries mention his deep commitment to the academic and cultural boycott. Yet, as the heartfelt tribute from PACBI makes clear, Berger was first among the ‘first responders’ to the boycott call and, as as author of the 2006 letter to The Guardian, was instrumental in ensuring the campaign gained traction amongst writers and artists. He too lent BWISP personal support, lending his name and telephoning me from France to discuss strategy. In particular he wanted to ensure that I was clear on his position: that the boycott did not apply to brave Israeli dissidents – or indeed to any Israeli as an individual. The conversation made me even keener later on to participate in ‘Redrawing the Maps’, the 2012 London celebration of Berger’s 86th birthday, for which I organised the event ‘Letter(s) To Gaza’, encouraging members of the public to write to people in the besieged strip. The panel included Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza – two young men who, as one commented, could never have met in their homeland, travel between the two territories being forbidden by Israel. Although himself absent, Berger occasioned this joyful reunion – just as his work will continue to generate fruitful encounters now he himself is gone.

With what I came to learn was his characteristic generosity, Berger also took a kind interest in my poetry, yet another genre of literature he breathed like mountain air. His Collected Poems (Smokestack Books, 2014) is dedicated to his late wife Beverly, ‘mistress of each page’, who also deserves our great respect and gratitude. Fondly remembered here by a high school friend for her impeccable taste in protest music, as the recent BBC documentary in honour of John’s ninetieth birthday makes clear, Beverly was not just simply Muse, but amanuensis. A librarian by profession, she gave John a vast amount of practical support, from typing his manuscripts to handling his voluminous correspondence. As a recipient of emails from her I know he could not possibly have accomplished all he did without her help.

Upon hearing the news of John Berger’s death I summoned to mind one of my favorite lines of his poetry: ‘The tongue / is the spine’s first leaf”. This image, to me, expresses the intrinsic relationship between voice and courage that John embodied.  The line became an epigraph of a poem in his memory this week, published today by International Times. Here at BWISP I will leave you with John’s own words, his personal message to the signatories of the 2006 letter to The Guardian in support of PACBI:

john-berger

I would like to make a few personal remarks about this world-wide appeal to teachers, intellectuals and artists to join the cultural boycott of the state of Israel, as called for by over a hundred Palestinian academics and artists, and – very importantly – also by a number of Israeli public figures, who outspokenly oppose their country’s illegal occupation of the Palestine territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Their call is attached, together with my After Guernica drawing. I hope you will feel able to add your signature, to the attached letter, which we intend to publish in national newspapers.
The boycott is an active protest against two forms of exclusion which have persisted, despite many other forms of protestations, for over sixty years – for almost three generations.
During this period the state of Israel has consistently excluded itself from any international obligation to heed UN resolutions or the judgement of any international court. To date, it has defied 246 Security Council Resolutions!
As a direct consequence seven million Palestinians have been excluded from the right to live as they wish on land internationally acknowledged to be theirs; and now increasingly, with every week that passes, they are being excluded from their right to any future at all as a nation.
As Nelson Mandela has pointed out, boycott is not a principle, it is a tactic depending upon circumstances. A tactic which allows people, as distinct from their elected but often craven governments, to apply a certain pressure on those wielding power in what they, the boycotters, consider to be an unjust or immoral way. (In white South Africa yesterday and in Israel today, the immorality was, or is being, coded into a form of racist
apartheid).
Boycott is not a principle. When it becomes one, it itself risks to become exclusive and racist. No boycott, in our sense of the term, should be directed against an individual, a people, or a nation as such. A boycott is directed against a policy and the institutions which support that policy either actively or tacitly. Its aim is not to reject, but to bring about change.
How to apply a cultural boycott? A boycott of goods is a simpler proposition, but in this case it would probably be less effective, and speed is of the essence, because the situation is deteriorating every month (which is precisely why some of the most powerful world political leaders, hoping for the worst, keep silent.).
How to apply a boycott? For academics it’s perhaps a little clearer – a question of declining invitations from state institutions and explaining why. For invited actors, musicians, jugglers or poets it can be more complicated. I’m convinced, in any case, that its application should not be systematised; it has to come from a personal choice based on a personal assessment.
For instance. An important mainstream Israeli publisher today is asking to publish three of my books. I intend to apply the boycott with an explanation. There exist, however, a few small, marginal Israeli publishers who expressly work to encourage exchanges and bridges between Arabs and Israelis, and if one of them should ask to publish something of mine, I would unhesitatingly agree and furthermore waive aside any question of author’s royalties. I don’t ask other writers supporting the boycott to come necessarily to exactly the same conclusion. I simply offer an example.
What is important is that we make our chosen protests together, and that we speak out, thus breaking the silence of connivance maintained by those who claim to represent us, and thus ourselves representing, briefly by our common action, the incalculable number of people who have been appalled by recent events but lack the opportunity of making their sense of outrage effective.
John Berger
Advertisements

November 20, 2015

Refuting J.K. Rowling + A Farewell to Irving Weinman

Followers of the UK debates around cultural and academic boycott will be well aware of the launch of the new anti-boycott group ‘Culture for Co-existence’, a response to this year’s significant formation of Artists For Palestine UK (APUK), which has to date garnered over 1090 signatures for its Artists Pledge for Palestine, and has in addition published a 64 page book The Case for a Cultural Boycott of Israel, a comprehensive response to all the questions that typically arise about the campaign.

In their recent brief letter to The Guardian (Oct 23) signed by, among others, J.K. Rowling and Simon Schama, ‘Culture for Co-existence’ argues that ‘Cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory and do not bring peace’ while ‘cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change.’

I was sorry and frustrated, but not surprised, to see the cultural and academic boycott of Israel once again misrepresented by its opponents. Rather than research the issue and respond to the detailed case we have time and again put forward, the signatories have made veiled accusations of anti-Semitism, and in their own defense have offered only easy slogans that bear no relevance to how the arts are in fact leveraged in Israel.

Once again it must be pointed out that pro-boycott campaigners do not ‘single out’ Israel. Many of us also reject funding or prizes from other authoritarian regimes. I’ve never been offered such a prize, but I didn’t watch a minute of the Sochi Olympics – and this was a sacrifice, as I love figure skating. Not watching TV is not, however, an effective political action. The boycott of Israel has gained such traction and visibility – and carries additional moral weight – because it is not simply a set of isolated refusals, but a growing collective response to an organised call made by the Palestinians themselves. This demand for solidarity from artists, writers and academics comes from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), whose existence ‘Culture for Co-existence’ signally fails to acknowledge.

In addition, far from being ‘discriminatory’, the entire boycott movement is grounded in respect for human rights and international law. It does not target individuals at all, let alone on the basis of religion or nationality. Rather, it rejects co-operation with Israeli institutions and the Israeli state,  insisting that we not accept cultural offerings 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 such time as the country honours its responsibilities under international law. If signatories would not have ‘played Sun City’, then they should not play Tel Aviv.

I am a poet and novelist and I do believe in the power of art to generate empathy and understanding for others. But art exists within a globalised economy of money and power, and cultural products cannot be automatically assumed to nurture positive political change: in fact, they may well do the opposite. In the case of Israel ‘cultural bridges’ serve only to strengthen a highly privileged relationship with the West. Decades worth of literary prizes,  rock-n-roll concerts in Tel Aviv, and state-sponsored theatre tours of UK have not led to freedom for the Palestinians and peace for all in the region. Cultural engagement has not even put a brake on Israel’s relentless expansion of settlements, its demographic warfare on its Arab citizens, or its ruthless assaults on Gaza. In Israel the arts flourish, but the situation for the Palestinians simply gets worse. Cultural events are not neutral, either: they buttress the country’s self-styled reputation as a ‘liberal democracy’, a reputation that ensures its war 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. Finally, cultural and academic boycott does not burn bridges. Nothing in the PACBI call prevents cultural exchanges or intellectual collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians, or visits to the UK from Israeli artists, as long as these events do not involve Israeli state or institutional funding.

For further replies to the ‘Culture for Co-existence’ letter, please see PACBI’s Open Letter to JK Rowling, the astute analysis by BWISP member Sarah Irving of the Zionist actors driving the group, and statements by British artists for APUK.

* * *

Irving WeinmanVery sadly, I must also report in this update the loss of novelist, short story writer and BWISP co-founder Irving Weinman, who died suddenly on October 26th 2015, at the age of 78. His loss will be keenly felt by many. I first met Irving in 2007, when I came to Lewes to interview his wife Judith Kazantzis about her poetry. At the end of the interview, Irving joined us from the kitchen with three stubby bottles of beer on a tray, and we never looked back. I became a frequent visitor to their colourful home, often spoiled by Irving’s fabulous pescatarian cooking, always entertained by his marvelous raconteurship and inspired by his warm internationalism. Irving’s parents were shtetl Jews from Romania who lived in Paris before emigrated to Boston in the thirties where Irving was born. His mother spoke seven languages and Irving grew up hearing mainly Yiddish, Russian and French, and also much music in the house. A talented jazz pianist, Irving switched allegiance to literature in his youth. He attended writing classes with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, called James Baldwin ‘Jimmy’, and co-founded the Key West Writers Workshop and Lewes Needlewriters. As well as successful crime novels, he wrote powerful literary fiction. Wolf Tones is funny and tough, a punchy, insightful portrait of a difficult father-son relationship, and ‘the sad arterioscleroris of America’.

Irving, Judith and I founded British Writers In Support of Palestine in 2010, and Irving was a prime force behind BWISP’s early recruitment drive and letter writing campaigns. He also lent his significant presence to local supermarket protests, and spent four weeks in 2010 as a driver for the Road to Hope Convoy to Gaza, blogging en route.  In a tribute penned for his own anti-fascist blog and reposted by Jews for Justice for Palestine, Tony Greenstein notes ‘Irving stood in an anti-racist tradition that went back to the Jewish fight against anti-Semitism in Europe, not the Zionist tradition of anti-Arab racism. Irving was proud to be Jewish.  His attitude to Israel’s war crimes was ‘not in my name’.’

Recently, Irving published books on the craft of fiction, and was writing short stories based on his family history, including the experience of refugees fleeing the pogroms. He spoke of his mother to me after I returned from Odesa last year – he was very taken by the fact I had seen Isaac Babel’s drinks cabinet in the city’s small Jewish museum. I still have Irving’s copy of Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People on my shelves, and there are many more conversations I would dearly love to have had with him. He is survived by Judith Kazantzis and her daughter Miranda; his son and daughter in America, Michael and Zoe; as well as grandchildren. Farewell to a wonderful friend.

September 28, 2014

After The Tricycle: Can Arts Orgs Say ‘No’ to Embassy Funding?

Filed under: Boycott Israel,Cultural Boycott — Naomi Foyle @ 1:00 pm
Tags: ,
After The Tricycle- Can arts organisations say ‘no’ to embassy funding?

When: Tuesday 7th October, 19:00 – 21:00
Where: Amnesty International UK, Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London. EC2A 3EA.

Panel discussion.  Entry free, booking recommended.
There will be a drinks reception afterwards.

 

Panel chair: Kamila Shamsie, novelist.
Speakers: April De Angelis and Tanika Gupta playwrights, Antony Lerman writer & commentator, and Ofer Neiman of the Israeli group Boycott from Within.

 

In August 2014, during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, the Tricycle Theatre asked the UK Jewish Film Festival to forego Israeli embassy funding. The festival refused, and very publicly walked away from the Tricycle, briefing the press that the theatre was boycotting a Jewish festival. The theatre came under immediate and sustained attack, all the way from campaigns to defund the theatre, via denunciations by liberal newspaper columnists, to intervention of the Secretary of State for Culture himself.

 

Do artists and arts organisations have the right to say ‘no’ when governments with negative human rights records try to co-opt culture in the service of their public relations strategies?

 

Please come to a discussion of the issues exposed by the Tricycle affair.

http://artistsright2sayno.wordpress.com

May 13, 2014

Jake Wallis Simons: Who is the hypocrite?

Dear Jake Wallis Simons,

We thank you for your reply to our request to boycott the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Festival in Jerusalem this month. We regret, however, that The Telegraph declined to publish our Open Letter, and that you and the paper have ignored our requests for a blog spot to respond to your arguments. We find it ironic that you charge us with hypocrisy for supporting a boycott of Israel, but deny us space to express our views on this controversial issue to your readers. Are only anti-boycott voices to be allowed access to the mainstream media, in your view? As such appears to be the case, we address you again, therefore, from our own website, in conjunction with our colleagues in Israel, members of the activist group Boycott from Within.

To further address your charge of hypocrisy: yes, human rights violations occur all over the world, but there is a crucial difference between boycott as a personal moral decision and as a strategic political tool. The grassroots-based Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli state and all companies profiteering from its human rights violations is an organised call from Palestinian civil society: it comes with specific demands and the significant potential to create change. Just as in apartheid South Africa, an international BDS campaign is called for because Western governments, including the current British government, have armed and supported the country in question. Building on the South African precedent, BDS could eventually become more widely used to combat international abuses of power, including those by Western governments. To be both morally compelling and effective, however, the call must come from the exploited. BDS is like a picket line that internationals are requested not to cross. Still a personal moral choice, but with the added freight of knowing that a rejection of boycott is not neutral: it is a conscious choice to refuse the call of the oppressed, and therefore stand with the oppressor against them.

It is clear that you do not wish to see Israel in this light. In lieu of addressing our central concern – that the state-funded literary festival you are attending openly celebrates Israel’s illegal occupation of East Jerusalem – you attempt to portray Israel as a victim of constant attacks by Arab countries. You neglect to mention that Israel was founded at gun point, armed Zionist militias committing the 1948 Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’: massacres, terrorist acts and the ethnic cleansing of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians. Israel has never honoured the right of return of the now over six million refugees who live in desperate poverty around the Middle East – the most horrific example being the starvation we see now in Yarmouk. We acknowledge, of course, the misery of Syrian refugees, and also the suffering of Jews over the centuries. But compassion for victims of war and persecution should not mask the fact that by establishing an expansionist state – one that has persistently seized far more of the land gifted to it by the UN – Israel has created a situation of permanent conflict, in which it is clearly the aggressor.

You also present Israel as a free and democratic society with difficulties like any other. In fact, it is a violent and discriminatory regime far unlike the UK. The “societal disadvantages that confront minorities in Israel” include an ethnic-supremacist plan to uproot tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens within Israel’s 1967 borders, to make way for communities built by the Jewish National Fund, an organization which serves the Jewish people, rather than Israel’s citizens. As for the West Bank, the situation there is not simply “disturbing”, but a full-fledged settler-colonial occupation, enforced by an illegal, land-grabbing wall, which public opinion all over the world has come to detest. Finally, comparisons to British treatment of political prisoners must fall: for all its many grievous faults, Britain never blanket bombed West Belfast with white phosphorous, while the commonplace Israeli practice of ‘administrative detention’ – jailing people for years without charge – is not a feature of the British justice system. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have gone on hunger strike to protest this and other grave abuses. Are you aware that a Palestinian can be arrested for pouring a cup of coffee for a neighbour? And while it is certainly distressing for those who have lost loved ones, as in the case of Northern Ireland, the release and reintegration of political prisoners is a normal and essential part of a peace process.

Your choice of euphemisms to conceal the reality of Israeli apartheid and ongoing war crimes – as well as the inflammatory choice of a photo of a blazing Star of David to illustrate your article – are typical pro-Zionist attempts to evade a comprehensive discussion of Israel’s policies and aims. You call on us to boycott the Palestinian government, as if Palestinian state violence were equal in kind and ferocity to Israeli aggression. The deaths of all innocents are to be grieved, and never condoned. But Palestinian violence is a symptom of the occupation: a desperate effort to resist annihilation by an infinitely superior military force – against drones, F-16s and nuclear weapons, Palestinians own not one tank. Close tracking of incidents of rocket fire indicates that attacks on Israel generally occur after IDF incursions and deaths in Gaza – including the killing of children on a football pitch. Charges of terrorism against Hamas must be placed in the context of the death of over 400 Gazan children during Operation Cast Lead alone, not to mention the many Palestinians denied medical treatment thanks to the cruel and inhumane siege of the strip.

To de-escalate the cycle of violence, Israel must take a long hard look in the mirror, and acknowledge that in fact it has always abused its powers in the region, and has inflicted far more pain than it has itself endured in reply. Only by admitting that central truth, and asking forgiveness for the Nakba, can it begin to participate in real dialogue with its victims. Perhaps then we as human rights activists might be able to support Israel – but much as we wish for peace for all peoples in the region, we can never find it in our hearts to support an expansionist apartheid regime, even if, for some of us, it is our home.

Jake Wallis Simons, you claim to have sympathy for the Palestinians. Again, we urge you to take one more step toward the truth of their plight – to acknowledge that Israeli aggression is at the root of the conflict, and putting pressure on Israel to honour international law is the best way to resolve it. At this eleventh hour, we ask again you not to go to the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Festival – not to allow a government which is kidnapping and detaining children in the middle of the night in occupied east Jerusalem to pay for your comfortable hotel room just minutes away from the crime scene. Why not instead politely decline, and make a statement in solidarity with Sarah Ali, the young Gazan writer Israel recently refused to allow to attend a writers’ tour in America? We are not saying never visit Jerusalem, but when ordinary Palestinians cannot travel freely, then yes, we are all called upon to justify our own trips to Israel, and ensure they are undertaken in ways that do not celebrate or normalise a situation of gross and continuing injustice.

If you cannot do this, we call on you to at least engage with our reply, allow us equal footing at The Telegraph, and avoid the stain of the charge of hypocrisy on your own reputation.

Yours Sincerely,

Prof Mona Baker
Naomi Foyle
Judith Kazantzis
Steve Komarnyckyj
Dr Les Levidow
Irving Weinman

(BWISP)

Ronnie Barkan
Shir Hever
Ofer Neiman
Kobi Snitz
Amir Terkel

(Boycott From Within)

 

April 30, 2014

An Open Letter to Jake Wallis Simons

Dear Jake Wallis Simons,

We were extremely disappointed to learn that you will be appearing at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim International Writers Festival in Jerusalem in May. Funded by the state of Israel, the festival is a highly political event: in 2010 its keynote speakers were President Shimon Peres and Minister of Culture Limor Livnat. The festival has the stated aim of ‘improving the image of Jerusalem around the world’ – yet in defiance of international law it celebrates the ‘reunification of Jerusalem’. The UN has designated Jerusalem as the shared capital of Israel and a future Palestinian state, and what the festival calls ‘reunification’ all right-minded people call illegal occupation and colonisation.

 
In your journalism and fiction you have written extensively on Israel and Palestine. You are surely aware that Israel has no sovereign rights over East Jerusalem, yet it has located its main police station and Ministry of Justice there; has divided Palestinian neighbourhoods with a concrete wall; and has confiscated a staggering 35% of the city’s land for illegal Jewish-only settlements. Flouting UN calls to cease its policies of displacement, Israel routinely revokes Arab Israeli residency permits and demolishes Palestinian homes. Jerusalem, as a result, is a deeply divided city, carved up and scarred by an apartheid state. Just down the valley from the luxurious premises of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Palestinian children in the neighbourhood of Silwan are being kidnapped from their beds in the middle of the night, interrogated, threatened and beaten.

 
Your journalism has also explored how, in your own life, you have moved away from the militant Zionism you were brought up to believe in. As official peace talks founder, we respectfully encourage you to take one more decisive step toward a just peace in the region, and join us in heeding the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of Israel. A non-violent grassroots campaign, with the sole aim of pressuring Israel to abide by international law, the boycott does not target individual Jews or Judaism, but asks all writers of conscience to decline invitations to Israeli state-sponsored events such as the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Festival.
Yours Sincerely,

Prof Mona Baker
Prof Rasheed El-Enany
Alison Fell
Naomi Foyle
Judith Kazantzis
Wendy Klein
Steve Komarnyckyj
Dr Les Levidow
Irving Weinman
Eliza Wyatt

of British Writers in Support of Palestine

 

May 15, 2013

Nakba Day: An occasion to strengthen resistance

Filed under: Boycott Israel,Cultural Boycott — Naomi Foyle @ 11:30 am
Tags: , , ,
Palestinian refugees, 1948

Palestinian refugees, 1948

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 15th 2013 is the 65th Nakba Day: the annual commemoration of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Israeli forces in 1948, known to Palestinians as ‘the catastrophe’. Nakba Day is scarred by sorrow and anger, especially for the survivors of 1948 – but it also courses with determination. The anniversary is marked by demonstrations world-wide, a concerted reminder of the need to resist displacement, and demand the full menu of human rights for Palestinians, whether they be refugees, members of the diaspora, under Occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, or living in Israel as part of the country’s 20% Arab population. The official peace process may have atrophied, but grassroots activism in support of the end to Israeli apartheid and the occupation of Palestine is growing steadily, galvanised in part by the prominent successes of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)movement.

In the spirit of such determination, BWISP is proud to take this occasion to honour Stephen Hawking, the latest and perhaps most illustrious public intellectual to join the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.  Hawking’s unequivocal decision to respect the boycott made headlines all over the world. In a sign of how solidly BDS has moved into mainstream political discourse, Hawking’s choice was supported by two-thirds of those polled by the Guardian. Thank you Stephen Hawking!

BWISP would also like to acknowledge Nakba Day by posting a link to a recent Palestine Solidarity Campaign video presenting the case for academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions. And finally, we link here to a recent UK Employment Tribunal decision, categorically ruling against the complainant Ronnie Fraser, a University Colleges Union member who had argued that UCU’s support of the academic boycott of Israel was anti-Semitic. In response, the tribunal declared that “a belief in the Zionist project or an attachment to Israel or any similar sentiment… is not intrinsically a part of Jewishness . . .”  and in very strong words deeply regreted that this case had ever been brought to court.

This legal ruling, with its clear corollary that anti-Zionism is not in-itself anti-Semitic, is highly significant for the BDS movement. We are now moving toward a time when critics of Israel will not have to fear spurious accusations of racism – or, in the case of Jewish activists, self-hatred – but can concentrate on exposing the systematic, murderous racism of the Israeli state.  The world has in the past risen to end the shameful and injurous practice of apartheid in South Africa. On this, the 65th Nakba Day, BWISP restates its commitment to such a global movement in support of a just peace in Palestine, and human rights for all.

April 5, 2013

Chapeau to Iain Banks

Filed under: Cultural Boycott — Naomi Foyle @ 10:04 pm
Tags: , ,

index

 

 

 

 

 

In 2010 the renowned Scottish writer Iain Banks made a principled public statement in The Guardian in support of the cultural boycott of Israel. This week he was in the news again, tragically to announce that he has – barring a miracle – terminal cancer. Tributes have been flying in – at such velocity they swamped his website.  Today The Guardian reposted his 2010 statement, presumably with his consent. I pay my respects here to a great writer: a man who knows his own humanity is inextricable from the suffering of others, and who faces the worst with clear-eyed conviction and courage.

Some readers may wonder why Iain Banks isn’t a member of BWISP. I don’t know him personally so cannot say. Some Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish writers do not identify with the label ‘British’, and some people simply aren’t ‘joiners’. But for a writer of Banks’s stature to take an individual public stand on this issue is a significant act, and one that means a great deal to our movement. Once again, I applaud Iain Banks, and wish him and his wife every possible joy in the months to come.

Naomi Foyle

October 16, 2012

SOAS Panel Discussion on Palestine: 3 Questions about BDS

On Tues October 9th I appeared with British-Palestinian novelist Selma Dabbagh, British filmmaker and cultural boycott activist Miranda Pennell, and the British-Israeli-Iraqi-Jewish writer and journalist Rachel Shabi in a panel discussion at SOAS, organised by the Centre for Palestinian Studies and chaired by Bidisha. The discussion was wide-ranging and included the role of Arab women in political struggle, the question of ‘fashionable causes’ and the usefulness of comment threads.  Cultural boycott was also high on the agenda, and the subject of some disagreement on the panel and in the audience. I would therefore like to respond here to three questions raised during the evening.

1. Not all Palestinians support BDS, so why should I?

Rachel Shabi helpfully stressed that the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign is a Palestinian initiative. However, she counter-claimed that Palestinian society is diverse, and not all Palestinians believe in boycott. This statement is undeniably true. Leaving aside the question of militant resistance, some Palestinians believe in working within the Palestinian Authority and the UN, or with charitable NGOs. Others are simply trying to survive, and may place their faith in Allah, God, or the Shekel. So how does one, as a solidarity activist, decide which Palestinians to support?

The question is a political one, and must be answered politically. Only politically organised activity with strong and principled Palestinian leadership can bring positive, lasting change in the region. So, which such groups are reaching out to solidarity workers, and requesting our support?

We can immediately rule out the PA. Unless one is a UN representative, the PA is not reaching out to foreign individuals. In addition, the UN route to change is blocked by the veto power of America, and – as Wikileaks demonstrated – the PA is seriously compromised by corruption within the organisation. There is no way for solidarity workers to effectively help change this situation, apart from campaigning for UN reform.  While I do not disparage such a goal, to devote all one’s energies to it would be an incredibly indirect way of expressing support for Palestine.

One can of course join direct action groups, helping with the olive harvest, accompanying children in Hebron on the way to school, working with faith groups, or joining non-violent protests against the apartheid wall. But doing so will still leave you with the fundamental choice for peace campaigners in the region: do you support ‘dialogue’ groups or the boycott divestment and sanctions movement?  For many Westerners, dialogue seems instinctively attractive, but in my own view, careful thought and research must inevitably lead to the conclusion that it is not the option for the true solidarity activist.

The concept of ‘peace through dialogue’ appeals to many Westerners and left-wing Israelis because in our own personal experience we often need to engage in conflict resolution with antagonists in our families or workplaces, and this process is predicated on the understanding that both parties must listen to each other and take responsibility for their own failings.  However, it is a huge mistake to project this personal process between equals – or those in a mutually agreed power structure, such as a workplace – onto the Israel-Palestine conflict. While political and personal dialogue is indeed fundamental to the peace process, it is essential that this dialogue takes place within a framework that acknowledges the true scale and roots of the conflict: the occupation of Palestine; the apartheid nature of the Israeli state; and the Israeli denial of the refugees’ right of return.

In other words, in the case of Israel-Palestine, any dialogue that takes place is never between equal partners.  Analogies all break down at some point, but rather than a ‘bad marriage’ between incompatible people who have to co-parent their children, the Israel-Palestine conflict is akin to a highly abusive relationship where the abuser has huge wealth and social prestige, and the abused person has been disbelieved by the police for years – and in fact has been punished for resisting the attacks, or occasionally responding to them in a violent manner. Only if the authorities and the abuser finally recognise the nature of this abuse, is it safe or indeed worthwhile for the two parties to attempt any kind of dialogue. Think of the difference between divorce counselling and a bullying tribunal at work. In the former, a neutral mediator helps two people make compromises; in the latter, the victim and the bully have clearly differentiated roles to play in proceedings, and if found guilty the bully will be punished. Again, this is only an analogy, and I apologise to Palestinians who may find it ill-fitting or simplistic. But I think it is worth making because I believe that many Westerners think of dialogue mainly in personal terms.

The ‘dialogue peace camp’ does not offer solidarity to the Palestinians – not just because it does not start from the understanding that the conflict is hugely imbalanced, but because it explicitly forbids such an analysis.  A list of 66 Palestinian-Israeli ‘co-existence’ organisations can be found here, on the website of the British charity Children of Peace. I wish to stress that I am in no way judging the motives of the Palestinians involved in these grassroots organisations. I have not lived their lives, and I have not faced their choices. What I want to highlight here is the fact that Children of Peace only funds groups that sign up to its ‘non-partisan’ values.  These values are expressed in the charity’s claim that, in relation to adults, Israeli and Palestinian children have suffered ‘disproportionately’ from the conflict: to get funding from Children of Peace, organisations are not allowed to politically challenge the fact that, thanks to the occupation, Israeli apartheid and the refugee camps, it is overwhelmingly Palestinian children who have died or been maimed, and who suffer from poverty and lack of educational opportunities.

Children of Peace is a throwback to Empire. The charity is operating like a group of secular Victorian missionaries, providing vital aid only to those who are willing to subscribe to its world-view.  Given the fact that Israel chronically underfunds education, health and basic social services for Arab-Israelis, and systematically attacks the basic infrastructure of Gaza and the West Bank, there is huge financial incentive for Palestinians to sign up to such deals. But without the ability to name the conflict for what it is, such organisations will never be able to effect substantive and lasting change.   As Faris Giacaman argues here, Palestinians have long known that what they call ‘the peace industry’ has not built up significant Palestinian power or leadership:

Based on an unpublished 2002 report by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last October that “between 1993 and 2000 [alone], Western governments and foundations spent between $20 million and $25 million on the dialogue groups.” A subsequent wide-scale survey of Palestinians who participated in the dialogue groups revealed that this great expenditure failed to produce “a single peace activist on either side.” This affirms the belief among Palestinians that the entire enterprise is a waste of time and money.
The survey also revealed that the Palestinian participants were not fully representative of their society. Many participants tended to be “children or friends of high-ranking Palestinian officials or economic elites. Only seven percent of participants were refugee camp residents, even though they make up 16 percent of the Palestinian population.” The survey also found that 91 percent of Palestinian participants no longer maintained ties with Israelis they met. In addition, 93 percent were not approached with follow-up camp activity, and only five percent agreed the whole ordeal helped “promote peace culture and dialogue between participants.”

By insisting on a narrative of two equal parties to conflict, and by making financial aid dependent on Palestinian acquiescence to this narrative, the ‘peace industry’ only reinforces the imbalance of power in the region. This is the process of ‘normalisation’ that the boycott movement decries.

In contrast, the assets of the BDS movement are limited to moral capital only.  And yet it has attracted the broad support of 173 Palestinian grassroots organisations, including many unions, and a growing group of Israeli activists, Boycott from Within. PACBI has the express support of over 60 Palestinian cultural and academic organisations. The BDS movement has not bought this support: on the contrary, boycott advocates within Israel now face severe penalties from Israel – heavy fines or imprisonment – for expressing their views. A solidarity activist can therefore support BDS knowing that the movement represents not only an accurate analysis of the conflict, but also the free and principled self-expression of a huge range of community and professional organisations. No external authority or funding body is dictating the operating terms of these groups. Unlike the ‘dialogue peace camp’, BDS is a purely Palestinian-led political movement with a huge base of mobilised popular support, and is therefore the only option for international activists who wish to work in solidarity with Palestinians.

2) Isn’t cultural boycott ‘a bit witch hunty’?

Rachel Shabi expressed support for divestment, but stated that she felt cultural boycott in particular could be ‘a bit witch-hunty’.  This is not an uncommon reaction to boycott campaigns; I therefore wish to take this opportunity to expand on what I said at SOAS and entirely reject the comparison.

Political witch-hunts involve substantial punishments: the loss of employment, the destruction of one’s career, perhaps even imprisonment.  Modern day ‘witch hunts’ also often involve smear campaigns. The subjects of cultural boycott campaigns are never remotely in any such dangers.

To start with, the boycott targets institutions, not individuals.  When boycott activists direct campaigns toward individuals, it is simply to ask them not to appear in Israel or at Israeli-funded events. If they insist on crossing this picket line, then boycott activists may protest against their activities on that particular tour of the region. Otherwise, activists have never called for the ‘boycott of boycott busters’

Crucially, boycott activists cannot force writers, musicians or artists not to take a gig in Israel: any loss of employment that results from respecting the boycott is entirely voluntary, and amply offset by the reward of right relationship with one’s own conscience.  The only pressure that boycott activists can apply is sustained moral pressure, and to suggest that we should not be doing so verges on questioning our right to protest. I personally have led campaigns politely but persistently requesting high-profile writers not to appear in Israel. These writers are wealthy professionals with teams of publicists, editors and festival staff to support them. If they make a decision to take money from an apartheid state, they ought to be prepared to face a rational public debate about it.

It constantly disappoints me that British writers who appear in Israel do not want to participate in that debate.  I do not possess a tall black hat, a ducking pond, or any kind of power or desire to wound these writers. I just want them to change their minds about shaking hands with ethnic cleansers, and if they cannot do that, then I believe they should at least answer all the questions the BDS movement lays at their doors.

3) Can BDS lead to peace, and if so, how?

This was a question from the audience, and it is a good one. BDS is obviously a controversial strategy because it strikes at the heart of neo-liberal values, and the concept of unlimited free speech; its detractors therefore sometimes argue that adopting BDS only inflames the conflict. I obviously do not agree.

In South Africa, sustained international pressure played a huge role in bringing apartheid to an end. How BDS can help do this in Israel is suggested by a recent article by Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf: the reason the peace process has stalled, he argues, is because for the average Jewish Israeli the status quo is preferable to either the one-state or the two-state solution. The one-state solution would involve the kind of demographic and democratic shift Zionists most fear, and the two-state solution would involve giving up settlements, land and resources.  I am grateful to Boycott from Within activist Ofer Neiman for sending me the link to this article, and for his succinct summation that what boycott does is make the status quo uncomfortable.  BDS is a constant reminder that the world does not approve of the political choices Israel is making.  BDS may in the short-term add to friction, but this friction is necessary grit in the process of real change: change that results in the priceless pearl of justice.

I hope that these responses flesh out my comments on the night. I will also post them on the BWISP FAQs page for ease of future reference.

September 1, 2012

Boycott Batsheva: Two Responses to Lloyd Newson

Filed under: Boycott Israel,Cultural Boycott — Naomi Foyle @ 12:14 pm
Tags: , , ,

The Boycott Batsheva campaign has kicked off in high style in Edinburgh with protests on the street, in the theatre, and in the media. BWISP member Jonathan Rosenhead is a signatory to a letter to dance professionals asking them to join the campaign. Lloyd Newson, of DV8 Physical Theatre has responded here.  While a public debate is welcomed, Newson’s response misrepresents Palestinian resistance and minimizes Palestinian suffering to order to reject the idea of cultural boycott. 

In reply, Jonathan Rosenhead, Jenny Morgan, Miranda Pennell and other members of BIN have joined forces with Israeli activists Boycott from Within to compose a Press Release countering Newson’s fallacious claims, and reiterating the arguments for boycott. The PR has been sent to national arts critics and the arts press. BWISP reproduces it here, with thanks to all who are working so hard on this campaign. Please feel free to Tweet or otherwise circulate this post

WHY BOYCOTT BATSHEVA?

A British and an Israeli response to Lloyd Newson of DV8

Last night pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted Batsheva dance company, Israel’s ‘most important cultural ambassador’, at their opening night at the Edinburgh Festival in the presence of Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub and Israeli culture and sport minister Livnat.

In August this year, boycott activists wrote privately to a number of dance professionals, asking them if they would sign a letter for publication in the press that criticised the decision of the Edinburgh International Festival to invite Israeli dance company Batsheva to perform.  DV8 founder Lloyd Newson chose to respond publicly via the DV8 website and newsletter.

We welcome Lloyd Newson’s willingness to discuss the issue of the cultural boycott of Israel.  Attached are two responses, the first from the people who wrote to him originally, the second from Israeli organisation Boycott from Within

A British response

We wrote to Lloyd Newson and other dancers and choreographers because we support the call from Palestinian  civil society for an international boycott of Israeli state institutions, modelled on the boycott of South African apartheid, in order to pressure Israel to bring to an end its decades-long violations of fundamental Palestinian rights.

1   Boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS)

Boycott is the non-violent weapon of a people who have been denied any democratic recourse to justice over many decades. We strongly reject the political and moral equivalence Newson seems to assume between Israel and Palestine. The fundamental dynamics of military occupation, ethnic cleansing and of apartheid can only be described as the relationship between oppressor and oppressed. This relationship is amply documented by all reputable human rights organisations.

2   Newson writes: ‘Palestine should recognise Israel’s right to exist, stop calling for Israel’s destruction and renounce terrorism’

Over the past 64 years, Israel has never recognised the existence of Palestine, nor its right to exist, even while colonising its resources, destroying its villages, agriculture and economy and while expelling its people and disabling the functioning of its society. Israel has certainly never hesitated to use violence to achieve the above aims.

In fact the Palestinian call for boycott is a non-violent strategy that calls not for the ‘destruction’ of anything or the deprivation of any rights, only for the implementation of international laws and human rights conventions as they apply equally to all people, regardless of ethnicity.

3   Honour crimes, gender violence and occupation

So-called ‘honour’ crimes, and violence based on gender or sexual orientation, must never be denied or dismissed. While they are a reality in Palestinian society, this is also true of many other countries. However, that fact is not normally deployed, as Newson does, as an argument against the right of these countries to exist and practise self-determination. Palestinians are entitled to the human rights denied to them by the State of Israel over the past six decades precisely because rights are universal and affect all Palestinian women and men, whether gay or straight.

Furthermore, there is ample evidence that the daily experience of living under military occupation and racial persecution actively compounds these problems. Israeli occupation and violence against Palestinian women are integrally linked. For example, Israeli military checkpoints cut off roads between Palestinian villages and towns, isolating women from friends and family and making them more vulnerable to patriarchal control. The Israeli military and occupation authorities routinely humiliate Palestinian men, increasing tension in the domestic sphere and making it difficult for Palestinian women to talk publicly about experiences of domestic violence.

Doctor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has rejected the ‘culturalisation’ of violence against women – the explanation of violence as part of  ‘Palestinian culture’ – and situated it within the  context of Israeli occupation, militarisation, dispossession  and poverty. She has shown how women suffer the constant fear of losing their homes, family members and their ability to provide for their children. The economic strangulation that prevents Palestinians from reaching schools, from finding decent work, and from moving freely within and between their own areas, has had a profound impact on women’s lives and safety.

4   ‘Pink-washing’ versus solidarity with Palestinian LGBT

We note that Palestinian Queers for BDS (PQBDS), a group of Palestinian activists from the Palestinian Occupied Territories and Israel, have come together to promote and stand for the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. They write:

As an integral part of Palestinian society we believe that the struggle for sexual and gender diversity is interconnected with the Palestinian struggle for freedom. As Palestinian queers, our struggle is not only against social injustice and our rights as a queer minority in Palestinian society, but rather, our main struggle is one against Israel’s colonization, occupation and apartheid; a system that has oppressed us for the past 63 years.

Aeyal Gross, professor of law at Tel Aviv University, has stated that for Israel, ‘Gay rights have essentially become a public-relations tool’, even though ‘conservative and especially religious politicians remain fiercely homophobic’. This public relations programme has become known as ‘Pinkwashing’.

Gross has elsewhere said: ‘The appropriation of gay rights in Israel diverts the conversation from Palestinian oppression in an attempt to present Israel as a liberal democracy’.

We note and support the public stands for BDS taken by gender and queer theorist Judith Butler and film-maker John Greyson, the work of activists such as the queer Arab Pinkwatchingisrael, the Lebanese Helem, and the US group Queers Against Apartheid who write:

As queers, we recognize that homophobia exists in Israel, Palestine, and across all borders. However, the struggle for sexual rights cannot come at the price of other rights. 

5   The boycott of Batsheva dance company, Israel’s ‘most important global ambassador’

We think Newson is quite right to be wary of ‘artists banning other artists’. As with the boycott of South African apartheid, cultural boycott means balancing the right to freedom of expression (in this case of Israeli state institutions that do not explicitly oppose state policies regarding Palestinians) against other fundamental freedoms, such as the freedom of ordinary Palestinians to live in liberty and equality with others.

We are not boycotting any choreographer because of their beliefs, their nationality or the content of their work. We are protesting the Israeli state’s use of contemporary dance as ‘soft power’ to promote a cultured image on the world stage, as part of its ‘Brand Israel’ campaign.

Newson notes that Batsheva director Ohad Naharin has publicly stated he is ‘sympathetic to the frustrations experienced by Palestinians and has openly criticised the Israeli government’. But sympathy for their ‘frustrations’ will not impress Palestinians living under siege in Gaza, in the West Bank, in refugee camps, in prison under administrative detention, or anywhere else.

Dance scholar and choreographer Nicholas Rowe, who worked with dancers in the Occupied West Bank and with refugees in Lebanon for eight years, wrote to us:

If Ohad Naharin and Batsheva Dance Company would have the courage to refuse to offer their bodies up to the Israeli Defense Forces for annual military service, if they would have the courage to publicly condemn the illegal military occupation of the West Bank and the ongoing theft of land and property by the government that pays them to tour in the name of Israel, if they would have the courage to publicly state that they do not judge people by their religion or ethnicity and so would welcome the return of non-Jewish refugees back to their homes inside what is now Israel, then they would be touring to the UK as dance artists, and not just as political puppets. Anybody who seeks to watch Batsheva should be aware that Ohad Naharin and Batsheva have these choices to make.   

 Newson belittles these choices, characterising them as ‘highly simplified’. We, however, think these are fundamental questions of moral responsibility, not only for artists but for civil society in general.

Jenny Morgan, Miranda Pennell, Professor Jonathan Rosenhead

for info: contact@mirandapennell.com or contact Eleanor Kilroy  07909 248651

 

An Israeli response

Lloyd Newson’s moral failure

We are Israeli citizens who are active against our government’s policies of racism, apartheid and occupation.

We wish to address Lloyd Newson’s flawed reasoning in his response to British activists for solidarity with Palestinian people.

According to Mr. Newson, all Palestinians (Israelis) represent all Palestinian institutions (respectively), and are therefore responsible for human rights violations committed by ‘their’ institutions. This is a grave error, and a failure to comprehend the Palestinian BDS call.

The call for boycotting Batsheva has been issued due to its affiliation with the Israeli government, and its role as a propaganda outlet for the Israeli regime.

No one has called for a personal boycott of Batsheva’s ensemble. In fact, the dancers can be invited, as individuals, to perform the same programme, instead of representing the Israeli government as the Israeli foreign-ministry funded ensemble of Batsheva. If Mr. Newson wishes to boycott institutions of other states that are responsible for human rights violations, this would not be incompatible with the Palestinian BDS call.

Gender violence and fundamentalism are all a reality in Palestinian society (as well as in Israeli society). However, an occupied people do not ‘win’ or ‘deserve’ their freedom from occupation, colonisation and apartheid by being a model society. This is all the more true since Israeli society itself is not a model society. As an activist for LGBT rights, Mr. Newson would be advised to heed the call of  Palestinian Queers for BDS (PQBDS), a group of Palestinian queer activists who live in the Palestinian Occupied Territory and inside Israel. The group has countered Israeli propaganda efforts, especially in the form of ‘pinkwashing’, by declaring:

As Palestinian queers, our struggle is not only against social injustice and our rights as a queer minority in Palestinian society, but rather, our main struggle is one against Israel’s colonization, occupation and apartheid; a system that has oppressed us for the past 63 years. Violations of human rights and international law, suppression of basic rights and civil liberty, and discrimination are deeply rooted in Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, straight and gay alike. 

We call on Mr Newson to adopt a coherent and consistent moral paradigm with respect to Israel’s policies of racism, apartheid and occupation, and endorse a boycott of official Israeli representative institutions.

Boycott from Within

Israeli Citizens in Support of the Palestinian BDS Call

admin@boycottisrael.info
Ofer (Boycott from Within) 972-544-740825

May 25, 2012

[Report] BWISP / GUPW / PACBI Panel Discussion, Ramallah May 21st 2012

Some writers, British or otherwise, try to give words to the voices they hear in other languages.  Here are the words of a Palestinian voice I’m hearing tonight.  Perhaps it’s the voice of several loved ones, but also the voice of many I don’t have the privilege of knowing. Listen to the words the voice is quietly saying:

“So we know, don’t we?  This is life and we live it, and we don’t repeat ourselves too much.  Naturally we argue sometimes.  Oddly enough we are among the world’s experts in making the best of it.  The lies still being told against us are more than sixty years old.  They wall us in ceaselessly.  Nevertheless, and despite some of what happens every minute of the day, we make the most of it.  But for this life of ours not to become the living death which it also is, we have to continue – nothing can stop us – to proclaim and insist to the world that what we are being forced to live is a monstrous injustice……. Isn’t this how it is?”

                                                                                        John Berger  / May 2012

[Naomi Foyle writes:] Capitalising on my visit to the West Bank to visit The Freedom Theatre, PACBI  arranged an opportunity for me to share news of BWISP activities with a Palestinian audience, and to learn more about their struggle against Israeli apartheid in a panel discussion with Murad al-Soudani, Secretary-General of the General Union of Palestinian Writers.

The event, held at the Al-Bireh Municipality Hall and chaired by Dr Samia Botmeh, was very well-attended, especially considering that Nakba Commemoration Day and Hunger Strike Solidarity demonstrations were still on-going.  Over fifty people were present, filling the hall, and many made contributions to the Q & A.  The key results were:

  • the creation of an event that broke the cultural siege on the West Bank – let us not forget that I had to hide my visit from Israeli officials or risk certain deportation;
  • an opportunity for political networking that clearly demonstrated the current mood of hope, determination and solidarity that characterises the whole BDS campaign;
  • the promise of greater strategic links in the future between BWISP and GUPW.

Murad al-Soudani began by declaring that Palestinian culture includes all Palestinians – refugees, the diaspora and those within the West Bank and the 1948 borders.  At the same time, he insisted that Palestinian culture is outward-looking and evolving, and seeks to take its rightful place in a context of international exchange.  He also framed the academic and cultural boycott as a key strategy in the struggle against the normalisation of Israeli apartheid.  This is significant for BWISP members, who may encounter criticisms that only ‘dialogue’ with Israel can bring lasting political change.  The message from Occupied Palestine is that our colleagues resoundingly reject any Zionist façade of state-sponsored cultural exchange, which only buys Israel time to consolidate its stranglehold on Palestinian lives and land.  al-Soudani also noted that the GUPW has recently passed a motion committing the union to the struggle for freedom for Palestine, something new in its history.  This mobilisation of union members is a significant step, as demonstrated by the recent strongly-worded GUPW statement rejecting Tracy Chevalier’s efforts to meet with Palestinian writers while she was violating the boycott.  The Union call was heeded, and no Palestinian writer agreed to meet with her.

I then gave a summary of BWISP campaigns, including: protesting Ian McEwan’s acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize; organising the Southbank debate on cultural boycott; our recent efforts to dissuade Tom Rob Smith and Tracy Chevalier from attending the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Festival; and our members’ deep involvement in the on-going Globe Theatre/Boycott Habima campaign.  I noted the positive progression of these campaigns, each of which has provoked international debate in the mainstream media:

  • each has pushed the issue of cultural boycott deeper into mainstream British discourse, so that now with the Globe Theatre campaign it is no longer possible to brush off boycott arguments with platitudes about freedom of speech; instead, critics of the boycott are being forced to grapple with the real issue – the need to refuse complicity with apartheid and war crimes.
  • attempts by Zionists and boycott critics to ignore or misreport our campaigns in the media have increasingly exposed the hypocrisy of the ‘dialogue’ argument;
  • the pressure is clearly being felt, as indicated by Chevalier’s misguided attempt to reach out to Palestinians, and the Globe Theatre’s attempts to offer compromise solutions – which were similarly rejected.

I ended my talk with a personal message from John Berger to the audience, which was received with pleasure and gratitude.  With his kind permission, I have included it above.

Questioners opened up the discussion in a variety of ways.  One noted that international archaeologists have long been operating a silent boycott of Israel, and are emboldened by more vocal campaigns.   The role of religion in the conflict came under critical scrutiny: I discussed the need for UK activists to counter accusations of anti-Semitism by making a sharp distinction between Zionism and Judaism, and a questioner highlighted the role of Christian Zionism in cementing the Occupation – something I am aware of from my efforts to challenge Michael Gove’s bias in the application of the Education Act.  The importance of Palestinian culture as a sometimes overlooked weapon in the struggle was also discussed, with al-Soudani suggesting that for Palestinians to organise their own international literary festivals would not be a ‘reaction’ to Israeli events (ie, a ‘balancing’ effort) but a positive action in its own right.  I cited Ghada Karmi’s comment that of all her books, her memoir has made the most impact on international readers, and here humbly offer the opinion that fiction, poetry and memoir can help scale what Berger calls ‘the wall of lies’ about Palestine.

I was also asked what it took to change a writer’s mind about appearing in Israel, to which I replied I wish I knew!  But thinking about it later, I realised that the current policy of ‘name and shame’ is the most useful strategy we have.  Of course, this is initially intended to chastise writers for breaking an international picket line, and as such may be misinterpreted as a purely punitive measure.  But shame is such an uncomfortable negative emotion it may in the long run provoke a change of conscience.  Certainly when I have felt shame in my personal life I have altered my behaviour in order not to experience it again.  Some writers, like Ian McEwan and Tom Rob Smith, appear to be impervious to shame, but others, like Chevalier, may feel it at some level, and thus be prompted to question their own blind participation in Israeli propaganda events.  It is important to note that the door is open for such writers to communicate with Palestinians in the future – just not while they are actively violating the boycott.

In conclusion, BWISP members and all UK boycott activists will be honoured to know that questioner after questioner thanked us profusely for our efforts on their behalf.  One had clearly been unaware of the amount of BDS campaigning in the UK, so the event was a chance to demonstrate to him the strength of UK resistance; another remarked that he felt Palestine’s ‘South Africa moment’ was approaching – a truly hopeful statement, but one that felt not unreasonable given recent BDS successes, and the powerful sense of unity and indeed excitement in the room.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.