The Cultural Boycott: Israel vs. South Africa

Editor’s note: The article was written by Omar Barghouti, who is a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). PACBI is a member of the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions Campaign National Committee (BNC). This article is the fourth in a continuing series exploring BDS and its connection to the art world.

“Just as we said during apartheid that it was inappropriate for international artists to perform in South Africa in a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity, so it would be wrong for Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel.”

— Desmond Tutu, 26 October 2010 

Highlighting her commitment to “justice and peace,” the iconic US R&B singer Lauryn Hill cancelled a few weeks ago her scheduled performance in Israel, after appeals from Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Earlier this year, almost a thousand cultural figures in Britain signed a pledge in support of the cultural boycott of Israel, following similar initiatives in Montreal (Canada), Ireland, and South Africa. Explaining their initiative, the British artists wrote:

During South African apartheid, musicians announced they weren’t going to ‘play Sun City’. Now we are saying, in Tel Aviv, Netanya, Ashkelon, or Ariel, we won’t play music, accept awards, attend exhibitions, festivals, or conferences, run masterclasses or workshops, until Israel respects international law and ends its colonial oppression of the Palestinians.

Cultural boycott initiatives against Israel, which come in response to the 2004 call by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and to the 2005 Palestinian civil-society initiated BDS Call, more often than not cite the boycott of apartheid South Africa as a key reference.

This reference is neither coincidental nor rhetorical. It stems from the many similarities between the two cases of colonial oppression, alluded to in the opening quote by South African anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu, and it aims to highlight the effectiveness and moral unassailability of using the boycott in the cultural sphere to resist a persistent oppressive order that enjoys impunity and ample complicity from the powers that be around the world and to increase the isolation of oppressive regimes, like Israel’s.

Israel’s Extremism Accelerates BDS

By electing its most extremist government ever, Israel has shed its democratic pretenses and unmasked its decades-old colonial policies, giving impetus to the already impressive growth of the global, nonviolent, Palestinian-led BDS movement.

Launched in 2005 by the largest coalition in Palestinian civil society, BDS calls for ending Israel’s 1967 occupation, ending its institutionalized racial discrimination, which fits the UN definition of apartheid, and upholding the right of return for Palestinian refugees uprooted and dispossessed in 1948.

A government led by a prime minister who rejects Palestinian statehood and publicly race-baits Palestinian citizens of Israel and whose key partner, the Jewish Home, advocates for creating Palestinian Bantustans will make it much more difficult to defend Israel in the court of world public opinion. BDS has become far less taboo, even if still controversial in the West.

Despite its undisputed growth, the cultural boycott aspect of BDS has been among the most fiercely debated, and not just in relation to the South Africa reference.

Boycotts and Freedom of Expression

The most resilient objection to the cultural and academic boycott, the supposedly “inherent” contradiction between the boycott and freedom of expression and of exchange, is in fact based on a wrong premise — that we are calling for ostracizing individual Israeli academics, writers, and artists. PACBI never did. The 2004 PACBI call, the guidelines for the international boycott of Israel, and all PACBI documents and speeches on record have consistently called on international artists, academics, and institutions to observe a boycott of all Israeli academic and cultural institutions (including formal bands and orchestras), not individuals.

The PACBI guidelines state:

Anchored in precepts of international law and universal human rights, the BDS movement, including PACBI, rejects on principle boycotts of individuals based on their identity (such as citizenship, race, gender, or religion) or opinion. Mere affiliation of Israeli cultural workers to an Israeli cultural institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott. If, however, an individual is representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution, or is commissioned/recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to ‘rebrand’ itself, then her/his activities are subject to the institutional boycott the BDS movement is calling for.

Unlike the South African academic and cultural boycott, which was a “blanket” boycott that targeted everyone and everything South African, the Palestinian boycott targets institutions only, due to their entrenched complicity in planning, justifying, whitewashing, or otherwise perpetuating Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights.

PACBI has never targeted individual Israeli artists or academics per se, not because they tend to be more progressive or opposed to injustice than the rest of society, as often mistakenly assumed or falsely argued, but because we are opposed on principle to political testing and “blacklisting.” The BDS movement has consistently refrained from using McCarthyist tools in resisting Israel’s regime of oppression, despite, or because of, the Israeli lobby groups’ persistent resort to what I call a “new McCarthyism,” one that uses unconditional allegiance to Israel as the litmus test of loyalty.

Enuga S. Reddy, director of the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid, in 1984 responded to similar criticism that the cultural boycott of South Africa infringed the freedom of expression, saying:

It is rather strange, to say the least, that the South African regime which denies all freedoms … to the African majority … should become a defender of the freedom of artists and sportsmen of the world. We have a list of people who have performed in South Africa because of ignorance of the situation or the lure of money or unconcern over racism. They need to be persuaded to stop entertaining apartheid, to stop profiting from apartheid money and to stop serving the propaganda purposes of the apartheid regime.

That was two decades after the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement first issued a declaration signed by 28 Irish playwrights who committed not to permit their work to be performed before segregated audiences in South Africa, in 1964. The next year, in 1965, the American Committee on Africa, following the lead of prominent British and Irish arts associations, sponsored a historic declaration against South African apartheid, signed by more than 60 cultural personalities.

Then in December 1980, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a special resolution on the cultural boycott of South Africa in December 1980, almost two decades after civil society unions and associations in Britain, Ireland, and, later, in the US, adopted such a boycott. That decision also heeded consistent appeals by black organizations in South Africa which effectively censured several foreign entertainers who violated the boycott.

Why, then, should Israel be exempt from a cultural boycott?

Those who are now hesitant to support a boycott of Israel’s academic and cultural institutions while having in the past endorsed or even struggled to implement a blanket academic or cultural boycott against apartheid South Africa are hard pressed to explain this peculiar inconsistency.

Israel vs. South Africa: Apartheid by Any Other Name

Is it fair to compare Israel to South Africa, given the obvious differences? The short answer is a resounding yes. Israel’s regime of oppression against the Palestinian people may be a special cocktail of occupation, settler-colonialism, and apartheid. But some leading South African figures have even argued that Israel is a more sophisticated, evolved and brutal form of apartheid than its South African predecessor, according to authoritative statements by South African anti-apartheid leaders, like past cabinet minister Ronnie Kasrils, who is Jewish, and Christian leaders who fought apartheid. Belonging to the same family as apartheid South Africa does not necessarily entail identical features.

Almost 67 years after its establishment, through a deliberate and systemic process of ethnic cleansing of a majority of the indigenous Palestinian population, Israel maintains a legalized and institutionalized system of racial discrimination, which fits the UN definition of apartheid. It still denies Palestinian refugees (internal and external), who make up some 69% of the Palestinian people, their UN-enshrined right to return to the homes and lands from which they were uprooted and dispossessed in 1948 and ever since.

Still, what do art and culture have to do with all this? Some argue that art is above, or at least should transcend, political division, unifying people in their “common humanity.” This argument ignores the political content, the power disparity, and the ethical responsibility associated with artistic expression, particularly in situations of sustained oppression. It also ignores, it seems, that the proverbial masters and slaves do not quite share anything in common, least of all any notion of humanity.

Brand Israel

One of the main objectives of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel is exposing the deep complicity of Israel’s academic and cultural institutions in Israel’s regime of oppression, thus revealing the true “brand” of Israel.

The Israeli government launched the so-called Brand Israel campaign in 2005 apparently in response to the 2004 PACBI call and the initial traction that it had gained in the UK and beyond. This branding campaign focused on improving Israel’s image abroad “by downplaying religion and avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians” and by spinning it as “relevant and modern.”

A former deputy director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, explained upon launching the Brand Israel campaign in 2005:

We are seeing culture as a hasbara [propaganda] tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture.

After the Israeli war of aggression against the besieged Gaza Strip in 2009 Israel’s image took a further steep dip, prompting the government to throw more money into the Brand Israel campaign. A top Israeli foreign ministry official told the New York Times:

We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits. This way you show Israel’s prettier face.

And indeed, Israel has been sending more and more dance companies, orchestras, poets and films abroad, particularly after its summer of 2014 assault on Gaza, which was condemned as a “massacre” by Brazil’s president and France’s foreign minister and which caused a further erosion in Israel’s standing in world public opinion. A former British Deputy Prime Minister and former French Prime Minister called for sanctions. The deputy chairperson of Germany’s second largest party called for an arms embargo on Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

BDS has significantly contributed to this damage in Israel’s stature. Authoritative international public opinion polls, like the 2014 BBC-sponsored Globescan, show Israel competing with North Korea in popularity across the world, including in major European countries where two-third majorities view Israel negatively.

BDS aside, Israel’s near pariah status can partially be attributed to its steady and accelerating shift to the fanatic right, habitual belligerence, and arrogant contempt for international law. US president Barrack Obama said in a 2013 interview that though Iran may present a short-term threat to Israel’s survival, Israel’s own behavior “poses a long term one.”

An almost hidden secret of the Israeli government’s Brand Israel effort is a contract that actually obliges Israeli artists and writers, as “service providers” who receive state funding, to conform to and indeed promote state policies. It effectively buys the artists’ and writers’ consciences, making a mockery of the “freedom of expression” mantra.

This contract was revealed in an article in Haaretz instructively titled “Putting out a contract on art” by the award-winning Israeli writer Yitzhak Laor, and because of the exceptional importance of this contract in understanding the organic partnership between the state and the duly complacent and complicit intelligentsia, its most relevant excerpts are reproduced here:

The service provider undertakes to act faithfully, responsibly and tirelessly to provide the Ministry with the highest professional services. The service provider 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.

Hurting the Victims?

An argument often raised to counter the case for a cultural boycott of Israel is that such a boycott, since it entails refusing to show art works in Israel, may actually hurt the state’s victims, the Palestinians, more than it would hurt Israel itself, as it would compound their already dire isolation.

US filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who co-founded with Martin Scorsese Filmmakers United Against Apartheid to protest the racist regime in South Africa in the 1980s, was asked if denying American movies to all South African audiences would punish blacks as well as the white regime? He replied:

We believe the answer is no. Leaders of the (opposition) African National Congress have said they fervently want a boycott. … As far as denying the consciousness-raising among whites that American films could provide, the consensus is that it will take more than one movie or group of movies to raise the consciousness of the white rulers.

Israeli cultural, as well as academic, institutions will always claim that the boycott infringes upon their freedom and punishes artists and academics who are the most “progressive” and opposed to “the occupation” in Israeli society. This argument, aside from being quite disingenuous, is in fact intended to deflect attention from three basic facts: first, that the boycott was called for because Israel was denying Palestinians their basic rights, including academic and cultural rights; second, that the Palestinian academic and cultural boycott of Israel targets institutions, not individuals; and third, that those institutions, far from being more progressive than the average in Israel, are a main pillar of the Israeli structure of colonial and apartheid oppression.

Not only do the oppressed lose nothing when people of conscience boycott institutions that are persistently complicit in the system of oppression; in fact, they gain enormously from the ultimate weakening of this complicity that an effective and sustained boycott leads to.

If boycott, at the most fundamental level, constitutes “withdrawing … cooperation from an evil system,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us in another context, BDS fundamentally calls on all people of conscience and their institutions to fulfill their profound moral obligation to desist from complicity in Israel’s system of oppression against the Palestinian people. Artists and other cultural figures are no exception.