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?
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.