On boycotts, Palestine, and resistance: a review of ‘Assuming Boycott’

Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production
Edited by Kareem Estefan, Carin Kuoni, and Laura Raicovich
272 pp. OR Books, 2017. $18.

In the winter of 2012 the highly-acclaimed Mvskoke poet and musician Joy Harjo found herself at the center of an excruciating public fray. Despite direct appeals from thousands of BDS advocates, including some of her friends in the indigenous community, Harjo decided to accept a brief residency at Tel Aviv University. Of course, many other international artists have crossed the picket line to perform in spaces targeted by the Palestinian-led boycott, but when Harjo decided to go, it touched an especially raw nerve.

Palestinian and anti-colonial activists felt betrayed that an anti-war, feminist, indigenous cultural icon like Harjo would turn a deaf ear to friends and political allies. For her part, Harjo claimed that she felt bullied and harassed. The emotionally charged debate was intensified by the theatrical presence of pro-Israel propagandists and trolls who, without a trace of irony, cast themselves as guardians of freedom of expression.

Harjo defended her decision on her Facebook page and in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, citing the metaphysical argument that the arts have the special capacity to transcend the barriers of political conflict. This mystical concept struck many BDS proponents as disingenuous since Harjo herself had previously boycotted George Bush’s White House during the Iraq War, demonstrating a conviction that some political boundaries ought never be crossed. How and why had she decided that performing in an Israeli apartheid space didn’t merit the same refusal?

This painful episode raked up questions that demand serious consideration and attention. Why do critics of cultural boycotts insist on framing them as a form of censorship, rather than as an invitation to imagine and enact more principled forms of engagement? Are cultural and academic boycotts an effective strategy when some artists and allies may be marginalized in the process? How can organizers better communicate the moral urgency of a boycott without being perceived as tone-deaf and culturally insensitive?

These are the kinds of questions that are addressed and explored in a useful new collection of essays published this year by OR Books. With contributions from a diverse range of leading left-wing artists, curators, critics, and academics, “Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production” offers a rich and lively analysis of historical and present-day boycotts and the ethical, political, and practical issues they raise.

Organized into four thematic sections, including three case studies on South Africa, Palestine, the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, “Assuming Boycott” is not framed as a polemical intervention in favor or against boycotts, rather it starts with the assumption that cultural boycotts are already a “tool of our time” and that artists are using them with increasing frequency and urgency. Most serious contemporary artists recognize that their work does not transcend the material conditions of its inception, transmission, and reception, and are assuming more agency in assuring that their work “be shown and circulated in accordance with their ethics and solidarities.”

Rather than characterizing these widespread and far-flung mobilizations as evidence of censorship and closure, the editors invite us to consider the ways that boycotts—and the difficult process of enacting and enforcing them—can be thought of as openings, transforming the conversation among artist-activists, and transforming the cultural landscape. This subtle reframing of the discussion, and the inclusion of essays that challenge cherished dogma on the left, allow for productive debate and critical analysis to emerge.

In the section on South Africa, several essayists trace some of the lesser known and unexpected results of the cultural boycott that was launched in 1946 by the U.S. Actors’ Equity Association, institutionalized by the ANC and the UN in the 1960s, and reinforced by popular entertainers and activists in the 1980s. Two fascinating pieces by John Peffer and Hlonipha Mokoena offer retrospective analyses of the successes, failures, and grey zones of the cultural boycott. Both discuss specific innovations that emerged in the music and art scenes due to a variety of factors and pressures.

The rise in global popularity of South African culture, the presence of international solidarity projects, and the exigencies of the political crisis were all factors that spurred (sometimes forced) South African cultural workers to develop new genres and unconventional modes of expression and distribution. Peffer and Mokoena’s essays demonstrate that the cultural boycott was not without frustration and shortcomings, but that it fostered a level of international contact and collaboration that produced an atmosphere of experimentation.

In reflecting on some the indelible legacies of the cultural boycott of South Africa, Sean Jacobs writes that it popularized the concept that culture and politics are interconnected and it “cemented the idea of culture as an agent of politics, and not just a reflection of politics.” Though the boycott was never systematically applied and was fraught with obstacles, Jacobs argues that its symbolic force contributed to the moral isolation of Apartheid, and inspired other important boycotts, most notably the BDS movement.

The second part of “Assuming Boycott,” arguably the most emphatic section, is entirely devoted to Palestine and BDS. The moral and intellectual case for boycott is eloquently made and reinforced across the breadth of several excellent pieces by Noura Erakat, Nasser Abourahme, Yazan Khalili, Kareem Estefan, and Eyal Weizman. This section includes a seminal essay, “‘We,’ Palestinians and Jewish Israelis: The Right Not to be a Perpetrator” by Ariella Azoulay, which calls upon Israelis to put an end to the ongoing human catastrophe and crimes against humanity in Palestine by helping to permanently dismantle the Zionist regime. Azoulay writes that Israelis should assert their right to not be “citizen-perpetrators” by engaging in BDS and by “imagining new forms of partnership devoid of any claim of Jewish supremacy…”

The intensity of Azoulay’s polemic finds considerable ballast in a piece by Joshua Simon who worries that BDS, which necessarily functions in relation to sovereign neoliberal capitalism, represents a “variation of the logic” of capitalism. While he recognizes that this may be the efficient strategy of the moment, he argues for the development of a “different political dynamic outside the reality of consumption as our sole agency.” Simon contends that BDS, driven as it is by a decentralized network of well-known activists, may be replacing genuinely collective solidarity work on the ground.

When read in conjunction with and tempered by the analysis of the “grey zones” in the South Africa section, the Palestine section will be especially instructive for BDS organizers and leaders. One of the most notable critiques of the movement is that the boycott is arbitrarily applied and misapplied, often targeting and alienating allies. The egregious shunning of journalist Amira Hass at Birzeit University is cited to illustrate the dangers of blanket boycotts. The essays here, however, written by prominent anti-Zionist Israelis and Palestinians, place a special emphasis on the notion of co-resistance and the need for joint struggle for decolonization. As Eyal Weizman writes, “the movement should find—and perhaps create—new forums for solidarity and cultural production.” Weizman and several others make the appeal for the creation of alternative and egalitarian spaces.

Another excellent point raised by Weizman and then further developed by the essayists who participated in the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition is the way that cultural boycotts force committed activists to engage in sustained research in order to navigate complicated areas and to “measure degrees of complicity and degrees of resistance.” In his excellent essay titled “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Campaign,” Naeem Mohaiemen chronicles the activities and struggles of Gulf Labor, a group of artist-activists who have fought to improve conditions for the migrant workers constructing the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and other art institutions in the Gulf. Mohaiemen describes the extensive research needed to pressure recalcitrant museum administrators to redress human rights violations. This piece and several others remind us that cultural and academic boycotts create the need and the space for more knowledge production, not less.

Concerns about censorship and the repression of free speech are given space to percolate in the third section, “Who Speaks? Who is Silenced?” with the inclusion of an essay by Tania Bruguera on her experiences resisting state censorship in Cuba and a provocative piece by free speech advocate Svetlana Mintcheva who offers a nuanced intervention on the issue of cultural appropriation. Mintcheva makes a case against the prohibition of all instances of “trans-cultural borrowing” and worries that when university and museum administrators quickly succumb to the impulses of “cyber mobs,” they further exacerbate a climate of fear and self-censorship. While both Bruguera and Mintcheva point a finger at direct state and institutional censorship, they do not deny the need for grassroots activists to mount vocal protests and boycotts, which provoke important discussions in the service of social justice.

Looking at the issue of silence and silencing from a different angle, anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler offers a critique of fellow scholars who pride themselves in taking stands on the most pressing of social issues, except for Palestine. When faced with this injustice, many academics say that they just don’t “know enough.” While Stoler asserts the rights of individuals to make their own choice, she signed onto the BDS call in 2010. She sees her choice to boycott as a way of attending “to a set of practices and priorities that creates in itself a political space…to account for oneself and to know better what the consequences of those choices are…” Stoler celebrates that even unsuccessful bids to endorse BDS in professional academic organizations like the American Anthropological Association and Modern Language Association, make it far more difficult for people to willfully ignore the question of Palestine.

The final section of this excellent reader, “Dis/engagement From Afar,” addresses some of the questions and paradoxes that arise as artists engage in global solidarity movements that may be geographically, politically, culturally, or temporally “distant” or unfamiliar. Activists must navigate issues of power imbalance, cultural difference, and distance in order to engage ethically and authentically. Essays by Chelsea Haines, Nathan Grey and Ahmet Öğüt, and Radhika Subramaniam, provide a subtle examination of some the concrete ways that artists create and sustain global networks to ensure that their work is disseminated in accordance with their own political values.

In her essay “52 Weeks, and Engaging by Disengaging,” Mariam Ghani (with Haig Aivazian) reflects on the tactics and strategies of Gulf Labor, especially the one-year campaign 52 Weeks that offered a parallel space for “producing and disseminating artworks that directly addressed or enacted the ideas behind the boycott.” This successful transnational project garnered increased public attention for Gulf Labor’s efforts, helped connect the group with other social justice projects, brought labor “to the very center of artworld discourse,” and served as a reminder that a boycott “can and should be the beginning of a larger conversation….”

Ghani’s exciting contribution, like so many others in this book, is extremely valuable as we reflect on the Joy Harjo incident and many other challenging obstacles faced in the BDS movement. Organizers and activists can be more preemptive and creative in their work, developing new venues of co-resistance. Ideally when international artists are asked to cancel shows in Tel Aviv, they should be invited to perform and exhibit in innovative spaces that are committed to the ongoing struggle to decolonize Palestine.

Considering the anti-BDS legislation that is now making its way through Congress, the task of deepening our understanding of the tool of boycott is more urgent than ever. It is important to recognize and contend with negative public perceptions of cultural boycotts in order to strategize and organize more effectively. “Assuming Boycott” arrives at a critical moment and performs a great service for a growing community of politically committed artists who seek to build relationships and institutions that reflect a culture of liberation.