Acclaimed Irish literary festival’s refusal to accept Israeli state funding welcomed by artists and human rights campaigners

The decision by Listowel Writers’ Week Festival, an internationally acclaimed literary festival in the Irish heritage town of Listowel County Kerry, to refuse funding from the Israeli Embassy in Ireland….

The decision by Listowel Writers’ Week Festival, an internationally acclaimed literary festival in the Irish heritage town of Listowel County Kerry, to refuse funding from the Israeli Embassy in Ireland has been welcomed by artists, human rights campaigners and Palestine solidarity activists in Ireland, and is being hailed as victory for the growing Palestinian-led global Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement.

The festival’s courageous and principled decision came after festival organizers were informed that the acceptance of any such funding would be in breach of the Palestinian civil society call for a cultural boycott of Israel, and after being contacted by concerned members of the public, several of them artists who are due to take part in the festival.

Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) Chairperson Fatin Al Tamimi thanked the Listowel Writers’ Week Festival organisers saying: “As a Palestinian woman who is exiled from her homeland, I thank the festival for refusing to take Israeli state funding for this event. This decision is courageous, principled and absolutely the right thing to do. This is a small, but certainly significant, positive gesture that will be appreciated by the Palestinian people struggling for freedom, justice and equality, whether under Israel’s apartheid regime or living in exile.”

The issue initially came to light on Sunday morning when members of Ireland’s artistic community began highlighting on social media that the Listowel Writers’ Week brochure listed an event in which the Israeli Embassy in Ireland was explicitly thanked for its support, along with the embassy’s logo.

After having seemingly been contacted by a vast number of people expressing their concern and dismay at this acceptance of funding from the Foreign Ministry of Apartheid Israel by one of Ireland’s leading literary festivals, the organisers posted a clarification on their Facebook page stating that “No monetary exchange has taken place between Listowel Writers’ Week and the Embassy of Israel in Ireland. The Embassy’s support is in the form of supporting the author’s travel to Ireland”. However, this form of support is still a violation of the cultural boycott guidelines issued by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

The IPSC undertook to write to the festival informing them of the Palestinian cultural boycott call, explaining its rationale, how Israel abuses cultural sponsorship to whitewash its crimes against Palestinian people, and why the moral imperative was to refuse to accept such funding.

Happily, the festival announced yesterday morning that it was honoring its commitment to bring over the Israeli writer Savyon Liebrecht to speak about her work, but was rejecting the Israel Embassy funding – a move in line with the cultural boycott guidelines which does not seek to boycott individuals but Israeli state institutions.

In its letter, the IPSC explained the background to the BDS call and outlined Israel’s use of ‘culture-washing’ as means of deflecting from its crimes:

We at the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) are extremely disappointed to note that one of the talks at Listowel Writers’ Week, that of author Savyon Liebrecht, is “kindly supported by the Embassy of Israel in Ireland.”

You may not be aware of the fact that in 2005, in response to decades of occupation, oppression and colonisation a call was issued by a broad spectrum of over 170 Palestinian civil society organisations for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the Israeli state “until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law”.

A year previous, in 2004, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) – which includes the Palestinian Writers’ Federation and Palestinian League of Artists – issued a call specifically asking for cultural boycotts of the Israel state and its institutions. PACBI issued guidelines for this boycott; these guidelines include asking artists, cultural foundations and promotions companies to refuse any sponsorship, funding or payment-in-kind (including funding for artists to travel abroad) offered by the Israeli state.

In your statement on this issue, you say that the Israeli Embassy in Ireland is “supporting the author’s travel to Ireland”. This clearly constitutes a form of sponsorship – whether or not a monetary exchange has taken place, the Embassy is funding the author’s appearance at the festival – and travel funding is the most common form of sponsorship for many arts events, and it is therefore in breach of the PACBI cultural boycott guidelines.

We believe that these calls for nonviolent solidarity from the oppressed Palestinian people, similar to those that came from South Africa during the apartheid era, must be both listened to, and crucially, adhered to. Accepting financial support, in any form, from the Israeli Foreign Ministry most certainly breaches this call for a boycott.

The Director-General of Israeli Foreign Ministry, Nissim Ben-Shitrit, was quite frank about the overtly political and diplomatic role such state funding of cultural tours plays, saying that Israel sees “culture as a hasbara [propaganda] tool of the first rank, and [does] not differentiate between hasbara and culture”. Indeed, according to Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor, the contract that the state requires artists availing of its travel funding to sign explicitly stipulates that the “service provider [ie, the artist] is aware that the purpose of ordering services from him is to promote the policy interests of the State of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel … The service provider will not present himself as an agent, emissary and/or representative of the Ministry”.

We wish to be very clear that the BDS campaign is not aimed at individuals, and we are not raising any issue whatsoever with the attendance at the festival of the writer herself, rather solely with the support of the Israeli Embassy, the official representative of that state in Ireland, for the event.

The Palestinian civil society call for a cultural boycott has correctly identified the Israeli state’s abuse of the arts as an exercise in ‘culture-washing’, a means to distract from Israel’s atrocious human rights record and to present itself as a liberal and culturally tolerant state, when it is anything but.

The letter explained how the IPSC believe that Israel’s consistent human rights and international law violations, and it’s ongoing war of repression against Palestinian culture, meant that the festival could not in good conscience accept this support from the Israeli state:

Israel is in constant breach of multiple international laws and 2016 marks the 68th year of its ongoing colonisation of Palestine and oppression of the indigenous people. The Palestinian people are subjected to occupation, apartheid, siege, internment, and war crimes by the Israeli state; among its numerous crimes, in the past 15 years Israeli occupation forces have killed over 2,000 Palestinian children, wounded 13,000 and jailed 12,000.

Israel’s oppression of Palestinian cultural workers is continuous and most recently poet Dareen Tatour was imprisoned and is now held under house arrest for the content of her poetry. On May 21st Israel denied Palestinian writer Ahmed Masoud entry to the West Bank where he was to participate in the 9th annual Palestinian Festival of Literature (Palfest), and read from his novel ‘Vanished’. Other similar examples include the following: in 2002 Israel prevented the Palestinian poets Zakaria Mohammed and Ghassan Zaqtan from travelling to Ireland to read their work. In May 2009, Israeli soldiers prevented the opening of the Palestine Festival of Literature in Jerusalem. In April 2011, the venue hosting the final event of that year’s Festival was attacked with tear gas by the Israeli army. In 2011 Israeli occupation forces assaulted the Freedom Theatre in Jenin. In July last year, award-winning Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa was denied entry to Palestine.

Furthermore, the Israeli state will soon be implementing the so-called ‘loyalty in culture’ in law that will cut funding for any cultural activities that the state does not deem ‘loyal’ enough, including “denying the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “marking Independence Day as a day of mourning”. In other words, Palestinian citizens of Israel, 20% of the population, are being denied the ability to artistically express their desire to live in a state of all its citizens or to commemorate and mourn the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba (Arabic for ‘Catastrophe’) that led to the exile of over 750,000 indigenous people to facilitate the creation of the state of Israel.

Such attacks on Palestinian literature, culture and historical commemoration make the acceptance of any support for any aspect of a literary festival in Ireland from the Israeli Foreign Ministry (via the Israeli Embassy) utterly unacceptable and we sincerely hope that you will refuse to take it.

The letter also explained that there was huge artistic support in Ireland and worldwide for the cultural boycott, and that in the past Irish festivals had similarly rejected such funding when they were made aware of the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of Israel:

Since 2010 more than 500 creative and performing artists in Ireland have signed the IPSC’s ‘Irish Artists’ Pledge to Boycott Israel’, the text of which reads: “In response to the call from Palestinian civil society for a cultural boycott of Israel, we pledge not to avail of any invitation to perform or exhibit in Israel, nor to accept any funding from any institution linked to the government of Israel, until such time as Israel complies with international law and universal principles of human rights”.

Among the signatories are novelists, poets, painters, sculptors, film-makers, dancers, composers, performing musicians and others, including many members of Aosdána. Of the writers featuring at Listowel Writers’ Week, six have signed the Pledge and we will be contacting them to inform them that the festival is accepting sponsorship from the Israeli Embassy. We feel sure that the involvement of official support from Israel for the festival will prove problematic for them as signatories of the Artists’ Boycott Pledge.

There is precedent in Ireland for rejecting such Israeli state sponsorship. In August 2006 the Dún Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures declined an offer of funding from the Israeli Embassy for the Toy Vivo Duo to attend the Festival, itself providing the €1500 that enabled the Duo’s participation. The IPSC welcomed this principled decision, and did not protest the Duo’s presence, given that no Israeli government sponsorship was involved. That same year the Irish Film Institute cancelled the Israeli Embassy’s partial sponsorship of its Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in the wake of Israel’s murderous onslaught on Lebanon. We strongly urge you to follow such examples and refuse to take this funding.

All over the world people, among them writers, are increasingly aware of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people and support for the cultural boycott is growing exponentially. Just last month, more than 100 writers, including Pulitzer Prize winners Alice Walker, Richard Ford and Junot Díaz, called on the PEN American Center “to reject support from the embassy of Israel” in an open letter. “It is deeply regrettable that the festival has chosen to accept sponsorship from the Israeli government, even as it intensifies its decades-long denial of basic rights to the Palestinian people, including the frequent targeting of Palestinian writers and journalists,” says the letter, also signed by former president and vice president of English PEN, Gillian Slovo and Kamila Shamsie; poet Eileen Myles; authors Louise Erdrich and Ahdaf Soueif; and the Palestinian writer Ahmad Qatamesh, whose imprisonment without charge by the Israeli government was criticised by PEN International.

The letter closed with a call to remember the artists of 1916 who resisted British colonialism, the Irish origin of the word ‘Boycott’, and quote from Palestinian performance poet and BDS activist Rafeef Ziadah who has just completed a tour of Ireland, including in Dublin where she took to the Abbey stage as part of the International Literature Festival:

During her time in Ireland Ms Ziadah had an official meeting with President Higgins, and was interviewed on the Arena arts show and Pat Kenny’s radio programme. She also led the Afri Famine walk with Cathryn O’Reilly, a leading member of the Dunnes Stores strikers who were suspended by management for refusing to handle the “fruits of apartheid” in 1984 during the anti-South African apartheid era.

Ms Ziadah has said: “Opponents of the cultural boycott of Israel say that art should be separate from politics. The supposed separation has offered Palestinian artists and art no protection from political persecution and censorship. Israeli attacks on Palestinian art range from shutting down exhibitions and preventing Palestinians from performing to stopping institutions from sponsoring and hosting events. This siege on Palestinian artists must be broken. Breaking the siege means that Israel has to change, and it won’t do that without pressure. That’s why many Palestinian artists have appealed to cultural workers and artists in the rest of the world to boycott Israeli government institutions. As with South Africa, the cultural boycott is an especially important method of resisting apartheid; Israel openly abuses culture as a form of state propaganda. The cultural boycott call has been attacked as detrimental to free expression. But the alternative is complicity in the abuse of culture by an apartheid state. Israel uses culture as a weapon to sell ‘Brand Israel’, and to cover up its attacks on the Palestinian people, just as apartheid South Africa tried to use sport to cover up its crimes.”

As we commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising and honour those artists who strove to end injustice, we ask that you not besmirch their legacy by ignoring the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice, and equality by accepting funding from the Israeli Embassy. Ireland’s proud history of solidarity with the oppressed, not to mention our invention of the word ‘Boycott’ in a struggle for indigenous land rights, demands that we listen to the oppressed, stand against injustice and refuse to be complicit with those states who perpetrate it.

UPDATE: PalFest Ireland have issued the following statement in support of the festival’s decision.

PalFest Ireland (Irish Artists Supporting Palestine) warmly welcome and applaud the decision of Listowel Writers’ Week to reject support from the Israeli Embassy in Ireland with immediate effect. We also welcome the fact that writer Savyon Liebrect’s event will still take place at this year’s festival.

Following on from poet and boycott-advocate Rafeef Ziadah’s sellout performance “We Teach Life” in the Abbey Theatre two days ago, this shows that Ireland is indeed the beaconlight for the international boycott movement against Israel.

The Irish Land League of Davitt and Parnell lit the flame in 1880. They called the strategy of isolation “Boycott” after landlord’s agent Captain Charles Boycott.

The Dunnes Stores strikers fanned it in the 1980s to help bring down South African apartheid. Nelson Mandela came to Ireland to personally thank them.

Today Ireland stands firm with the people of Palestine, and against any attempt elsewhere to crimininalise the strategy of boycott against Israel. We invented the word “boycott” to decribe a non-violent mass movement of isolation. We will not allow it to be commandeered or misrepresented.

PalFest Ireland congratulates Listowel Writers’ Week on their decision and look forward to the event being part of a fantastic festival of literature.

To quote James Connolly close to the centenary of his execution, “Ireland can be as a beaconlight for the oppressed of all nations”. Events such as Rafeef Ziadahs’ tour and Listowel Writers’ Week’s principled decision, show that Ireland has indeed become the beaconlight for the BDS movement – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.