British Writers In Support of Palestine

July 19, 2014

Nobel Laureates call for a Military Embargo on Israel

As the IDF bombs the captive civilian population of Gaza for the third time in six years, and initiates a ground invasion of the besieged territory, BWISP members John Berger, Selma Dabbagh, Ghada Karmi, Nur Masalha, China Mieville and Robin Yassin-Kassab have joined the Palestinian BDS Committee’s call for a military embargo on Israel. Signed by six Nobel peace laureates and public figures including Judith Butler, Brian Eno, and Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Former UNESCO Director General, the Open Letter was published today in an abridged version in The Guardian.

Chile, mentioned in the letter, has already suspended trade negotiations with Israel in protest over the current round of atrocities, and is considering withdrawing its ambassador.

To add your name to the call, please sign here.

 

Nobel laureates, artists and public intellectuals call for immediate military embargo on Israel

“With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. …There would be no oppressed had there been no prior of violence to establish their subjugation.” –Paulo Freire

Israel has once again unleashed the full force of its military against the captive Palestinian population, particularly in the besieged Gaza Strip, in an inhumane and illegal act of military aggression. Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza has so far killed scores of Palestinian civilians, injured hundreds and devastated the civilian infrastructure, including the health sector, which is facing severe shortages.

Israel’s ability to launch such devastating attacks with impunity largely stems from the vast international military cooperation and trade that it maintains with complicit governments across the world.

Over the period 2009-2019, the US is set to provide military aid to Israel worth $30bn, while Israeli annual military exports to the world have reached billions of dollars. In recent years, European countries have exported billions of euros worth of weapons to Israel, and the European Union has furnished Israeli military companies and universities with military-related research grants worth hundreds of millions.

Emerging economies such as India, Brazil and Chile, are rapidly increasing their military trade and cooperation with Israel, despite their stated support for Palestinian rights.

By importing and exporting arms to Israel and facilitating the development of Israeli military technology, governments are effectively sending a clear message of approval for Israel’s military aggression, including its war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.

Israel is one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of militarized drones. Israel’s military technology, developed to maintain decades of oppression, is marketed as “field tested” and exported across the world.

Military trade and joint military-related research relations with Israel embolden Israeli impunity in committing grave violations of international law and facilitate the entrenchment of Israel’s system of occupation, colonisation and systematic denial of Palestinian rights.

We call on the UN and governments across the world to take immediate steps to implement a comprehensive and legally binding military embargo on Israel, similar to that imposed on South Africa during apartheid.

Governments that express solidarity with the Palestinian people in Gaza, facing the brunt of Israel’s militarism, atrocities and impunity, must start with cutting all military relations with Israel. Palestinians today need effective solidarity, not charity.

Signed by:

Adolfo Peres Esquivel, Nobel Peace Laureate, Argentina
Ahdaf Soueif , Author, Egypt/UK
Ahmed Abbas, Academic, France
Aki Olavi Kaurismäki , film director, Finland
Alexi Sayle, Comedian, UK
Alice Walker, Writer, US
Alison Phipps, Academic, Scotland
Andrew Ross, Academic, US
Andrew Smith, Academic, Scotland
Arch. Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate, South Africa
Ascanio Celestini, actor and author, Italy
Betty Williams, Nobel Peace Laureate, Northern Ireland
Boots Riley, Rapper, poet, arts producer, US
Brian Eno, Composer/musician, UK
Brigid Keenan, Author, UK
Caryl Churchill, playwright, UK
China Mieville, Writer, UK
Chris Hedges , Journalist, Pulitzer Prize 2002, US
Christiane Hessel, , France
Cynthia McKinney, Politician, activist, US
David Graeber, Academic, UK
David Palumbo-Liu, Academic, US
Eleni Varikas, Academic, France
Eliza Robertson, Author,
Elwira Grossman, Academic, Scotland
Etienne Balibar, philosopher, France
Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Former UNESCO Director General, Spain
Felim Egan, Painter, Ireland
Frei Betto, Liberation theologian, Brazil
Gerard Toulouse, Academic, France
Ghada Karmi , Academic , Palestine
Gillian Slovo, Writer, Former president of PEN (UK), UK/South Africa
Githa Hariharan, Writer, India
Giulio Marcon, MP (SEL), Italy
Hilary Rose, Academic, UK
Ian Shaw, Academic, Scotland
Ilan Pappe, Historian, author, Israel
Ismail Coovadia, former South African Ambassador to Israel
Ivar Ekeland, Academic, France
James Kelman, Writer, Scotland
Janne Teller, Writer, Denmark
Jeremy Corbyn, MP (Labour), UK
Joanna Rajkowska, Artist, Poland
Joao Felicio, President of ITUC, Brazil
Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Laureate, US
John Berger, artist, UK
John Dugard, Former ICJ judge, South Africa
John McDonnell, MP (Labour), UK
John Pilger, journalist and filmmaker , Australia
Judith Butler, Academic, philosopher, US
Juliane House, Academic, Germany
Karma Nabulsi, Oxford University, UK/Palestine
Keith Hammond, Academic, Scotland
Ken Loach, Filmmaker, UK
Kool A.D. (Victor Vazquez), Musician, US
Liz Lochhead, national poet for Scotland, UK
Liz Spalding, Author,
Luisa Morgantini, former vice president of the European Parliament, Italy
Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Laureate, Ireland
Marcia Lynx Qualey, Blogger and Critic, US
Michael Lowy, Academic, France
Michael Mansfield, Barrister, UK
Michael Ondaatje, Author, Canada/Sri Lanka
Mike Leigh, writer and director, UK
Mira Nair, filmmaker, India
Monika Strzępka, theatre director, Poland
Naomi Wallace, Playwright, screenwriter, poet, US
Nathan Hamilton, Poet ,
Noam Chomsky, Academic, author, US
Nur Masalha, Academic, UK/Palestine
Nurit Peled, Academic, Israel
Paola Bacchetta, Academic, US
Phyllis Bennis, Policy analyst, commentator, US
Prabhat Patnaik, Economist, India
Przemyslaw Wielgosz, Chief editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Polish edition, Poland
Rachel Holmes, Author, UK
Raja Shehadeh, Author and Lawyer, Palestine
Rashid Khalidi, Academic, author, Palestine/US
Rebecca Kay, Academic, Scotland
Richard Falk, Former UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestinian Territories, US
Rigoberta Menchú, Nobel Peace Laureate, Guatemala
Robin D.G. Kelley, Academic, US
Roger Waters, Musician, UK
Robin Yassin-Kassab, Writer, UK
Roman Kurkiewicz, journalist, Poland
Ronnie Kasrils, Former minister in Mandela’s gov’t, South Africa
Rose Fenton, Director, the Free Word Centre, UK
Sabrina Mahfouz, Author, UK
Saleh Bakri, Actor, Palestine
Selma Dabbagh, Author, UK/Palestine
Sir Geoffrey Bindman, Lawyer, UK
Slavoj Zizek, Philosopher, author, Slovenia
Sonia Dayan-Herzbrun, Academic, France
Steven Rose, Academic, UK
Tom Leonard, Writer, Scotland
Tunde Adebimpe, Musician, US
Victoria Brittain, Playwright and journalist, UK
Willie van Peer, Academic, Germany
Zwelinzima Vavi, Secretary General of Cosatu, South Africa

 

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April 5, 2013

Chapeau to Iain Banks

Filed under: Cultural Boycott — Naomi Foyle @ 10:04 pm
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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
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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 13, 2012

Update on Mishkenot Sha’ananim Campaign

The Mishkenot Sha’ananim International Writers’ Festival begins today in Jerusalem.  While neither Tracy Chevalier nor Tom Rob Smith have engaged with BWISPs open letter requesting them not to attend, nevertheless there have been some significant developments:

Tom Rob Smith at first agreed to be facebook friends with BWISP members Eleanor Kilroy and  Naomi Foyle, and responded politely to Foyle’s private message by saying that he would think seriously about the issues and get back to her.  He also posted a reply to Kilroy on his wall, stating that his main reason for attending was to engage with his Israeli fans.  Kilroy and Ofer Neiman of Boycott from Within responded with pertinent arguments.  Three days later, Smith unfriended all of us and we have heard nothing from him since.  For a fuller account, read Eleanor Kilroy’s article here.

Eleanor Kilroy started posting links to the BWISP letter and other relevant sites on the Festival facebook page.  Seni Seneviratne and Naomi Foyle added comments, expressing our disappointment at the lack of engagement from the two writers.  So far the threads are still on the wall.(See the box on the right-hand side of the timeline – you may have to scroll down within the box to see the posts.)

Ynet then reported that Chevalier wanted to ‘meet Palestinian writers’, and had asked the Festival director to arrange such an opportunity in Ramallah.  The Ynet story mentioned our campaign in general terms, and also announced that Indian writer Vikas Swarup had cancelled his appearance at the festival, for ‘diplomatic’ reasons.  PACBI had asked Swarup not to attend.

PACBI and GUPW (General Union of Palestinian Writers) have issued an authoritative statementstatement requesting Palestinian writers to shun such an encounter with Chevalier and other festival attendees, which they frame as a voyeuristic Orientalist endeavor.

In the meantime, the Festival coincides with the 64th anniversary of the Nakba, and takes place as the Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike reaches a highly critical stage.  Two Palestinians have currently refused food for 76 days – longer than any hunger striker has yet survived this form of extreme non-violent protest.  Many activists in Jerusalem are making the hunger strike their main focus, but a small group of us are hoping to stage some kind of protest at the festival.

Finally, Naomi Foyle is scheduled to report on BWISP activities at a PACBI/GUPW panel discussion in Ramallah on May 21st, and will blog on the event.

April 6, 2012

Shakespeare’s Globe: Disinvite Habima!

Many thanks to BWISP member Eleanor Kilroy for her sustained work on the on-going Shakespeare’s Globe ‘Disinvite Habima’ campaign, summarised here in her comprehensive article for Mondoweiss, reposted with permission.

English effort to boycott Israeli theater is likened to…. ‘Nazi book-burning’

In the one week since their Guardian letter, ‘Dismay at Globe invitation’ to the Israeli Habima theatre, was published, signatories such as Emma Thompson and Mark Rylance have been vilified in some quarters. The Jewish Chronicle was expected to hit back the hardest; it has been following the story since late last year, even before Habima’s planned involvement in the Globe to Globe Shakespeare festival aroused opposition, initially from the Israeli organisation Boycott from Within.

In an October 2011 JC article, ‘Israelis fear protests at Globe Shakespeare festival‘, a Habima spokesperson, Rut Tonn, described the Palestinian theatre company Ashtar’s appearance in the same festival as “a blessing”, and an example of “collaborations which will help with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” But Ashtar has refuted any suggestion that its appearance in the festival four weeks before Habima’s implies any sort of balance, and said in a letter to the Globe this February:

“They have insinuated cooperation with us to undermine the growing cultural boycott of complicit Israeli institutions.”

Now The Jewish Chronicle has fashioned its best headline yet out of a quote from a British playwright:

Theatre ban ‘like Nazi book burning’ say West End stars

The call for a boycott of Habima, which was founded by Jews in Moscow in 1905, was condemned by Sir Arnold [Wesker], who said that “depriving an audience of an artistic experience is like the Nazis burning the books of the finest minds and talents of Europe”.

Habima’s artistic director Ilan Ronen, responding to the Guardian letter, reiterated this week in Haaretz the falsehood that illegal West Bank settlements are part of Israel. This is the line that Habima co-manager Odelia Friedman took in front of the Knesset in 2010:

“As a national theater company, Habima will perform for all residents of Israel. Residents of Ariel are residents of Israel and Habima will stage shows for them”.

The same Odelia Friedman declared just two months ago that the Globe invitation was ‘an honourable accomplishment for the State of Israel’, in the spirit of the infamous 2005 statement by Israel’s Foreign Ministry: “We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.” Yet the Globe and its apologists insist on equating the Palestinian boycott of Israeli institutions with an attack on individual (in some cases, Jewish) artistic freedom.

Last night, at a rather chaotic Dash Café London event “Art & Conflict – The Case of Syria”, my Reel Festivals colleague Dan Gorman gave an example of the Syrian Ba’athist regime’s attempt to co-opt their independent cultural festival in 2011, months after the uprising began. The Reel Festivals organisers abandoned plans to stage events in Syria upon seeing the Syrian authorities’ use of cultural events to support their narrative of popular support for the government, with events such as the “Oath of Loyalty to the Homeland festival” last July.

In this interminable propaganda piece by the SANA news agency on the ‘festival’, the following quote is typical: ‘Artist Subhi al-Rifa’ai said “We came here today to show the world that no one can undermine our country and national unity”.’ Crude rhetoric compared to the whitewash of The Jewish Chronicle and Ynet, and yet the parallels should be noted.

I have little doubt that several of the participating Syrian artists were too fearful for their lives to decline the invitation to front this state-sponsored event – the very antithesis of culture, just as the ethnically privileged Jewish Israeli actors in Habima dare not risk careers and government subsidies. As BWISP colleague, Naomi Foyle has stated in response to the Globe’s repeated claim that all Habima company actors are closet dissidents:

“If I were a conflicted Habima actor I would be glad of a boycott that might pressure my employers and state funders to rethink their illegal and profoundly destructive policies.”

November 16, 2011

Remi Kanazi: Hope Bearer

Remi Kanazi performed to a capacity crowd at the Friends’ Meeting House in Brighton last night, delivering a host of his signature powerhouse poems, a double whammy of Palestinian and American street cred, and bucketfuls of hope. Organised by the Brighton and Hove Palestine Solidarity Campaign, this gig was the fourth in Remi’s long-announced UK tour – a dizzying 22 shows in 18 days.  He’s acclimatized quickly: ‘Don’t call it my UK tour,’ he begs us, ‘I’m not going to Scotland or Wales – I’ll get in trouble.’ (Don’t forget Northern Ireland, Remi!) The remark gives a small measure of the man: as well as an internationally regarded poet and activist, Remi’s a kidder, a clowner and a master of self-deprecation: an artist both deeply engaged and engaging.

Remi introduces himself as an ex-fat boy, the only brown kid in a small mid-Western school, afflicted with a mono-eyebrow and a mother who was loudly proud of being Palestinian; and while it’s clear his politics stem from being the grandson of four 1948 refugees, and his poetry was honed in post 9-/11 New York, one imagines that his humour developed from playground self-preservation techniques. For his show, though built around the urgent, often angry poems of his new collection Poetic Injustice: Writings on Resistance and Palestine, abounds with humour. Like a comedian, he gets up close with the front row, in ways that may make older British people uncomfortable except that Remi’s introduced himself before the show, and is clearly eager to make friends. He needs to cast the audience as interlocutors at times because his very vocal poems — sometimes addressed to real-life opponents he can’t get out of his head — explore and enact a raging cultural dialogue about racism, violence, and the desperate need for change. Packed with a one-two punch of history and determination, these are poems that travel: today’s audience is composed mainly of local activists – though one of the UK’s top hiphop artists rolls in late after getting lost on the way from London — but Remi’s equally at home with crowds of a thousand, all hungry for emotion served like a good steak: not raw, but rare.

For Remi’s anger is seared by his own unique take on the poet-performer’s craft: eschewing obvious rhymes, his poems meld the rhythms of rap poetry and impassioned speech, and are performed with a dancer’s ethos: mind, body and spirit working as one. Remi often places his fist on his heart, and then opens his hand out to the audience – a physical symbol of the way poetry transforms anger into communication. His topics range from family history and events in the Middle East, to the current American political climate (prophetically, Remi was an Obama-sceptic even before his election) and the vital importance of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign. Here he gives us an artist’s eye view – BDS, he explains in answer to a question, is directed against the Israeli state and its complicit institutions, and doesn’t mean a person can’t perform in a private café or home within the 1948 borders.

But while they impart a ton of information to arm us for the arguments the topic of Palestine inevitably provokes, Remi Kanazi’s poems also gift us memorable imagery:

my grandmother
still fills tear ducts
with longing memories of Yaffa

(‘Home’)

just because the house you built is beautiful
doesn’t mean the bones you built it on
have fully decomposed

(‘Only as Equals’)

Of Middle Eastern civilians, whose quest for justice goes unseen by the poet’s trendy twenty-something peers, he writes:

… they are human beings
gracing the windowpane
reflecting stillborn images
they are voices
chiming in choirs and temples
they are life
that won’t be forgotten
they are the world’s shiver
and whether you like it or not
they are coming inside

(‘Before the Machetes are Raised’)

At the ripe old age of twenty-seven himself, Remi is already a veteran campaigner, whose poetry has taken him all over North America, Europe and the Middle East, and whose political commentaries have been featured by news outlets including Al Jazeera English, GRITtv and BBC Radio. As a Palestinian writer and performer, remaking poetry for a new generation, he helps gives the struggle for justice an enormous shot of hope. For in the last 100 years the Palestinians have faced two main enemies: Zionism and international indifference. And if the latter is largely based on ignorance of the Palestinian people, culture and communication are the antidotes. In her groundbreaking memoir of post-48 exile, In Search of Fatima, Ghada Karmi recounts meeting Tony Benn early on in her activist life: give me something to work with, he asked – give me something to match Jewish literature, music and suffering in the minds of the general population. Well, the Palestinians have always had culture, especially poetry, but now, in Remi Kanazi, Suheir Hammad and Selma Dabbagh, among others, they have young writers who are bicultural, media savvy and only just flexing their collective muscle.  This is a potential game-changer; a cause for immense hope.

Remi Kanazi is today fit, confident, and boasts beautifully threaded brows – a walking advertisement for the benefits of poetry and politics. Though as he asks – what’s political about wanting your basic human rights? Another of his piping hot takeaway lines; lines that, in the end, take you back to his book. Poetic Injustice. Buy it here

November 12, 2011

Norman Finkelstein: Playing Jenga with the Struggle?

On Friday Nov 11 2011, at UCL, world-renowned scholar and activist for Palestinian rights Prof Norman Finkelstein appeared in conversation with Prof Jonathan Rosenhead of BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine), discussing the proposition:

The Palestinians having being denied justice for 63 years, those who support their rights must endorse their call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), including academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

Prof Finkelstein also gave a public lecture in the evening, which unfortunately I could not attend.  Following is my report on the afternoon conversation, which turned into a debate. A detailed account, and video, of the discussion can be seen here  My own intention is summarise the main disagreement between the speakers, and give my reaction to it.

Jonathan Rosenhead opened with a clear historical overview of boycott as a strategy, and ended by saying that in the case of Palestine, it should continue until the Palestinians ask us to stop supporting it – that is, until the system of oppression they suffer under has ended.  Norman Finkelstein responded by arguing forcefully that the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign should work toward goals based in International Law, not some vague, impossible to define, outcome; and that we shouldn’t feel obliged to follow the Palestinians’ lead, as previously this would have obliged us to support suicide bombing.  He said much else, including giving a review of the state of International Law on Palestine, and the helpful advice to cite this more in our literature, but I want to focus on this essential point of discord.

Frankly I was very surprised to hear Prof Finkelstein’s criticism of BDS.   I, and others, spoke from the floor, reminding both speakers that the demands of the BDS movement, as stated by PACBI, are clearly based on International Law:

[that] Israel withdraws from all the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; removes all its colonies in those lands; agrees to United Nations resolutions relevant to the restitution of Palestinian refugees rights; and dismantles its system of apartheid.

Prof Finkelstein responded by saying that while the first three demands are sound in law, the last, the demand for Israel to dismantle its system of apartheid, is not, because Israeli apartheid hasn’t been recognised by the UN or other bodies of International Law.  He claimed that without this legal underpinning, the goal of ending apartheid in Israel is counter-productive – that it ‘turns people off’; that BDS will never become a mass movement if we try to get people to sign up to tampering with the state of Israel itself.

I also tried to discuss this with him afterwards.  I asked him why,  if the situation in Israel fits the UN definition of apartheid,  we shouldn’t work toward getting iron-clad legal recognition of this fact.  But Prof Finkelstein rejected this approach, saying ‘ that would take 100 years’.

Underlying Prof Finkelstein’s hostility to this key plank of the BDS movement appears to be the fear that the demand to end Israeli apartheid is a disguised call to ‘end the state of Israel’, rather than ending the way the state is currently organised, which is how all the people I know interpret the demand.  After all, South Africa still exists as a state.   Personally, I think Prof Finkelstein is sadly out of touch with the robust health and rapid growth of the BDS movement.

Far from being a threat to building a mass movement, the demand to end Israeli apartheid is one that everyone can understand – every ordinary person on the streets of the UK knows what South Africa was like; all they need is some basic education about Palestine to see that apartheid is operating there as well.  Especially considering that the South Africans themselves are taking such leadership in BDS, and separate campaigns to End Israeli Apartheid are evident all over the internet, it’s a nonsense to say that the demand is unrealistic.  On the legal front,  the very recent Russell Tribunal on Palestine Capetown Session has recommended (among other pertinent goals):

The UN General Assembly to reconstitute the UN Special Committee against Apartheid, and to convene a special session to consider the question of apartheid against the Palestinian people.  In this connection the Committee should compile a list of individuals, organisations, banks, companies, corporations, charities, and any other private or public bodies which assist Israel’s apartheid regime with a view to taking appropriate measures.

In my view, the current BDS strategy is right on target, and I wish Prof Finkelstein would put his considerable legal chops in the service of the goals of the Russell Tribunal.

I also wish to respond to his second criticism of the BDS movement – that it takes its leadership from the Palestinians.  To deal first with his counter-example – in my view, the BDS movement is not at all comparable to the suicide bombing campaigns, which made no formal call for international support, and were never, to my knowledge, endorsed by any UK solidarity group.   Rather, solidarity works to provide and support democratic alternatives to such desperate, tragic, violent and, indeed, as Prof Rosenhead stated, politically counter-productive measures.  The Palestinians themselves have turned en masse away from suicide bombing as a strategy – as comedian and ‘extreme rambler’ Mark Thomas recently recounted in his recent Walking the Wall tour, countless Palestinians get through holes in the wall daily, not to bomb civilians, but in order to work illegally in Israel.   Instead, Palestinian civil society has overwhelmingly endorsed BDS, and taking our leadership from them is an essential part of the moral legitimacy of the campaign.

First, if BDS was just a matter of personal conscience, then indeed I would be a hypocrite for spending so much time promoting the boycott of Israel and not other countries with terrible human rights records.  Second, as I have stated before, it is not up to us in the West to dictate to the Palestinians how they should run their campaigns.   Instead, we can choose which campaigns we want to support, and then do so wholeheartedly, and in a spirit of solidarity, dialogue and willingness to learn.   I don’t believe in capital punishment for any crime, and would never endorse any kind of violence that was not clearly in self-defense, in the strictest sense of the term.  But as I have argued before on this blog, Palestinian violence must be seen in the context of 62 years of oppression, and ending that systematic injustice, in a way that is 100% consistent with the principle of Palestinian self-determination, is the only way to end that violence.

By criticizing this key demand of the BDS movement, and dismissing the paramount importance of the need to work in solidarity with the Palestinians, Prof Finkelstein is playing Jenga with the Palestinian struggle – poking and pulling away the foundational planks of its existence.   We don’t need that at this time.  We need an atmosphere of mutual support and co-operation between the legal, civil disobedience, and BDS strategies. I thank Prof Finkelstein for his very useful summary of the legal position of the Palestinian cause and Prof Rosenhead for his profound commitment to the principle of solidarity, and I place these thoughts on record in hope that they may contribute to a spirit of unity in the popular movement for Palestinian human rights.

Note: Jenga is a game played with wooden blocks, which players take turns to remove from a tower and balance on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure that eventually collapses.  The word is derived from the Swahili term for ‘to build’. 

July 23, 2011

Why Boycott Culture? – Reflections on the Southbank Debate

Hosted by the Southbank Centre as part of the 2011 London Literature Festival, the long-anticipated debate  Why Boycott Culture? attracted an audience of about 140, and generated an electric atmosphere.  The debate is now online as a podcast; here, after a short summer break offline, Naomi Foyle summarises the arguments, and asks what next for the academic and cultural boycott in the UK?

 

Motion:

Where basic freedoms are denied and democratic remedies blocked off, cultural boycott by world civil society is a viable and effective political strategy; indeed a moral imperative.

 

Why Boycott Culture? was introduced by Rachel Holmes, Southbank Head of Literature and Spoken Word, who is to be highly commended for commissioning this debate on a controversial issue state-funded UK organisations understandably often seek to avoid.  Holmes introduced the motion, commenting on its pertinence for literary festivals and programmers all over the world.  The Chair, Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, then gave an informed overview of the background to the debate, citing South Africa, Sri Lanka, China, the London Book Fair, and the current suggestion that the UK should be boycotted for its visa regulations that treat international artists like criminals.  As PEN Director, and Chair, he was clearly unable to take sides on this issue, however it was encouraging to hear him seriously address the contention that cultural disengagement may be as powerful a political tool as cultural engagement.

The Chair then introduced the two teams: speaking for the motion, human rights activist Omar Barghouti, author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, and poet Seni Seneviratne, author of Wild Cinnamon and Winter Skin; speaking against the motion Jonathan Freedland, columnist for The Guardian, The Jewish Chronicle and The New York Times, and author of six books, and Carol Gould, writer, film producer and author of  Spitfire Girls and Anti-Americanism in the UK .   Each was to speak for ten minutes, then the floor would be opened to the audience for questions.  Heawood took the temperature of the audience, and a quick display of hands easily determined that the vast majority of the room was in favour of the motion, with about a dozen or more people undecided, and approximately the same number against the motion.

Personally, I was disappointed by these proportions.  As a volunteer consultant to the Southbank, helping to choose the speakers for the motion, I had hoped for the event to attract a mainstream, undecided audience as well as numbers of passionate supporters of both sides of the motion.  At the same time, I was not surprised.  The BWISP letter-writing campaign against Ian McEwan’s acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize demonstrated that a lazy, unexamined view of cultural boycott as an assault on free speech is the status quo in the UK.   It is not in the interest of those who hold the upper hand to debate an issue; and as a result Zionists and pro-Zionists themselves tend to informally ‘boycott’ such public exchanges.  Certainly our offers to debate McEwan were ignored.  However, I was extremely pleased that Jonathan Freedland and Carol Gould, both high profile speakers with an international reach, had accepted the invitation to attend.  The ball was rolling, and I was excited to see how it would carom.

Jonathan Freedland took to the podium first.  An experienced, confident speaker, he clearly set out his three main arguments against the motion, by the use of signposting and framing helping the audience to easily grasp and follow his main points.   Freedland’s experience at debating was also evident, however,  in his adroit use of sleight-of-hand to redefine the motion to suit his own agenda.  He began by paying lip-service to the notion of cultural boycott as a versatile political tool, but then declared that, due to its current prominence, he was going to focus on the boycott of Israel.  The first objection he then made against this boycott was that of ‘exceptionalism’ – arguing that BDS unfairly isolates Israel on the world stage, when countries like Syria, for example, are guilty of far worse violations of human rights.

From my position in Row G, I wasn’t sure if I had just witnessed a instance of breathtaking sophistry, or if Freedland has been blinded by Zionist rhetoric to the point that he could not see himself how illogically he was speaking.  He himself was isolating Israel from the motion as a whole – which in fact was carefully worded so as to avoid any suggestion of making a moral exception of Israel.  Indeed, one of the points of the motion, as I saw it, is that if cultural boycott demonstrably applies effective pressure on the state of Israel – as it did on apartheid South Africa –  then the Palestinian call for BDS can help set a precedent for the use of cultural boycott in other countries.

Freedland’s second point was that cultural boycott shuns the very people one wants to reach – artists, writers and scholars.   Careful to position himself as an occasional critic of Israel, he also argued here that dialogue and co-existence projects can put us in the hearts and minds of the other; surely an essential aspect of any peace process.   These are some of the most common liberal arguments against cultural boycott, and ones I was confident that Omar Barghouti and Seni Seneviratne would address.

Finally, Freedland claimed that the cultural boycott of Israel could not be viable or effective, and therefore it was immoral.  Cultural boycott, he declared, would only entrench right-wing Israeli and diasporic Jewish public opinion, thereby worsening the conflict.  Cultural boycott, at best, is an empty gesture that only helps its proponents feel better, he argued.  ‘Don’t fetishize a tactic’ he warned.   Again, these objections to the boycott of Israel are not unusual.  Detractors often claim that because most Israelis have a bunkered mentality, any attempt to ostracise them will only strengthen their perception of themselves as victims of anti-Semitism.  Freedland, despite his disingenuous beginning, had ended on a strong note, citing an argument that causes many people sympathetic to the cause of the Palestinians to shun or doubt the efficacy of cultural boycott.

Seni Seneviratne began by quoting Bertolt Brecht: ‘When evil-doing comes like falling rain’, from a poem which observes that when suffering is seemingly endless, people look away, do not call out ‘stop’.  Cultural boycott, she declared, was her way, as a writer, of saying ‘stop’.  She then broadened the terms of the argument thus far comparing the cultural boycott of Israel to that of South Africa and noting that the former was far more limited than the latter, applying not to individuals, but only to literary and cultural visits to Israel that are sponsored by the Israeli state.  In all cases, however, she contended, boycott effectively raises global awareness of injustice, embeds issues in people’s consciousness, and in fact, opens up debate. Responding indirectly to Freedland’s second point, she also argued that far from being neutral or transcendent observers, artists and writers in Israel, or its guests, are used by the state to normalise its actions.  So the Mayor of Jerusalem on the one hand shuts down PalFest and approves the building of illegal settlements, and on the other hand awards the Jerusalem Prize to Ian McEwan and other international writers.  While writers may understandably want to ‘find out for themselves’ about the conflict, art is not above or beyond politics, and artists cannot work alone to resist political repression.  It is not cultural boycott, but appearing in Israel, she stated, that is the empty gesture.  Writers and artists who wish to spread their message in Israel can, like Naomi Klein, work with resistance groups to organise tours that do not violate the terms of the boycott.

Seneviratne’s speech was both from the heart and intellectually wide-ranging.  A calm and articulate speaker, she presented persuasive arguments for cultural boycott in general, and in particular that of Israel.  Cultural boycott, she concluded, is making the state of Israel nervous, and the world aware of the issues that have led to the Palestinian call.

Carol Gould began by declaring that boycott is a poisonous word to Jews.  She then gave a short summary of her own family’s journey from the pogroms of the Pale of Settlement to America, where they encountered economic and cultural anti-Semitism.  Jews were barred from country clubs, while Hollywood, she informed the audience, was founded after Thomas Edison started a petition to stop Jews operating film studios in New York.  But while I was glad to hear of such initiatives from a community subject to persecution and gross intolerance, Gould pushed the envelope to shredding point when she compared Jewish immigrants to America to Palestinians.  The latter, whether refugees, victims of Occupation, or living under seige,  do not have the opportunity to –  ‘despite their anguish at the loss of their homes’ – pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and make new, good lives for themselves.  Audience impatience with Gould was  soon audible.  People snorted when she referred to Hamas and the rocket attacks from Gaza and Lebanon; and when she said that of course Israel was not perfect and had made ‘mistakes and blunders’ she was heckled by a chorus from the back retorting ‘Policy!’

Perhaps the Chair should have intervened, or stronger points of order should have been established at the outset.  However, Gould appeared strong-minded and willing to engage directly with her detractors.   She also, however appeared unable or unwilling to acknowledge basic political realities.  She denied Israel was an apartheid state because Omar Barghouti was able to attend Tel Aviv University – though in a personal moment she acknowledged he had not been made to feel welcome – and in a bizarre reference to South Africa, she cited South African Jews who supported the liberation struggle, seemingly unaware that most of these, including Joe Slovo, also supported the boycott of apartheid.

Gould also cited the rockets fired into Israel by Lebanon and Gaza as examples of the hatred Israeis face from their neighbours – a topic I have discussed at length in my recent post When Will Howard Jacobson Learn to See the Palestinians?   She concluded by expressing her horror at the recent decision by West Dunbartonshire Council to observe BDS and not buy books from Israeli publishers – a decision falsely reported in the UK as the equivalent of anti-Semitic book-burning (in fact, no books by Israeli authors or publishers will be removed from library shelves, while books by Jewish or Israeli authors published outside Israel are never boycott targets).  Boycott, she summed up, was Joseph Goebbel’s favourite word.  But while Gould’s speech was throughout emotive and lacking a relevant political context, that very emotionalism is a stance that pro-boycott activists confront daily, and need to be able to counter and defuse: or at least put in perspective for the benefit of undecided observers concerned about the issue of anti-Semitism.

Omar Barghouti was the final speaker.  He began on a philosophical note, citing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: that one’s actions should be consistent with a universal moral law.  He thus logically declared that he would sign up to any boycott called for by any oppressed group; directly rebutting Freedland’s charge of Israeli exceptionalism.  Barghouti then focused on the cultural boycott of Israel, which he is a founder of and expert on.  BDS, he stated, has three aims: to end the Occupation of Palestine; to end Apartheid within Israel; and to honour the rights of Palestinian refugees, including the right of return.  He gave a brief overview of the long suffering of the Palestinians: 90-95% of Gazan water is now unfit for human consumption, resulting in birth defects and infant deaths, while Israel, with the complicit support of the international governments, operates a racist culture of impunity, its genocidal mentality summed up by an IDF T-Shirt design in which a pregnant Arab woman is depicted in gun sights below the slogan ‘2 in 1’.

Like Seneviratne, Barghouti stressed that culture in Israel is a branding exercise: in fact, he explained, Israeli culture is a hasbara (propaganda) tool of the first rank, explicitly manipulated to show the world Israel’s ‘prettier face’.  The state of Israel, he reminded us, views its artists as service providers, and asks internationally successful ones to sign contracts agreeing to promote the policy interests of the State. Barghouti also noted that cultural boycott is hardly taboo in the country – many Israeli intellectuals are now refusing to work at or appear at Ariel University and Theatre, deep in the Occupied Territories.  In conclusion, he returned to the moral aspect of the motion – in all our actions of resistance, he declared, we should endeavour to Do No Harm: cultural boycott, as a non-violent political strategy, fulfils this end, and embodies the values of basic human decency.

The Chair then thanked the speakers and asked them if they wished to respond to any points the others had made.  Here Jonathan Freedland attempted to question the integrity of Omar Barghouti by suggesting that BDS did not have the support of the majority of Palestinians, a piece of misinformation Barghouti  soundly refuted: over 170 civil groups support BDS, including trade unions, women’s groups, and writers’ and artists’ associations.  Freedland and Carol Gould reiterated their belief that cultural boycott would only make Israelis ‘circle the wagons’, to which Barghouti stoutly responded that colonial power cannot be persuaded to surrender  – never in history has this happened –  but must be compelled.

Heawood then opened the floor to questions.  Hands shot up all over the room, and sadly there was not enough time to hear from everyone.  As was to be expected, most of the audience had tough questions or strong words for Jonathan Freedland and Carol Gould, countering these speakers’ arguments with observations including the fact that young Jewish activists in North America are increasingly and vocally pro-boycott; that Israeli apartheid extends to Jewish only roads and neighbourhoods; that the Jews of Berlin scuppered the Nazi threat to their shops by in turn boycotting German businesses (an action the Zionists of the time denounced); that over 7000 Gazans have been killed by the IDF since the beginning of the siege, a figure that dwarfs the number of victims of rocket attacks in that period; that it would be immoral to pander to the right-wing opinions and criminal activities of extremist settlers, but that if BDS did in the short-run make things worse for the Palestinians, it must be the Palestinians who should decide if they wanted to change tactics.

Pro-boycott sentiment so dominated this section of the event that Heawood made a special request for tough questions directed at Barghouti and Seneviratne.  A supporter of the One State solution asked Barghouti to clarify his position on co-existence projects: he replied that in order to avoid being targets for boycott such groups must accept Palestinian national rights, and actively work in resistance to the occupation (whether by making art, or other means). Freedland declared that for PACBI to make such distinctions smacked of Maoist thought crime committees; another questioner told him that after working on co-existence projects she was now firmly in favour of boycott.  Unfortunately there was not time to hear more from this questioner, but to his credit Freedland expressed genuine interest in what had made her change her mind.   The issue of anti-Semitism cropped up again, with Carol Gould remarking on Gaddafi’s extreme anti-Semitism, until Omar Barghouti won a round of applause by demanding that the debate not be Judaized – the religion of the oppressors is irrelevant.  And throughout the question period the issue of the definition of apartheid was constantly referred to, as Freedland and Gould attempted to portray the conflict as one of competing national interests, and Barghouti and members of the audience insisting that Israel was a settler-colonial state, run along lines that fit the UN definition of apartheid.

The Chair made sure as many people as possible had their say, then asked the speakers to sum up.  Seneviratne addressed Freedland’s third point, explaining that in South Africa boycott had awoken many whites to the gravity of world opinion against apartheid.   Freedland countered by stressing again his belief that Israel was not South Africa, and cultural boycott there would only make matters worse.  He suggested that the ‘flytilla’ was a better tactic – overlooking the fact that this action is only open to people with money to spend on flying to Tel Aviv airport and being deported, and does not have the potential to become a mass movement, as the boycott so clearly is.

Freedland then concluded the event with a startling, and to my mind, extremely important admission.  ‘Tonight,’ he said, leaning forward in an almost personal address to the audience, ‘has been hugely revealing. I thought my disagreement with the boycott movement was because I want to see the end of occupation and you want to see the end of occupation and it was an argument about tactics. What has come through loud and clear is your motivation is not actually just the end of occupation but it’s with Israel itself – you have a fundamental problem with it.’

It appeared that in light of this revelation Freedland was, as he spoke, re-aligning himself with the fears of his friends who view BDS as a sinister existential threat to Israel.  Clearly we were supposed to feel ashamed of ourselves, but what I sensed in the room was a collective desire to shout back – ‘damn right!’  For me, though suppressed, that exchange between Freeland and the audience decisively shifted the grounds of debate on Israel in the UK.

Thanks to the Southbank’s initiative, and the speakers’ collective focus on the cultural boycott of Israel, a mainstream public debate in the UK openly questioned the repressive contradictions inherent in a state – one without a constitution or fixed borders – that describes itself, impossibly, as both Jewish and democratic.  While Carol Gould’s obdurate insistence that anti-Semitism is at the root of all criticism of Israel is sadly representative of anti-boycott sentiment, at the same time it was blindingly obvious from the large number of self-identified Jewish anti-Zionists in the audience, that anti-Semitism has no place in this international mass movement.  As the movement grows in size and confidence, we can now start to break the taboo that prohibits many from publically questioning Israel’s ‘right to exist’ in its current incarnation.   For does not South Africa still exist?  To increase support for the boycott and for a just peace in the Middle East, such discussions must build on the achievement and example of the Southbank debate and be well-structured, well-publicised, well-mannered and well-chaired.

Three days after the debate the Knesset shamefully passed its long-awaited anti-boycott bill, criminalising peaceful protest in Israel.  Jonathan Freedland would no doubt argue that this proves his point.  However, while such a draconian measure does demonstrate that BDS will inevitably result in a crack-down, it also shows up all the huge cracks in Israel’s ‘democratic’ façade.   If the Palestinians are willing to endure the outraged response of the Israeli State to their non-violent resistance, then it is our moral obligation to support them until the whole world can see Israel for what it is – a rogue state that systemically crushes basic human liberties and is financially rewarded for its efforts by America.   We in the UK must continue to honour the boycott in all its forms, and must agitate for more discussion and debate on the pressing issues it confronts us all with.   I look forward to future high profile debates on cultural boycott and Israeli apartheid on television and the radio, in newspapers and at literary festivals.  I hope for mixed audiences, and for basic human decency to prevail.

June 29, 2011

Reflections on Daniel Vais’s ‘Memoirs of a Soldier’

Filed under: Boycott Israel,IDF — Naomi Foyle @ 2:13 pm
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by Naomi Foyle

 

Dancer, choreographer, angel therapist and ex-IDF soldier Daniel Vais gave an extraordinary and compelling performance at the Friends Meeting House in Brighton last night. For over an hour and a half he spoke about his traumatic experiences as an Israeli army conscript in the early nineties, and his subsequent efforts not only to heal himself of the resultant anger, humiliation and shame, but also to find solutions to the racism and hatred pervading his culture of origin.

A sensitive, artistic, flamboyant gay teenager, Daniel first ignored his call up papers; then he tried to fool the interview panel into thinking he was stupid, a prostitute, a drug addict and, finally, suicidal. But at that time, psychological frailty was not sufficient reason to be excused from military service, and to be a refusenik was unheard of. Daniel’s parents, an Iraqi Jewish mother and Hungarian father, delivered him to his captors, proudly waving him off to what he thought would be his death. That day, he told us, a crack opened up in his heart. He realised that his country and his family were making a willing sacrifice of his youth, and possibly his life, all to fight an ‘enemy’ he knew did not exist. To serve one’s country, he has always believed, is to farm the land, or help those with special needs; not to kill one’s neighbours.

Daniel’s account of his training period and continued attempts to rebel against the indoctrination and strict discipline was both funny and chilling. While the thought of him pleading with his officers to let him bring his own hairdresser in to shave his head had the audience in giggles, we were also acutely reminded of the process of dehumanisation that aims to turn naïve and vibrant young people into cogs in a killing machine. Some soldiers, as Daniel reported, take to this process willingly, enjoying the power a gun and uniform brings them. Some, like Daniel, go numb, hide their feelings away. But faced with a sadistic punishment for daring to look an officer in the eyes, Daniel found strength in himself he did not know existed. He redoubled his efforts to sabotage the whole project in as many ways as he could, including putting sand in the engines of tanks. But to no avail: though it was recognised he would not be a good bet on the front lines, he was posted to Gaza as a sentry.

At this point in his story, Daniel said many things that were hard to hear – his reports of Palestinians subjected to beatings around the head with rifle butts, or victims of cruel games played at checkpoints by bored teenagers with guns, were painful examples of the endemic abuses many at the event – co-hosted by Brighton and Hove Palestine Solidarity Campaign – are committed to resisting. He also described a moment of great anguish, when, hearing the screams of women and children he thought were being tortured and killed, he felt so overcome with fear and horror he thought he would die. Only the intervention of a voice in his head, telling him to dance and sing, saved his body and soul from shutting down. The experience gave him spiritual beliefs that sustain him to this day. And hope was evident in other aspects of this narration too: it was always clear to Daniel that the Palestinians were human beings suffering a grave injustice at the hands of Israel; even confronted with order after order to collude with this abuse of human rights, he refused, obeying instead the dictates of his conscience. At one point he threatened to hand his weapons over to the Palestinians.

In his performance, Daniel also said things that perhaps some activists, accustomed to looking at the conflict in the Middle East predominantly at a political level, might find challenging. Describing his futile efforts to help an old Palestinian man with seven children to get a pass to cross into Israel to work, he stated that he, a young man forced to carry a gun and enforce arbitrary restrictions, was more of a victim than the desperate father. This might seem at first unlikely, but thinking about it more I thought I understood what Daniel meant: despite his desperation, humiliation and hunger, the old man at least had nothing to reproach himself about.  Daniel was being forced to be an agent of oppression, to perform acts he would feel deeply ashamed of, and spend two decades trying to expunge.   Existentially speaking, one could argue that it is infinitely worse to be the perpetrator than the victim of a crime.   And without comparing levels of suffering, it is important to remember that ordinary Israelis also are victims of the conflict, their very humanity damaged by the vicious ideology of their state.

Daniel warned that Israeli intransigence reaches deep into the psyche of its citizens, who are brainwashed into believing that unless they stick together they will not survive. To the average Israeli citizen, the state can therefore do no wrong. He told us, for example, that it is common knowledge in Israel that the assault on the Mavi Marmara was a botched operation: that the commandos had orders not to fire, but the first solider coming down the ropes panicked and shot an activist, leading to the deaths of nine men. Nevertheless, the Israeli public empathises not with the victims of the attack, but with the commando: just a vulnerable soldier doing his job. He cautioned that confronting Israelis with their misdeeds would only inflame their extremist view that ‘everyone is against them’. To call oneself pro-Palestinian, he thinks, implies that one is anti-Israeli, which is not a basis on which to convince Israelis to change. Throughout his talk he emphasized his own refusal to judge others, and his decision to love everyone. Again, this message might frustrate or exasperate some activists, whose role it is to openly confront and challenge injustice wherever it occurs, and who are adamantly opposed to the current policies of the state of Israel. But this would be to miss both the complexity and evolving nature of Daniel’s views and approach.

First, it was clear that Daniel himself struggles with the appropriate response to the sickness that is Zionism. While he wishes to have good relations with his family, he nevertheless does confront them with their racism, and in very personal terms: he asks his sister and brother-in-law if they are good parents to allow their children to grow hating Arabs, or to watch live TV footage of the assault on Mavi Marmara (another shocking revelation). His persistence has had results: his sister has moved from being a right-wing settler to someone who has apologised on her blog for inciting hatred against Arabs, and now buys her vegetables from Palestinians. And while Daniel believes that the boycott movement runs the risk of feeding the right wing Israeli survivalist mentality, he is also encouraged by the South African precedent: he stated that if BDS is taken up by the whole world, and presented to Israelis as a movement that can save lives, it can work.  Politically, he welcomes the upcoming Palestinian declaration of statehood, though he envisions that due to transmigration, in thirty or forty years a One State solution will come.

Daniel’s performance starts and ends on the subject of forgiveness. It is hard, and takes a big person, to say you are sorry and ask for forgiveness, he observed, but that is what he, as an Israeli is doing. He also forgives his officers for their brutality, and any Palestinian who may have hurt Israelis. Once more, some activists may argue that this kind of personal transformation is not enough, that we cannot put the cart of Reconciliation, before the horse of Truth. But at the same time, as Joel Kovel argues in Overcoming Zionism, for Israel to acknowledge its crimes against Palestine and ask for forgiveness is an essential part of the political process that needs to occur in the Middle East (p240). And for individuals to do this in their own lives can only aid that process. Ultimately, there are many levels to Truth. That the Occupation is the root cause of the violence on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict is one Truth. That we must be the change we want to see in the world is another Truth: one that Aung San Suu Kyi reminds of us in both word and deed. These Truths are not hierarchical; they co-exist and we would do well to remember them both.

Warm, open, and highly articulate, Daniel Vais is a peacemaker, one who is perhaps just beginning to do his most important work in the world. He has always challenged racism in his own family and friends, in ways that he finds effective. Currently, speaking out openly in Israel does not feel like an option for him: if he gave his performance in Israel, he would be branded a traitor. BHPSC and the Brighton Unemployed Centre are to be commended for providing a safe space for him to tell his story and engage in productive and positive dialogue with activists and members of the general public. I came home reflecting on the challenging points that he raised.  In my experience the Palestine Solidarity Campaign is actively anti-racist and anti-Semitic, and favours any solution that will bring peace and justice to the region, thus benefit all the people who live there. Perhaps the name of this group ‘British Writers in Support of Palestine’ suggests a hostile partisanship, but that is not the case. BWISP is actively supported by Israelis who share our belief that Palestinians, excluded for so long from mainstream political discourse, need both recognition and outspoken support.  I absolutely do not believe that the solidarity movement should pander to right-wing fears, or violate the boycott call, but at the same time I recognise the need to put our uncompromising message across to ordinary Israelis in ways that they can hear. I myself will endeavour to do so more frequently and persuasively in my own work.

Palestine needs far more Israelis like Daniel, and it is to be hoped that Daniel may also be strengthened by his involvement with the solidarity campaign. By making links with other anti-Zionist Israelis and Palestinians he may yet find ways to bring his profoundly anti-racist and anti-war message to the lion’s den that is Israel.  Meanwhile, I encourage everyone with an interest in the conflict in the Middle East, and, in general, in peace, to see his deeply honest and gripping performance.

To book Daniel Vais, email daniel.vais@gmail.com

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