Bad Faith at the Book Festival

by Anthony Alessandrini | Jadaliyya | 28/04/2011 | “Everywhere you look the boycott debate is in the news,” Joseph Dana notes in a recent article on his blog. The most….

by Anthony Alessandrini | Jadaliyya | 28/04/2011 |

“Everywhere you look the boycott debate is in the news,” Joseph Dana notes in a recent article on his blog. The most prominent example involves British novelist Ian McEwan, who rejected calls to boycott the 2011 Jerusalem Book Festival after being awarded the Jerusalem Prize. Instead, McEwan, in his acceptance speech last week, offered some words of criticism for Israeli policies, including settlements and the siege of Gaza, while simultaneously paying tribute to “the precious tradition of a democracy of ideas in Israel”; he also attended the weekly Sheikh Jarrah protest against settlement building in East Jerusalem.

As Dana notes, Italian writer Umberto Eco also weighed in on the boycott debate from the Jerusalem Book Festival, where he was an invited guest: an Associated Press article quoted Eco as declaring that “boycotting Israelis for their government’s policies was itself ‘a form of racism’ and ‘absolutely crazy.’” A longer account in Haaretz contains Eco’s full statement: “I consider it absolutely crazy and fundamentally racist to identify a scholar, a private citizen, with the politics of his government.” When asked for his opinion of the Israeli government, Haaretz reports, “Eco would only comment that he has too much to say against the Italian government to speak about the Israeli government.” Interesting, in this context, is the fact that Eco’s latest novel, Il cimitero di Praga [The Cemetery of Prague], has been at the center of a controversy in Italy recently: both the Vatican-backed Osservatore Romano newspaper and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, have suggested that the novel’s presentation of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory (voiced by a fictional character) is perhaps a bit too convincing. I don’t mean to lend any credence to these accusations (especially without reading the novel), but it’s worth noting that the Haaretz article, in the midst of reporting Eco’s opposition to the boycott, also takes pains to absolve him of the charge of anti-Semitism by noting that “the author clearly had the opposite intention.”

Dana attributes Eco’s statement about the boycott to his misunderstanding of the nature of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) debate, and to a more general “depth of ignorance” regarding the nature of the call by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which is explicit in calling for the boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions, and not the targeting of individual academics or artists. I think Dana is being rather generous with this interpretation. I am going to be less generous: it may be time to start naming the position taken by Eco (and other opponents of the academic and cultural boycott) as not just a “misunderstanding” of the nature of the boycott, but rather as a willful misunderstanding of an increasingly disingenuous nature. Let’s say it: there is some bad faith involved here. After all, Eco is trained as a semiotician; surely he is capable of understanding a document as straightforward as the PACBI call. Indeed, when Eco made similar argument against the academic and cultural boycott in an opinion piece published in L’espresso in May 2010, PACBI responded with a further clarification of its position, asserting in no uncertain terms: “Our campaign has consistently targeted Israel and its complicit institutions, not individuals.” The ultimate result of this disingenuousness is a position that allows Eco to attend the Jerusalem Book Fair and at the same time, using the platform provided there, pose as the indignant defender of writers and scholars against an ad hominem attack that has in actuality never been leveled in the first place.

The late Tanya Reinhart, an early and fearless supporter of the academic and cultural boycott from within the Israeli academy, provided a particularly brilliant (and pithy) articulation of the necessary response to a very similar set of objections expressed against the boycott when the BDS movement was first getting underway in 2002. She noted that many of her Israeli academic colleagues, in response to the call for an international boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions (and in particular, the explicit endorsement of this call in December 2002 by Marie Curie University-Paris VI, which caused a major controversy in France), called for the international community to reject the call to boycott and instead to foster “an open dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian universities.” For example, in February 2003 Hebrew University Professor Idan Segev wrote an opinion piece in Libération suggesting that rather than boycotting Israeli institutions, the EU should “help us organize an international scientific congress in one of the universities of the West Bank.” This is not unlike the position taken by opponents of the boycott such as Eco and McEwan, who assert that a boycott would stifle intellectual discourse and open dialogue.

Reinhart’s response then was as clear and unflinching as ours needs to be today: “The first step in promoting dialogue would be to remove Israeli tanks from the gates of Palestinian universities.”

Against the disingenuousness of Eco’s position, I would place the deeply ethical (and, it’s worth noting in this context, intellectually rigorous) position that has been expressed repeatedly by Judith Butler. Her most recent articulation of this position comes in her article “Who Owns Kafka?”; Butler’s argument here is particularly noteworthy, especially in terms of the repeated assertion that the boycott will “stifle open dialogue” among intellectuals and artists. As Butler points out, the current legal battle over the ownership of several boxes of Kafka’s original writings, including primary drafts of his published work, centers largely around the claim that Kafka’s writings represent “cultural assets belonging to the Jewish people” and that therefore their rightful home should be the National Library of Israel, located on the campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Butler notes that the logic at work here, in which the state of Israel represents the Jewish people (and their “cultural assets”), “denies the vast number of Jews outside Israel who are not represented by it, either legally or politically, but also the Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens of that state.” This logic, as her persuasive reading of several texts by Kafka suggests, is also directly counter to Kafka’s own expression of a pervasive sense of “non-belonging” in his work (it should be noted that Butler is equally critical, in this context, of the counter-claim expressed by the German Literature Archive in Marbach, that Kafka in fact belongs to “the German people” for specifically linguistic reasons). But the argument being made by the National Library of Israel also has a specific set of material consequences pointed out by Butler, which are well worth noting in this debate over the supposed stifling of open intellectual discourse:

It matters that Israel comes to own the work, but also that the work is housed within the established territory of the state, so that anyone who seeks to see and study that work must cross Israel’s border and engage with its cultural institutions. And this is also problematic, not only because citizens from several countries and non-citizens within the Occupied Territories are not allowed to cross that border, but also because many artists, performers and intellectuals are currently honoring the cultural and academic boycott, refusing to appear in Israel unless their host institutions voice a strong and sustained opposition to the occupation. The Kafka trial not only takes place against this political backdrop, but actively intervenes in its reconfiguration: if the National Library in Jerusalem wins its case, to have access to the unpublished and unseen materials of Franz Kafka one will have to defy the boycott and will have implicitly to acknowledge the Israeli state’s right to appropriate cultural goods whose high value is assumed to convert contagiously into the high value of Israel itself.

The exclusion being imposed here, and the subsequent stifling of free and open intellectual inquiry and exchange, is not the result of the boycott; it is rather the direct effect of the exclusivist logic that underwrites current Israeli state policy. This exclusion has direct and material results, including effects upon those scholars interested in Kafka’s status as a Jewish writer, as Butler herself experienced in the course of her research: “Apparently, on 25 February 1912, Kafka delivered a lecture on Yiddish, though I have not been able to find a copy. Perhaps it is stuffed in a box in Tel Aviv awaiting legal adjudication.”

The logic of the academic and cultural boycott is aimed precisely against this exclusionary logic and its stifling effect, which is why the claim that the boycott itself amounts to a stifling of free and open discourse and dialogue is ultimately so disingenuous. Of course, Butler is one of our most brilliant readers, but one hardly needs to be a professor of rhetoric to be able to see the contradictions inherent in arguing that it is the boycott that stifles dialogue, rather than the actions of the Israeli government and its supporters. Take, for example, the recent forced cancellation of a U.S. speaking tour by Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Civil Society Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign, in support of his new book Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, due to an “inexplicable delay” in granting him a visa to visit the United States (an action carried out by the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, but which is clearly guided by U.S. support for Israeli policies). Such an action puts the onus more clearly than ever upon those intellectuals who continue to oppose the boycott in the name of promoting free and open dialogue. The question needs to be asked: what sort of dialogue is possible under these sorts of exclusionary conditions? Perhaps it is better phrased as a simple statement: if you are hoping to support free and open discourse and dialogue by opposing the boycott, then quite simply, you’re on the wrong side.

Of course, it can be argued that the very fact that intellectual giants such as Eco and McEwan, or Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh, who were involved in similar debates around their decision to accept the Dan David Prize in Tel Aviv last May, or even rather less formidable intellectual figures such as Justin Bieber, have been forced to address the issue of BDS can be counted as a sort of moral victory. After all, one of the motivations of the academic and cultural boycott is to make the issues involved more visible, and to compel intellectuals to address them and, ultimately, choose a side. By this standard, a related way of measuring the success of BDS efforts more generally is to examine the seriousness with which they have been taken by the Israeli government. The answer is: very seriously indeed. As Dana notes, the Knesset is currently considering a bill that would criminalize support of BDS by Israeli citizens. First proposed in June 2010 by 25 Knesset members, the bill passed its first reading by the Knesset’s Constitution Committee on February 15. The terms of the bill call for those found guilty to be liable to pay punitive damages of up to 30,000 NIS (about $8,000); in addition, if proven they participated in a boycott, individuals who are not citizens or residents of Israel could also be punished by having their right to enter the country denied for at least ten years. This comes on the heels of the first-ever meeting called by the Knesset’s Education and Culture Committee to discuss the cultural boycott, which occurred on February 1; afterwards, members of the Committee announced plans to draft legislation to protect and compensate Israeli entertainment producers “who have been financially harmed by the cultural boycott of Israel.”

Measured by the standard of such reactions, the BDS movement has a right to declare itself a success, albeit a provisional one. But measured by the standard of actually affecting the situation on the ground or alleviating the resultant sufferings of Palestinians, then “success” would be far too optimistic a word. I don’t mean this as a criticism: supporters of BDS constantly remind audiences (and ourselves) that, like many forms of non-violent struggle, BDS must be viewed as a long-term strategy. That said, I do think it is incumbent upon us to maintain this latter standard as the proper measure of all our strategies: “success” can only ultimately be measured by a fundamental transformation of the situation.

In this sense, the possibilities set in motion by the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, Iran, Iraq (the list keeps growing) may provide us with new opportunities to strengthen and supplement the BDS movement, especially here in the United States. I think part of the appeal of BDS, for many American activists and intellectuals, is the extent to which it represents a form of what Jeff Halper has referred to as “working around America.” Given the power of the Israeli lobby, the lockstep between the Democrats and Republicans when it comes to support for Israel, and the general inability to affect U.S. foreign policy even through large demonstrations and other expressions of the popular will, putting energy into BDS, which has the potential to address the situation in Israel-Palestine directly, has come to appear as a more productive strategy.

This may be still be true to a great extent, but the energies set loose by the popular revolutions in the region compel us to also return to a more frontal approach to U.S. policy in the region, especially the U.S. government’s unquestioning support for Israeli policies and unfailing defense of Israeli atrocities. Even before the fall of Mubarak, Philip Weiss noted — rightly, I believe — the potential for an “American revolution” that might be inspired by the Egyptian Revolution: specifically, “the liberation of American thinking from the crude paradigms about the Middle East that have held our political imagination in such thrall for 50 years.” As Azad Essa points out, Egypt, “with its scenes of unrelenting protesters staying put in Tahrir Square, playing guitars, singing, treating the injured and generally making Gandhi’s famous salt march of the 1940s look like an act of terror, captured the imagination of an international media and audience more familiar with the stereotype of Muslim youth blowing themselves and others up.” Weiss predicts that these sorts of images, as well as the words of young activists from the region that have become available to Americans via the mainstream media for literally the first time in decades, “will cause political convulsions in the U.S.”

Of course, this will not happen on its own, but the unsustainability of U.S. policy in the region becomes more apparent with each day, and if it continues with its unstinting support of Israel, the U.S. government is bound to become more and more isolated internationally, as proven by the recent U.S. veto of the Security Council resolution condemning (it’s more accurate to say, simply affirming) the illegality of Israeli settlements. In addition to pushing forward with the BDS movement, then, the time seems ripe to re-open the larger question of U.S. support for Israel, and for intellectuals to seize the initiative opened up by the Tunisian, Egyptian, and other uprisings to try to fundamentally transform the discourse in this country when it comes to discussions of Israel-Palestine.

Needless to say, this means more free intellectual discourse, and more open dialogue. This has always been the hope behind the BDS movement, and the impetus behind the call for the academic and cultural boycott: an opening of the conversation, not a stifling. It’s past time that we counter the charge that the academic and cultural boycott stifles open dialogue; indeed, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it is this charge itself, and those who repeat it, that represent the real impediments to a truly open discussion of justice in Israel-Palestine.