British Writers In Support of Palestine

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

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 25, 2012

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

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

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

                                                                                        John Berger  / May 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 16, 2012

Update on Mishkenot Campaign

For background to this update please see previous posts.

In recent developments, according to Haaretz, Tracy Chevalier’s misguided attempt to meet with Palestinian writers was rebuffed; while the festival organiser has radically misrepresented the BWISP campaign as an abusive attack. Readers of the original letter will know that it was very respectful, and indeed, praised both Chevalier and Tom Rob Smith for their humanitarian concerns. Subsequent posts have expressed our disappointment and frustration at the lack of response from the writers, but at no time have they been abusive.

From Haaretz:

Uri Dromi, the manager of Mishkenot Sha’ananim that hosts the festival said that “there is an increasing feeling of cultural siege and despite our success in attracting major writers, some of them, particularly from Britain, have come under huge pressure not to participate.” He said that he had tried to invite South African writer and Nobel Prize laureate J. M. Coetzee “but he told me that he would come when the peace process goes forward.”
Dromi said that two British writers at the festival, Tom Rob Smith and Tracy Chevalier had been subjected to a major dose of online pressure and abuse for travelling to Israel. Rob Smith, whose first novel, Child 44, was a publishing sensation, told Dromi that he was very surprised by the attacks on his Facebook page but came anyway. Chevalier, author of bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring, who has been to Israel before, asked Dromi if he could organize a meeting between her and Palestinian readers. “I tried to set up something in Ramallah and when that didn’t work, I enquired at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem but neither place was interested in cooperating with us.”

Note:

Tom Rob Smith himself, in an op-ed for the ultra-right-wing journal Israel HaYom described the campaign as intense, but not aggressive. For an independent reaction to his article, and its false description of the boycott, please see Tali Shapiro’s article in Pulse Media.

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

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 12, 2011

[July 10th] Southbank Debate: Why Boycott Culture?

BWISP is very pleased to announce the following high-profile debate on cultural boycott, featuring the architect of BDS, Omar Barghouti, and BWISP member Seni Seneviratne.  We look forward to seeing you there, and to hearing your questions from the floor.


Sunday July 10th
7 pm, The Purcell Room
The Southbank Centre
£10 / £5 concessions (limited number)

WHY BOYCOTT CULTURE?

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.

Supporting the motion:

Omar Barghouti – author of BDS: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket Press).

Seni Seneviratne – British-Sri Lankan poet and performer, author of Wild Cinnamon and Winter Skin (Peepal Tree Press).

Opposing the motion:

Carol Gould – ex-patriate American author, film maker, and ‘a vocal critic of what she sees as increasing anti-Americanism and antisemitism in Britain’.

plus one other speaker TBA.

Book tickets here.

April 17, 2011

Invite to the Catastrophe Club

You are warmly invited to join the next Catastrophe Club – an excellent documentary from Connie Field (‘The Life and Times of Rosie the Rivetter’) and a discussion about the ethics of Cultural Boycott with Naomi Foyle of British Writers in Support of Palestine.
Please do circulate to interested parties

Invite to April Catastrophe Club

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