PalFest Day 6: What is Cultural Boycott?

On Thursday, the author-participants of PalFest 2013 met with Omar Barghouti, one of the founding committee of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), to ask questions about the campaign:

1214197593pacbiEarly in his presentation, Barghouti raised the central arguments against a cultural boycott. These are: that culture should be a form of open communication, whereas a boycott movement closes down lanes of communication; and that boycott is a form of silencing.

Other objections cropped up throughout his talk. Because the Palestinian boycott movement is likened to the successful boycott of apartheid South Africa, Barghouti said he’s sometimes criticized by those who say the two situations are not identical. Indeed they’re not, he said: “Apartheid is not a South African crime, it’s an international crime.” There were many years of apartheid in the US — under the UN definition — although instead of apartheid, these were called Jim Crow.

Other counter-arguments include one that Ian McEwan gave when accepting the Jerusalem Prize, that, “If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed.” Some organizations, such as J Street, object to the movement’s central demands, which include the right of refugees to return, whether it’s to one state or two.

What are the cultural boycott’s objectives?

Barghouti explained the objectives of the PACBI campaign as threefold: 1) an end of the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza that began in 1967; 2) an end to racial discrimination of Arab citizens in Israel; and 3) the right of return for Palestinian refugees. He said that all three are critical to the campaign, as “only 38 percent of the Palestinian people are in the West Bank” and Gaza. Around twelve percent of Palestinians are Israeli citizens and the remaining 50 percent are in exile. The boycott movement thus focuses not just on the rights of Palestinians under occupation, but on all three groups.

However, Barghouti said, the PACBI campaign does not tread into particular political positions beyond these three goals.

Novelist China Miéville said after the talk that he’d already been a supporter of the boycott campaign for years, and clarified that, “This is not about not having your work translated into Hebrew; this is very specific.”

One important specific, Barghouti explained, is that a cultural boycott focuses on institutions, not individuals. The only exception is when an individual is explicitly working as a cultural ambassador for Israel.

Why?

Those artists and writers whose trips are funded by the government of Israel, Barghouti said, are working not as free artists, but as state-funded ambassadors. Barghouti noted an article by poet Yitzhak Laor that appeared Haaretz in 2008, in which Laor said that Israeli artists and writers are required to sign a contract to receive foreign-ministry funding. The contract — which can be read here — essentially obliges those who sign on to contribute “to creating a positive image for Israel.”

Barghouti said that he, and the boycott movement, are in no way opposed to Israeli narratives of any stripe: be they far right-wing, nationalist, or of any other ideology. “We don’t judge by the content,” he said. “We don’t believe in any McCarthyist measures.”

When the movie Waltz with Bashir came out, for instance, Barghouti said a number of people urged him to organize a boycott. But, he said, it didn’t seem the Waltz filmmakers had taken Israeli government funding to promote and distribute the work; thus, it fell outside the scope of the boycott. He suggested to those calling for a boycott: “If you hate it, don’t go.”

Barghouti said the cultural-boycott movement also has worked with authors, such as Naomi Klein, who have been translated into Hebrew and who want to do a book tour in venues that are not complicit in the occupation. “There are many cases where we deal with gray areas,” Barghouti said.

Also, he added, the movement differentiates between getting grants from the Israeli government in order to produce a work of art and taking money to tour the world and promote government interests. The former, he said, “is your right as a taxpayer,” whereas the latter is “propaganda.”

We don’t do politics, we’re here for Beethoven

Another counter-argument Barghouti hears, particularly from Israeli artists, is that “We don’t do politics, we’re here to play Beethoven.” He said that he has no objection either to the musicians or to the Beethoven — only to the money taken from the Israeli state sources to stage events with Israeli branding. Without that, he said, you can “play as much Beethoven as you like.”

Certainly, the Palestinian cultural boycott movement works with a number of Israeli partners. Barghouti used a phrase he said was coined by PalFest Arabic social-media coordinator Maath Musleh (@MaathMusleh): “co-resistance vs. co-existence.” This puts the focus on on Israelis and Palestinians resisting oppressive systems together — wherever they may be — rather than on a simple coexistence with repression.

The issue does grow complicated in neighboring states like Egypt, where local boycott or anti-normalization groups turn the movement into a refusal to work with any Israeli artists or academics. Here, Barghouti said, PACBI and the outside movements “agree to disagree.” Certainly, the inflexibility of Egyptian anti-normalization movements has sometimes suffocated free speech within Egypt.

Improving free speech within Israel

However, the boycott movement has, Barghouti argued, improved the situation of free speech within Israel. The freedom to criticize has been particularly jeopardized in recent years by a law criminalizing support of boycotts.

Dr. Oren Ben-Dor, a former Israeli citizen who’s now a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Southampton, also makes this argument. Ben-Dor has said that the cultural and academic boycott movement supports freedom of speech in Israeli universities (read: Academic Freedom in Israel is Central to Resolving the Conflict). That’s because a global boycott movement helps create the space in which Israeli academics can start to discuss taboos around the violations of Palestinians’ human rights.

Novelist and PalFest founder Ahdaf Soueif, who is a long-time supporter of cultural boycott, said that PACBI “doesn’t stand against free speech or communication. It stands against the manipulation of the concept of free speech by the Israeli government.”

Miéville added that, “When we look back at South Africa now and see who didn’t observe the boycott, there’s a sort of a cringe.”

In the future, when we look back at those who didn’t observe the Israeli boycott, he said, this too will be seen as a “not unimportant ethical failure.”

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