British Writers In Support of Palestine

January 5, 2017

Jenny Diski and John Berger: In Gratitude Both

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

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

jenny-diski1

 

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

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

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

john-berger

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

 

November 11, 2012

Letter(s) To Gaza: a beautiful event

Saturday November 10th, as part of Redrawing the Maps: A John Berger Free School, BWISP co-ordinator Naomi Foyle and Palestinian human rights worker Saleh Hijazi co-hosted a very special event, Letter(s) to Gaza. The event allowed the audience to converse with Palestinian speakers Ahmed Safi (Gaza and Oxford Brookes University), Ahmad Alaraj (The Freedom Theatre) and Selma Dabbagh (British Palestinian novelist), then write their own letters to the besieged population of Gaza, to be posted on the Letter(s) to Gaza blog. The letters will be circulated in Gaza via Palestinian students and their families, courtesy of Dr Haidar Eid of Al-Aqsa University, whose 2009 open letter to Barack Obama challenges the American President to end his indifferent lip service to the plight of the Palestinians, and hold Israel to account for the suffering caused by the blockade.

The Letter(s) to Gaza event was a response to John Berger’s video reading of Ghassan Kanafani’s short story ‘Letter from Gaza’, which can also be read here. ‘Letter from Gaza’ is a haunting portrait of the courage of Palestinian children. Written over forty years ago, it is no less relevant today, when as I write reports are coming in of four teenage boys killed in Gaza by IDF shelling of a football playground. Two were killed in the initial assault; two in a second shelling when they ran to help their friends. The mother of one boy gave birth to a new son today, and named him after his murdered brother. On Remembrance Sunday here in the UK, one could read no more searing account of the impossibility of forgetting the dead.

In the context of such brutal repression, hoping to make a difference by writing letters to people one has never met may seem a fey notion. But Ahmed Safi told us that people in Gaza are so isolated any kind of friendly contact from the outside world would be hugely welcomed. He also told us of the spirit of the people is strong, that they smile in the face of relentless IDF attacks, and maintain a vision of freedom from the blockade that has crippled their economy and infrastructure. His own grandfather spoke for sixty years of his home in Jaffa, which he was forced to flee in the Nakba in 1948. This tenacious remembrance, Ahmed realised after his grandfather died, was not despair but a kind of hope: the hope of return.  Ahmad Alaraj spoke of how touched he, as a Palestinian forced to live in the West Bank, was to meet Ahmed Safi.  He also talked about the Freedom Theatre’s recent Freedom Bus project, a travelling theatre initiative which included a video link to Gaza, to gather stories which actors then performed for audiences in the West Bank.  Again, to feel a sense of connection with those imprisoned in Gaza had been a very moving experience for him. Selma Dabbagh spoke of her own love of Kanafani’s stories, and her recent experience judging Gazan blogs, which she admired greatly, but felt did not always convey the lively spirit of their authors, whom she’d met on her visit to Gaza for the 2012 Palestinian Festival of Literature. Perhaps this disconnect between personal and public expression is the result of cultural factors; perhaps it also indicates what the huge responsibility it is for a young person to speak as a member of a suffering population in a public forum, unsure of who is listening. At the event, in a discussion facilitated by BWISP member Jonathan Rosenhead, we discussed the political situation in Gaza – including Saleh Hijazi’s investigation of human rights violations by Hamas, and Ahmed Safi’s work in the international aid industry, which he feels does not address the cause of the crisis, the Occupation; but we also stressed that a letter was a personal document, and that we hoped to encourage an intimate exchange based on mutual interests and curiosity about the other. We wanted to allow people here to ask questions and offer support, and for Gazans to feel free to reply and share something of their daily lives, the routines and dreams that keep them going.

Something wonderful happened in the room itself, as Palestinians who cannot meet in their own homeland were brought together, while the audience overcame some initial shyness and wrote intensely for half-an-hour, resting their papers on copies of the John Berger exhibition catalogue. When we shared the gist of our letters, it appeared we had all found a personal path into our correspondence. One man wrote about Palestinian cinema; a woman wrote a letter to a little boy who had open heart surgery in her London hospital six years ago; another related the émigré history of her own Finnish family to the Palestinian refugee experience of losing one’s home; another man had recently been hit by a car, and discovered that his surgeon was a dedicated member of Medical Aid of Palestine. I wrote about my efforts to get to Gaza in 2009, and recalled my dream of co-editing a collection of poetry from Gaza. As we parted, it felt like not the end of the event, but the beginning of a conversation.

The letter-writers will be sending final copies to the organisers this week, to be posted on the Letters to Gaza blog. If anyone reading this post would also like to contribute a letter, please get in touch with Saleh Hijazi and Naomi Foyle at lettertogaza@gmail.com

Finally, Saleh and Naomi would like to thank the organisers of Redrawing the Maps, a week of events, screenings and discussions celebrating the work of John Berger. We would also like to thank John Berger himself, whose long, warm and incisive commitment to Palestine, and bold early advocacy of the cultural boycott of Israel, have laid the foundation for all BWISP’s campaigns and activities.

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.

March 23, 2011

BDS South Africa Press Release: UJ ENDS ISRAELI LINKS

Nine members of BWISP recently signed a petition calling on the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to sever its ties with Ben Gurion University (BGU). We are thrilled to post today’s press release from the Boycott Divestment and Sanction Working Group (South Africa), announcing the success of the campaign:

Today, setting a worldwide precedent in the academic boycott of Israel, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) has effectively severed ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU).

This was after UJ’s Senate rejected a last ditch motion by pro-Israeli lobbyists to have two separate bilateral agreements – one with a Palestinian University and another with an Israeli University. UJ chose instead to uphold its previous Senate Resolution that required taking leadership from Palestinian universities. Palestinian universities unanimously rejected any collaboration with BGU (in any form) and have come out in full support of the the academic boycott of Israel. UJ chose to respect this.

UJ is the first institution to officially sever relations with an Israeli university – a landmark moment in the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel campaign. Throughout the campaign, academics and international human rights activists have been anticipating this decision. This boycott decision, coming from a South African institution, is of particular significance. This has set a precedent and must start a domino boycott effect!

The movement to end ties with BGU was boosted by the overwhelming support given to the UJ Petition (www.ujpetition.com) – a statement and campaign in support of UJ academics and students who were calling on their university to end its apartheid-era relationship with BGU. As the UJ senate met today, over 400 South African academics, including nine Vice-Chancellors and Deputy Vice-Chancellors, had signed the UJ Petition.

Included in the list of supporters are some of South Africa’s leading voices: Professors Neville Alexander, Kader Asmal, Allan Boesak, Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, Barney Pityana and Sampie Terreblanche. South Africa’s popular cartoonist Jonathan “Zapiro” Shapiro, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, Bishop Rubin Phillips, former Minister Ronnie Kasrils and leading social activist Zackie Achmat also backed the campaign.

Further, over 100 internationals began to lend their support, including several prominent international scholars: Professors Judith Butler, Vijay Prashad, Michael Burawoy, Wendy Brown, Ernesto Laclau, and acclaimed British author, John Berger.

Today UJ has made history by upholding and advancing academic moral integrity. Palestinians, South Africans and the international academic and solidarity community celebrate this decisive victory in isolating Israeli apartheid and supporting freedom, dignity and justice for the Palestinian people. UJ now continues the anti-apartheid movement – against Apartheid Israel.

June 30, 2010

PACBI June 29 10: After the Flotilla Massacre: Cultural Boycott of Israel Takes Off

Filed under: Boycott Israel — Naomi Foyle @ 3:00 pm
Tags: , , ,

Omar Barghouti of PACBI has just issued this update on the academic and cultural boycott campaign, mentioning the BWISP letter and many other international public displays of support.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), established in April 2004 by a small group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals and widely supported by leading civil society associations, unions and networks,[1] has not witnessed a sustained surge in cultural boycott of Israel as in the last year and a half, since the Israeli war of aggression on Gaza.

Today there are campaigns for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel in the US, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Australia, Germany, Belgium, Canada, Norway, among others.

When artists or arts groups announce plans to perform — or display as the case may be — in Israel, PACBI and its partners around the world appeal directly to these artists, if a direct communication channel avails itself. Otherwise, we issue open letters and network with other groups to apply moral pressure on the artists/bands to convince them to cancel performances and exhibits in Israel.

Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid cultural boycott, PACBI has relied entirely on moral pressure, appealing to the conscience of the artists in question as well as their fans. When all else fails, supporters do at times organize civil protests at international concerts of artists who adamantly refuse to heed our calls.  Our main argument is that performing in a state that practices occupation, colonization and apartheid, as Israel does, cannot be regarded as a purely artistic act, if any such act exists. Regardless of intentions, such an act is a conscious form of complicity that is manipulated by Israel in its frantic efforts to whitewash its persistent violations of international law and Palestinian rights. This is because artistic performances in Israel promote a “business as usual” attitude that normalizes and sanitizes a state that has committed war crimes over several decades — in Gaza, Jerusalem, the Naqab (Negev), and now in the high seas against international humanitarian relief workers aboard the Freedom Flotilla.

An artist who performs in Israel today — just like any artist who violated the boycott and performed in Sun City, South Africa, during apartheid — can only be seen by Palestinians and people of conscience around the world as motivated by profit and personal gain far more than by moral principles. We know that Israeli concert promoters offer large sums of money to lure international performers as part of Israel’s “Brand Israel”[2] campaign, designed explicitly to hide Israel’s criminal violations of human rights under a guise of artistic and scientific glamour and a deceptive image of cultural excellence and “liberalism.”

In 1965, the American Committee on Africa, following the lead of prominent British arts associations, sponsored a historic declaration against South African apartheid, signed by more than 60 cultural personalities. It read: “We say no to apartheid. We take this pledge in solemn resolve to refuse any encouragement of, or indeed, any professional association with the present Republic of South Africa, this until the day when all its people shall equally enjoy the educational and cultural advantages of that rich and beautiful land.”[3] PACBI hopes to achieve the same level of commitment from international artists in isolating apartheid Israel.

The main impact of the boycott at this stage is to expose Israel as a pariah, to increase its isolation, thus raising the price of its injustices against the Palestinian people and challenging international complicity in perpetuating its occupation and apartheid.

In reaction to Israel’s Freedom Flotilla massacre which led to the murder of 9 unarmed Turkish humanitarian relief workers and human rights activists – one with dual Turkish/US citizenship — and to the injury of dozens more from several countries, leading cultural figures and bands reacted swiftly and decisively.

Endorsing a cultural boycott of Israel, world renowned British writer, Iain Banks, wrote in the Guardian that the best way for international artists, writers and academics to “convince Israel of its moral degradation and ethical isolation” is “simply by having nothing more to do with this outlaw state.”[4] This position by Banks was later endorsed by Stephane Hessel,[5] co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Holocaust survivor and former French diplomat.

Many British literary and academic figures published a letter[6] in the Independent that said, “We … appeal to British writers and scholars to boycott all literary, cultural and academic visits to Israel sponsored by the Israeli government, including those organised by Israeli cultural foundations and universities.”

Cartoon artist Martin Rowson expressed the shock shared by millions in a cartoon[7] in the Guardian. Rowson depicted intimidating, heavily-armed Israeli commandos commandeering Noah’s ark, incarcerating all the frightened animals, with one of the soldiers cruelly crushing a dead peace dove — olive branch and all — justifying it to a devastated Noah by saying, “[The dove] was clearly intent on pecking innocent civilians.”

In the world of performing arts, the Klaxons and Gorillaz Sound System cancelled their scheduled concerts in Israel, reportedly due to the Flotilla attack,[8] and so did the Pixies.[9]

The latest famous performer to cancel a gig in Israel was US folk singer Devendra Banhart. While holding on to the delusional and peculiar concept that a musician can simply “share a human not a political message” even if performing to the oppressor community, as it were, in the context of occupation, apartheid and extreme violations of human rights, Banhart justified his withdrawal by saying that “it seems that we are being used to support views that are not our own.”[10] Israeli media outlets had tried to portray his scheduled gig as a political message in solidarity with Israel at a time of increasing isolation.

World best-selling writer, the Swedish Henning Mankell, who was on the Freedom Flotilla when attacked, called for South-Africa style global sanctions against Israel in response to its brutality.[11]

The best-selling US author, Alice Walker, reminded the world of the Rosa Parks-triggered and Martin Luther King-led boycott of a racist bus company in Montgomery, Alabama during the US civil rights movement, calling for wide endorsement of BDS against Israel as a moral duty in solidarity with Palestinians, “to soothe the pain and attend the sorrows of a people wrongly treated for generations.”[12]

In the weeks before the Flotilla attack, artists of the caliber of Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron and Carlos Santana all cancelled[13] scheduled performances in Israel after receiving appeals from Palestinian and international BDS groups.

But even well before the latest Israeli bloodbath, many prominent international cultural figures had heeded or directly supported cultural boycott appeals issued by the PACBI and widely supported by Palestinian civil society. It may be most convenient to break down the various artists/cultural figures’ responses to the PACBI Call into three categories:

(A) Cultural figures (artists, authors, etc.) who explicitly support the Palestinian cultural boycott of Israel.
The statement by 500 Artists against Apartheid in Montreal[14] is the latest, most impressive of these efforts.

Earlier, in 2006, the famous British author and artist, John Berger, issued a statement[15] explicitly endorsing the cultural boycott of Israel.  He collected 93 endorsements then on this powerful declaration, including some very prominent writers and artists.

Other intellectuals and artists in this category who were not on the Berger list include: Ken Loach, Judith Butler, Naomi Klein, The Yes-Men, Sarah Schulman, Aharon Shabtai, Udi Aloni, Adrienne Rich, John Williams (perhaps the greatest classical guitarist alive), and now Iain Banks, Alice Walker, among others.

(B) Cultural figures who openly refuse to participate in Israel’s official celebrations and festivals for unambiguous political reasons.
In 2008, countering Israel’s “60th Anniversary” celebrations, PACBI collected tens of signatures of prominent artists and authors for a half-page advertisement[16] that was published in the International Herald Tribune on 8 May that year. The list included luminaries like Mahmoud Darwish, Augusto Boal, Roger Waters, Andre Brink, Vincenzo Consolo, and Nigel Kennedy. Some of the signatories on that ad later adopted the boycott explicitly, moving to Category (A) above.

(C) Cultural figures who decline offers to perform/speak in Israel or agree and then cancel without giving any explicit political reasons.
This category includes: Bono, U2, Bjork, Jean-Luc Godard, Snoop Dogg, and others.

PACBI appealed to Bono, for instance, in 2008 and again in 2010, urging him not to perform in Israel. Both times his performances were cancelled, but he never gave a specific reason to the media, other than the regular “scheduling” problem.  PACBI deeply appreciates his decision not to entertain Israeli apartheid.

Many top artists refuse to perform in Israel from the start.  The Forward, the leading Jewish daily in New York, informs us that at least 15 leading performers actually refused to play Israel, despite lucrative remuneration offers:

“In reaction, a music industry insider confirmed that the winds could be shifting. The music executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity in light of his ongoing business ties with artists, said that in recent months he had approached more than 15 performing artists with proposals to give concerts in Israel. None had agreed. The contracts offered high levels of compensation. He called them ‘extreme, big numbers that could match any other gig.’”[17]

Some artists argue that, instead of boycotting, they prefer to visit Israel and use the performance opportunity to express their views against Israeli injustices. This ostensibly noble idea is not only — unfortunately — too rare to be viewed as significant; it is ill conceived. Such a hypothetically courageous stance cannot possibly outdo or neutralize the far more substantial harm done due to these performances taking place, as Israel, with its formidable influence in mainstream Western media, cynically uses them to project a false image of normalcy that enables it to maintain its occupation and apartheid.  Ultimately, a conscientious artist is expected to heed the appeals of the oppressed as to what they really need from them in the struggle to end injustice and colonial oppression. This was true in the South African anti-apartheid struggle, too.

As to the commonly used “art ought to be above politics” argument, it is patently ahistorical and political par excellence.  Artists are humans who are expected to be more, not less, sensitive than others in empathizing with human suffering and rejecting oppression.  When they choose to side with hegemonic oppressors for money, fame or other material gains at the expense of basic commitment to human rights, they end up selling their souls and declaring their utter ethical corruption.  Artists, like Elton John,[18] who violated the anti-apartheid cultural boycott and entertained South Africans at Sun City, were viewed as crossing a moral picket line. So are those that insist on entertaining Israeli apartheid today.

The great majority of Palestinian cultural figures stand solidly behind the call for a cultural boycott of Israel,[19] as do all the main cultural institutions and associations. While Palestinian artists may indirectly suffer from a worldwide boycott, they view and accept this is as a minimal price to pay in order to see the light at the end of the long tunnel of Israeli occupation, ethnic cleansing, apartheid and racist denial of our refugee rights. In this context, Palestinian artists often express the commonly held view that world artists have a moral obligation to stop colluding with the oppressor, at the very least, in order to help end this multi-tiered oppression and bring about freedom and just peace.


Posted on 29-06-2010

June 29, 2010

John Berger on the cultural & academic boycott

Filed under: Boycott Israel — Naomi Foyle @ 12:01 pm
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The BWISP initiative is not new.  It follows the original call in August 2006 from 384 Palestinian filmmakers, artists and cultural workers for a cultural boycott of Israel, subsequently endorsed by 94 international writers, musicians and performers in a letter published in The Guardian 15/12/06.  Following are some remarks made at the time by BWISP member and Booker Prize winner John Berger on what the cultural and academic boycott is and isn’t:

I would like to make a few personal remarks about this world-wide appeal to teachers, intellectuals and artists to join the cultural boycott of the state of Israel, as called for by over a hundred Palestinian academics and artists, and – very importantly – also by a number of Israeli public figures, who outspokenly oppose their country’s illegal occupation of the Palestine territories of the West Bank and Gaza […]

The boycott is an active protest against two forms of exclusion which have persisted, despite many other forms of protestations, for over sixty years – for almost three generations.

During this period the state of Israel has consistently excluded itself from any international obligation to heed UN resolutions or the judgement of any international court. To date, it has defied 246 Security Council Resolutions!

As a direct consequence seven million Palestinians have been excluded from the right to live as they wish on land internationally acknowledged to be theirs; and now increasingly, with every week that passes, they are being excluded from their right to any future at all as a nation.

As Nelson Mandela has pointed out, boycott is not a principle, it is a tactic depending upon circumstances. A tactic which allows people, as distinct from their elected but often craven governments, to apply a certain pressure on those wielding power in what they, the boycotters, consider to be an unjust or immoral way. (In white South Africa yesterday and in Israel today, the immorality was, or is being, coded into a form of racist
apartheid).

Boycott is not a principle. When it becomes one, it itself risks to become exclusive and racist. No boycott, in our sense of the term, should be directed against an individual, a people, or a nation as such. A boycott is directed against a policy and the institutions which support that policy either actively or tacitly. Its aim is not to reject, but to bring about change.

How to apply a cultural boycott? A boycott of goods is a simpler proposition, but in this case it would probably be less effective, and speed is of the essence, because the situation is deteriorating every month (which is precisely why some of the most powerful world political leaders, hoping for the worst, keep silent.).

How to apply a boycott? For academics it’s perhaps a little clearer – a question of declining invitations from state institutions and explaining why. For invited actors, musicians, jugglers or poets it can be more complicated. I’m convinced, in any case, that its application should not be systematised; it has to come from a personal choice based on a personal assessment.

For instance. An important mainstream Israeli publisher today is asking to publish three of my books. I intend to apply the boycott with an explanation. There exist, however, a few small, marginal Israeli publishers who expressly work to encourage exchanges and bridges between Arabs and Israelis, and if one of them should ask to publish something of mine, I would unhesitatingly agree and furthermore waive aside any question of author’s royalties. I don’t ask other writers supporting the boycott to come necessarily to exactly the same conclusion. I simply offer an example.

What is important is that we make our chosen protests together, and that we speak out, thus breaking the silence of connivance maintained by those who claim to represent us, and thus ourselves representing, briefly by our common action, the incalculable number of people who have been appalled by recent events but lack the opportunity of making their sense of outrage effective.

John Berger

Originally posted on 15-12-2006

Thanks to PACBI for the links inthis post.

June 13, 2010

BWISP Letter to The Independent on Sunday, June 6 2010

The following letter expresses the support of the signatories for the cultural and academic boycott of Israel.  A shortened version appeared in the IoS 6.6.10.  

Dear Editor

The murder of humanitarian aid workers aboard the Mavi Marmara in international waters is the latest tragic example of Israel’s relentless attacks on human rights. But while violently preventing the free passage of medical, building and school supplies to Gaza, Israel continues to pride itself as a highly cultured, highly educated state. In solidarity with Palestinian civil society and its call for a Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, we the undersigned therefore appeal to British writers and scholars to boycott all literary, cultural and academic visits to Israel that are sponsored by the Israeli government, including those organised by Israeli cultural foundations and universities. (This boycott does not include courageous independent Israeli organisations who openly oppose the occupation.) We also ask that writers, poets and British funding bodies actively support Palestinian literary events, such as the Palestinian Literary Festival and the Palestinian Writing Workshop.

Materially and ideologically, state-sponsored Israeli academic and cultural events both prop up and mask the continuing brutal occupation of Palestine. Israeli universities are key players in the creation and dissemination of government policy, and while some Israeli cultural foundations may promote ‘dialogue’ between the two peoples, there can be no true dialogue when one party is a military superpower and the other a nation of second-class citizens, refugees and virtual prisoners. Appearing as an international guest at all such Israeli cultural and academic events helps to divert attention from, and normalize, Israeli war crimes in Gaza; the annexation of East Jerusalem; and the on-going illegal settlement of the West Bank. Such appearances will also help to normalise Israel’s recent abhorrent military actions at sea.

More information on the cultural and academic boycott of Israel may be found at http://www.pacbi.org and http://www.bricup.org.uk. But in brief, we the undersigned do not wish to lend our presence or approval to cultural or academic events underwritten by the State of Israel, nor do we wish to help sustain the deliberately fostered illusion of moral and military parity between the two actors in this conflict. Rather as Britons and British residents, we believe that we have a historical and moral obligation to support the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people in their struggle for long-denied peace, justice and self-determination.

Yours,

BWISP (British Writers In Support of Palestine)

Prof Mona Baker (scholar)

John Berger (novelist, art critic, essayist, poet, Booker Prize winner)

Lauren Booth (writer and journalist)

Prof Marilyn Booth (scholar, literary translator)

Kevin Cadwallender (poet)

Jimmy Powdrell Campbell (writer)

John Chalcraft (scholar)

Leena Dhingra (novelist)

Jenny Diski (novelist, essayist, travel writer)

Dr Hugh Dunkerley (poet and scholar)

Prof Rasheed El-Enany (scholar)

Prof Hoda Elsadda (scholar)

Alison Fell (novelist, poet)

Naomi Foyle (poet, novelist and BWISP co-ordinator)

Prof Patrick Ffrench (scholar, writer)

Maureen Freely (novelist, translator, academic)

Prof Ian Gregson (poet, literary critic)

Prof Peter Hallward (scholar)

Rumy Hasan (scholar)

Mischa Hiller (novelist)

Aamer Hussein (writer)

Ewa Jasiewicz (writer and journalist)

Fred Johnstone (poet, novelist and translator)

Dr Ghada Karmi (writer and scholar)

Judith Kazantzis (poet, novelist and BWISP co-ordinator)

Mimi Khalvati (poet)

Eleanor Kilroy (journalist)

Wendy Klein (poet)

Stephen Knight (poet and critic)

Zoë Lambert (writer and scholar)

Diane Langford (novelist)

Tom Leonard (poet and critic)

Dr Les Levidow (scholar)

Alistair Ligertwood (scholar, literary translator)

Catherine Lupton (writer)

Lauro Martines (writer, socio-political and historical scholar)

Mike Marqusee (writer)

Prof Nur Masalha (scholar)

China Miéville (novelist)

James Miller (novelist)

Alan Morrison (poet and editor)

Dr Dalia Mostafa (scholar)

Ali Nasralla (scholar)

Sybil Oldfield (academic, scholar, feminist historian/biographer)

Julia O’Faolain (novelist)

Jeremy Page (poet, editor, critic)

Thomas Pakenham (historian)

Dr Ian Patterson (poet and scholar)

Prof Jonathan Rosenhead (scholar)

Dr Khadiga Safwat (writer and scholar)

Prof Myriam Salama-Carr (scholar, translator)

Dr Duncan Salkeld (literary scholar)

Seni Seneviratne (poet)

Kamila Shamsie (novelist)

John Siddique (poet and writer)

Mark Slater (scholar, critic and writer)

Catherine Smith (poet and writer)

Dr Derek Summerfield (writer, scholar)

David Swann (poet and writer)

Tom Vowler (writer)

Kate Webb (writer, critic)

Irving Weinman (novelist and BWISP co-ordinator)

Hilary Wise (scholar and writer)

Eliza Wyatt (playwright)

Evie Wyld (novelist)

Robin Yassin-Kassab (novelist)

(66 signatories)

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