British Writers In Support of Palestine

April 22, 2014

A Bird is Not a Stone: Palestinian Poetry in Translation

Filed under: Palestinian Literature — Naomi Foyle @ 10:53 pm
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Contemporary Palestinian poetry translated into English, Scots, Gaelic and Shetlandic
A Bird is not a Stone is a collection of contemporary Palestinian poetry in Arabic, translated and reworked by Scottish poets into English, Scots, Gaelic and Shetlandic. The bilingual collection will be published by Glasgow’s Freight Books in summer 2014.
The project is currently fundraising to be able to share as many copies of the book as possible, principally with universities, libraries and other institutions in Palestine and in Palestinian refugee communities. And secondly, to enable Palestinian poets to come to Britain and Scottish poets to visit Palestine, to share their work with different audiences.
Please read more about it and support the project if you can.
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November 2, 2012

The 95th Anniversary of the Balfour Declaration

Filed under: Uncategorized — Naomi Foyle @ 10:49 am
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This letter, organised by Haringey Justice for Palestine, with the support of five BWISP members, appeared today in The Guardian.
Today is the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, when the then foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, signed a fateful letter to Lord Rothschild announcing that the British government “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people”. Britain thus gave the Zionist movement carte blanche to transform the overwhelmingly Arab state of Palestine into a Jewish one.
To further this aim, from 1920 onwards, Britain encouraged the mass immigration into Palestine of hundreds of thousands of European Jews, expressly against the wishes of the majority population. As Palestine descended into chaos, the British washed their hands of their responsibility for the mess they had caused and stood by while hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were terrorised into fleeing their homeland, as Palestine was transformed into Israel.
We call for the British government to acknowledge publicly the responsibility of previous British administrations from 1917 to 1948 for the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians, when over threequarters were expelled deliberately and systematically by the Zionist army. Most of them remain refugees today without redress. The truth about their expulsions is still not officially established, since Israel officially denies any responsibility for it.
Ghada Karmi
Tim Llewellyn
Karl Sabbagh
John Rose
Kamel Hawwash
Naomi Foyle
Mona Baker
Mike Marqusee
Seni Seneviratne

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.

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.”

December 3, 2011

Remi Kanazi in Brighton – Videolink

Filed under: Palestinian Literature — Naomi Foyle @ 4:48 pm
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Thanks to Innovative Minds for recording and posting Remi’s brilliant Brighton gig, along with more pix and poems from his English tour. Click and scroll down to see:

Remi Kanazi in Brighton [90 minute video]

October 30, 2011

Poetic Injustice: Remi Kanazi UK Tour!

BWISP is excited!  After his storming performance at the Southbank last November, Remi Kanazi hits the UK again, with a three week tour kicking off November 12th in London:

Poetic Injustice

an evening of political performance poetry

with Remi Kanazi & Special Guests

Zita Holbourne, Rafeef Ziadah, Omar Offendum

Sat 12 Nov 2011, 7.15pm// Tabernacle, Powis Square, London W11 2AY

REMI KANAZI Palestinian-American Performance poet, writer, and activist based in New York City, Remi is the editor of Poets For Palestine and the author of Poetic Injustice: Writings on Resistance and Palestine. His political commentary has been featured by news outlets throughout the world and his poetry has taken him across North America and the Middle East. He recently appeared in the Palestine Festival of Literature as well as Poetry International at London’s Southbank. He is a recurring writer in residence and advisory board member for the Palestine Writing Workshop.
www.poeticinjustice.net

RAFEEF ZIADAH is a Canadian-Palestinian spoken word artist and activist. Her debut CD Hadeel is dedicated to Palestinian youth, who still fly kites in the face of F16 bombers, who still remember the names if their villages in Palestine and still hear the sound of Hadeel (cooing of doves) over Gaza. www.rafeefziadah.ca

OMAR OFFENDUM is a Syrian-American Hip hop artist, author and producer- born in the KSA, raised in the USA , and repeatedly hassled by the TSA. His solo release in 2010 was affectionately dubbed “SyrianamericanA”. www.offendum.com

ZITA HOLBOURNE is a poet, artist and activist. Former member of Brothaman Poetry Collective she campaigns for equality, freedom, justice, and democracy through activism, art and poetry. myspace.com/zitaholbourne.

Book here.

October Early Bird Concessions / NUS £6.00

October Early Bird General Admission £8.00

Doors open: 7.15pm – Show starts at 8pm

N.B. Concessions are those on job seekers allowance or full time students (JSA/NUS cards must be shown to the box office).

Remi Kanazi UK Tour:

Nov 12: London

Nov 13 London

Nov 14: Cambridge

Nov 15: Brighton

Nov 16: Portsmouth

Nov 17: Southampton

Nov 18: Dorset

Nov 19: Bristol

Nov 20: Bristol

Nov 21: Oxford

Nov 22: Birmingham

Nov 23: Liverpool

Nov 24: Nottingham

Nov 25: Leicester

Nov 26: Leeds

Nov 27: Newcastle

Nov 28: Manchester

Nov 29: London

For more information on the above dates contact:

www.palestinecampaign.org

uktour.remikanazi@gmail.com

Telephone: 020 7700 6198

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.

July 20, 2011

When will Howard Jacobson see the Palestinians?

By Naomi Foyle

As the third co-founder of British Writers In Support of Palestine, I also feel compelled to respond to Howard Jacobson’s attack on the integrity and intelligence of Alice Walker, who chose to attempt to sail to Gaza with the sabotaged Freedom Flotilla II.   While I disagree profoundly and heatedly with Jacobson’s arguments, I recognize that they are held not only by the defenders of Israel, but also by many undecided observers of the conflict in the Middle East.  I will therefore attempt to reply calmly in the spirit of dialogue and engagement I myself aspire to at this stage in the ‘ethical history’ of humanity (let us remember, Howard, that ‘mankind’ is nowhere without womankind).

Alice Walker sets her courageous decision to sail to Gaza firmly in the context of the civil rights movement, and its non-violent protests against intolerable oppression.  She also makes it abundantly clear that the loving bravery of Jewish human rights activists, including her own husband, has inspired her to put her own body in the potential line of fire.  Yet Howard Jacobson makes no mention whatsoever of segregation in America or Israel when he besmirches her intentions.  And reading his article one might easily conclude that he is accusing Alice Walker of being a naive anti-Semite: guilty of ‘a highly charged emotionalism disguising an action that, by its very partiality, chooses the Palestinian child over the Israeli.’  Ignoring her historical arguments, and personal experience of resisting racial prejudice, Jacobson instead narrows his focus to a gross over-simplification and distortion of the ‘facts on the ground’.  The blockade of Gaza, he claims, is necessary because Hamas fires rockets at Israeli children, and refuses to recognize the state of Israel. Walker, he implies by citing Don Quixote, is tilting at windmills: foolishly demonizing the innocent folk of Israel, and its military.

Let me not dwell on Jacobson’s patronizing attitude to a literary giant, a writer who in both word and deed has made an incalculable contribution to the global struggle for human rights.  Instead, I will examine his arguments, such as they are.  For the conflict in the Middle East is not nearly as simple as Jacobson would have his readers believe.  To begin with the rockets.  An understanding of context is essential if one is to get to grips with the moral questions at stake here.  Hamas fires their Qassams from and into a political context in which Israel is a brutal occupying power that routinely steals Palestinian land, trees and water, and humiliates, imprisons and tortures Palestinians on the slightest pretext.  In Gaza, the seriously ill are denied access to Israeli hospitals, and die of treatable conditions; pregnant women die at checkpoints; and IDF military attacks have poisoned the water supplies to the extent that babies are now being born with a potentially lethal blood disorder – ‘blue babies’. Under international law, occupied people have the legal right to defend themselves against such abuses: abuse in this case so systemic it is indistinguishable from ethnic cleansing, or slow genocide.  This is what Hamas and its supporters believe it is doing – legitimately resisting an occupying force: Sderot, after all, was built on the ruins of a destroyed Palestinian village, Najd.

But while the Palestinians have as much right to a military as any nation, self-defence does not include deliberately targeting civilians.  Here, again, context is crucial: Israel is guilty of killing and punishing civilians on a scale that dwarfs the impact of the rockets.  Children, old people, families, unarmed refugees, members of peaceful protests: IDF soldiers, themselves mostly teenage conscripts, have killed them all. It is difficult to get exact numbers, but based on statistics provided by human rights group B’Tselem and the Israeli Ministry Foreign Affairs, I have calculated [1] that in the last four years the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli civilian deaths stands at 33:1, while that of child deaths is a heart-stopping 100:1. By condemning the rocket attacks without breathing a word of Israeli atrocities, Howard Jacobson glaringly exposes his own partiality: his blind loyalty to an oppressive regime, a state that calls itself democratic, but is better described as a militant ethnocracy.  At the same time, if Israel is wrong to target civilians, then so too is the militant wing of Hamas. I do condemn the rocket attacks on civilian centres.  I can well imagine that it must be terrifying to be subjected to random missiles, and to fear that they might kill or maim you or a loved one.

This wall of fear in the Israeli psyche, however, tragically prevents the country’s citizens from seeing the far greater suffering of those on the other side of that barrier.  As Omar Barghouti, key architect of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, recently pointed out, while the Israelis claim they are afraid of being annihilated, it is the Palestinians who, day by day, year after year, are being ‘disappeared’.  One only has to look at the maps of the Holy Land since 1948 to perceive the self-evident truth of this statement.  It is obvious to me that the root cause of the pain experienced by both sides is Israel’s aggressive expansionism and apartheid policies. Hamas, after all, regularly offers Israel ten year cease-fires, which Israel just as regularly rejects. And the Palestine Papers demonstrated conclusively that Israel has never been a partner for peace.

I also believe that in order to dismantle all the walls – concrete and psychological – that divide the Holy Land, it is necessary to defend the human rights of everyone in the region.  I joined the BDS movement to order to help build a non-violent alternative to missile attacks on Israel.  But – and this is a crucial ‘but’ – much as I wish Israeli children to be able to sleep safely at night, unlike Howard Jacobson, I do not think that the firing of rockets at Sderot justifies the medieval siege of an entire civilian population.

Even at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, did the UK government blockade and carpet-bomb Belfast?  Such a course of action would have been unthinkable.  But the illegal siege of Gaza has continued for five years now, with no end in sight.  In this time, Israel has prevented the import of basic necessities including concrete, paper, food and medicine.  Howard Jacobson complains that Alice Walker’s ship is carrying:  “Letters expressing solidarity and love.’  Not,’ he scoffs, ‘presumably, for Israeli children.  Perhaps it is thought that Israeli children are the recipients of enough love already.’  Well, Howard, they are certainly at least the recipients of enough food, which is more than Gazan children can say.  Chillingly, Israel has calculated the caloric needs of the population, and has indeed, as it boasted in 2006, ‘put the Palestinians on a diet’ by deliberately letting in less to eat than the people need.

The siege has also involved fatal IDF sniper attacks on Palestinian farmers, and a three week military assault in which schools, hospitals, mosques and homes were bombed, and over 1400 Palestinians, over 400 of them children, were killed.  Operation Cast Lead also subjected Gaza to the use of white phosphorus, illegal due to the extreme suffering to which it subjects the human body.  Who, I ask, is the worse ‘terrorist’ in this conflict?  And why cannot Howard Jacobson see that it is the hugely disproportionate violence meted out by Israel that turns people like Alice Walker into passionate supporters of the rights of the Palestinians?

But Howard Jacobson does not want to talk about the horrific mass killing of Palestinian civilians we all saw on television.  He wants to talk about Hamas.  So let me now challenge a central Israeli advocacy shibboleth: that Hamas refuses to recognize the state of Israel.  Hamas, in fact, was a co-signatory to the 2006 ‘Palestinian Prisoners Document’, which – while later set aside due to internal disagreements – expresses a willingness to accept the 1967 borders of the State of Israel, subject to negotiations.  Such negotiations should have started when Hamas was democratically elected.  In discussions with political opponents, surely one must set compromise as an end-goal, not demand it as a pre-condition.  Let me state the truth, as clear as clean water for Howard Jacobson to drink: it is Israel that refuses to recognize the State of Palestine, and until it does so, there will be no peace for any of its children.

It is only through justice that real and lasting peace can come.  And when international governments look away, rebuke Israel but do not punish it for mass killing, torture and theft, then international civilians must step forward.  Yes, the Freedom Flotillas are political acts – all human acts are political, and emotional, and spiritual!  And yes, they are provocations.  They are intended to provoke, not Israeli commandos, but world leaders – to do what they should have done long ago: free Gaza.

Finally, let me try to explain to Howard Jacobson the significance of the name ‘The Audacity of Hope’.  Palestinians, I have learned, do not use the word ‘hope’ lightly.  Their hopes as a people are continually dashed against a wall of Israeli intransigence and international indifference.  The central pillar in the Palestinian psyche is sumud, meaning, roughly, ‘steadfastness’.  All that ordinary Palestinians can do is not give up.  Not give up their land, not give up their struggle, and not surrender their humanity.  For them, to hope is truly an audacious act.  In this spirit, I call on Howard Jacobson to surmount the walls of fear in his own heart and mind, and finally acknowledge that the state of Israel was founded on a fundamental injustice that only the state of Israel can apologise for and undo.  I call on him to retract his sneering tilt at Alice Walker, and channel his own considerable intellectual powers into persuading Israelis that the time is long overdue to honour the basic human rights and legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people. And if he cannot yet do all that, I respectfully ask him to converse with me on these issues, in whatever form he chooses: live public debate; an exchange of private or public letters; or a private meeting.

__________________________________________________________

[1] Wikipedia provides a chart of civilian deaths in the conflict drawn from Israeli human rights group B’tselem and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  This chart includes intra-Palestinian casualties, making it harder to draw exact conclusions.  But discounting the internal casualties, from 1987-2010 the average number of Israeli fatalities per year was 65 (including an average of 6 children per year); the number of Palestinian deaths per year was 276 (including 70 children per year).  This is a ratio of 4:1 total Palestinians killed to Israelis, and nearly 12:1 children.

Since the end of the second intifada in 2006, and the completion of most of the Apartheid Wall, the numbers of Israeli deaths per year have dropped dramatically – averaging 16 fatalities per year from 2007-2010, including the total loss of 5 children in four years.  In that same period, Palestinian fatalities have risen.   Allowing the figure for 2009 to stand – it represents the casualties of Operation Cast Lead – subtracting 20% from the totals of the other three years (to account for internal casualties); and assuming that the Palestinians did not kill any of their own children; the average yearly number of fatalities was 529 (including 125 children per year [total 503]).  This represents ratios of 33:1 (Palestinians to Israelis killed) and 100:1 (Palestinian to Israeli children killed) in the last four years.  I note that, as the real number of Palestinian casualties has risen, while the Wall is making Israelis more secure, it is making Palestinians vastly less safe.

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.

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