By Samah Sabawi
This paper was prepared for the 7arakat Conference: Theatre, Cultural Diversity and Inclusion November 2012 and was first published in the 7arakat conference E:Proceedings.
International artists find themselves standing at a crossroad between their desire to support all forms of artistic expression, Israeli or otherwise, and the Palestinian civil society’s call to support a cultural boycott of all Israeli state sponsored forms of art. Some argue art and culture are apolitical and boycotting them is an infringement on freedom of expression. They insist that art is a language of peace and building bridges. Others argue that culture and art are in fact political and can serve as tools of political propaganda and repression. They highlight the responsibility of artists to affect change by raising awareness about political and social issues. In this paper, I will set out to explore the relationship between the culture and politics within the Palestinian Israeli conflict, while examining the arguments for and against the Palestinian Civil Society’s call for a cultural boycott of Israel.
Boycott Divestment and Sanctions – BDS
Confronting a failed peace process and a disappearing Palestinian state, and inspired by the South African movement to end apartheid, Palestinian civil society in 2005 set out to build a rights based grassroots movement that adopts a non-violent form of resistance based on international law and the universal declarations of human rights. They called on people of good conscience around the world to apply boycotts divestments and sanctions on Israel until Israel ends its occupation of Palestinian land, including East Jerusalem, and fulfills its obligations under international law toward the Palestinian refugees, granting full equality to the Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel. Endorsed by 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements representing Palestinians in the Occupied Territory, inside Israel’s 1948 boundaries, as well as in Diaspora, the 2005 BDS call represents the voice of the majority of Palestinian civil society and its three demands articulate a unified Palestinian vision that cannot be dismissed. The BDS call is now endorsed by hundreds of leading international human rights activists, including prominent figures such as Stephane Hessel (2010), co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Holocaust survivor.
The Palestinian Campaign for Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel (PCABI)
In 2006 the majority of Palestinian cultural workers, including most filmmakers and artists along with hundreds of international cultural workers and artists issued a unified statement in support of BDS. Today the list of artists who have publically joined the cultural boycott and have cancelled performances in Israel includes celebrities from around the world like Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Annie Lennox, Brian Eno, Devendra Banhart, Tommy Sands, Carlos Santana, Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron amongst many others. The list also includes some incredible writers like Eduardo Galeano, Arundhati Roy and Alice Walker, as well as accomplished filmmakers such as Ken Loach and Jean-Luc Godard.
However, not all artists respond favorably to the boycott call. Some still choose to perform in Israel like pop icons Elton John, Madonna and Lady Gaga to name a few. These artists insist that performing in Israel is about promoting peaceful co-existence by bringing people together. They maintain that cultural events such as concerts are apolitical and should remain so. They complain that the boycotts single out Israel unfairly and that artists – according to Elton John – should not “cherry-pick” their conscious (“Elton John performs in Israel”). They also argue that boycotts are a blunt instrument that amounts to collective punishment of the Israeli people.
Is culture apolitical?
In order to understand the relationship between culture and politics within the Palestinian Israeli context it is important to review the history of Palestinian culture and the political challenges it has faced throughout the years of the Palestinian struggle for freedom.
In an article that appeared in Haaretz (15 May 2012) commemorating Nakba, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi described Palestinian society prior to Israel’s establishment in1948 as highly developed commercially, artistically and culturally. Its economic development was one of the highest in the Arab World and its high school enrolment was second highest with 379 private schools as early as 1914, and dozens of bookstores. In fact, Ashrawi wrote that between the years 1911 and 1948 Palestine had at least 161 newspapers, magazines and other publications and a vibrant cultural scene with cinemas, live theatres and musical concerts both by local artists as well as visiting giants like Egyptian icon Om Kalthoum and the Lebanese singer Farid Alatrash.
All of this was disrupted in 1948 when Israel was established on the ruins of Palestinian villages. Since then Palestinian culture became the target of a systematic and deliberate attempt at erasure by the Israeli authorities. For example, a story which broke out only this year on Al Jazeera titled “The Great Book Robbery” uncovered how during the process of establishing the state of Israel, librarians from Israel’s National Library accompanied the Israeli army into Palestinian homes after their residents were driven out and systematically took all the books that were left in these houses. The books included priceless volumes of Palestinian Arab and Muslim literature, including poetry, works of history, art and fiction. Thousands of these books were destroyed but some were added to the library’s collection and remain till this day in the Israeli National Library, designated, abandoned property – of course totally disregarding the fact that this property does belong to a people who were forced to leave and never permitted to return to their homes or to be reunited with any of their assets, including their books.
Another example of the politicization of culture in the Palestinian Israeli context is how British and then Israeli authorities often targeted not only Palestinian political leaders, but also artists and intellectuals, imprisoning them, banishing them into exile, and even assassinating them. Amongst the artists and intellectuals assassinated by Israel were writer Ghassan Kanafani (Abukhalil 2012) and poet and intellectual Wael Zuaiter (Jacir 2007). Also of great significance to this discussion is how during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israeli forces looted and confiscated the accumulated national archives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which included valuable and rare collections of films and other Palestinian cultural artifacts (IMEU 2012).
Israel’s attack on Palestinian culture continues today and takes many different shapes and forms. Palestinian artists in the occupied and besieged West Bank and Gaza suffer the same fate as all other Palestinians living under occupation. They are discriminated against, their movement is restricted, and their most basic human rights are denied. Israel does not distinguish between culture and politics. In 2005, when Former deputy director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, launched the ‘Brand Israel’ campaign he admitted “We are seeing culture as a hasbara toolof the first rank,and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture” (Ben-Ami 2005). This was abundantly clear in the aftermath of Israel’s three-week bombardment of Gaza during the winter of 2008-2009. As the world witnessed in shock the incredible devastation and human suffering of an imprisoned 1.5 million people mostly refugees and half under the age of 18, Israel brushed off all criticism, blaming the outrage over its actions on bad public relations. Its solution to improve its image as revealed in a New York Times article (Bronner 2009) was not to address its record of violations, but to grant an extra $2 million from the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s budget to improve its image through “cultural and information diplomacy”. Arye Mekel, the ministry’s deputy director general for cultural affairs, was quoted in the article saying, “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater
companies, exhibits…This way you show Israel’s prettier
face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war” (Bronner 2009).
Mekel’s quote is a perfect illustration of how, if you dig beneath the surface, you’ll find that many Israeli state sponsored events that may seem to be simply cultural and for pure entertainment purposes are in fact driving political agendas and whitewashing crimes similar to those committed in Gaza. In fact, Israel goes so far in its manipulation of cultural events that it has made it a condition for artists who receive state funding to sign a contract stipulating they commit to “ promote the policy interests of the State of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel” (Laor 2008). In other words, Israeli artists who are sponsored by the Israeli state are required to support the policies of the state in public and to remain silent on Israel’s discrimination and atrocities against the Palestinians. This was confirmed when Israeli pop music artist Idan Raichel admitted in an interview published on Australia-il.com (2008) the nature of the relationship between the state and its sponsored artists: “We certainly see ourselves as ambassadors of Israel in the world, cultural ambassadors, hasbara ambassadors, also in regards to the political conflict”.
Can cultural events bring people together?
Having established that culture in the Israeli Palestinian context is not apolitical and cannot be seen in isolation of the political environment, I’d like to move on to address the second argument made by opponents of the cultural boycotts who favor performing in Israel as a way to ‘bring people together’ and to promote ‘co-existence’ through joint Palestinian Israeli cultural projects.
First of all, let’s look at the benefit of the joint cultural projects. Will these joint projects pursue an agenda for justice and equality or will they bring two unequal sides together – an occupied and an occupier – and promote an illusion of symmetry? Projects that don’t aim to end Israel’s occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people only promote the normalization of the status quo. That is why increasingly more and more Palestinian artists are turning away from these joint ventures, often refusing to accept badly needed funds and the promise of fame and success, because they recognize that the price for participation – normalizing oppression – is too high to accept.
Secondly, the idea that a concert in Israel can bring Palestinians and Israelis together is absurd when one considers that millions of Palestinians who live under Israel’s military control are prevented by Israel’s apartheid policies from attending. To clarify, when concerts are held in Israel, Palestinians in the West Bank do not enjoy the same access to them as Jewish settlers living on land confiscated from Palestinians in the West Bank. In fact, even when cultural events take place inside the Occupied Territories, for example in Ramallah, Palestinians in other enclaves and Bantustans within the occupied territories or those who live in Gaza, or Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenships – are often not allowed to attend due to the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints in the Occupied Territories and tricky permit systems, all designed to fragment and control Palestinian society.
Israel’s system of apartheid and segregation touches every aspect of Palestinian life and excludes Palestinians from many opportunities that are afforded the Jewish people. This issue of exclusion was at the center of the controversy at the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, as international and local artists expressed dismay at The Globe for inviting Israel’s national theatre Habima to participate in the ‘Globe to Globe’ festival. A protest letter which appeared in The Guardian (29 March 2012) and was signed by an impressive number of celebrities, including first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Mark Rylance, Trevor Griffiths, Sonja Linden, and Emma Thompson, pointed to the fact that “…by inviting Habima, the Globe is associating itself with policies of exclusion practiced by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theatre company”.
International artists have an ethical responsibility to address this issue of exclusion and discrimination, which is central to the reality of the conflict. The real questions artists need to ask themselves are: Do we want to promote a culture where we feel comfortable performing before an audience that is selected by way of racial privilege? Do we want to engage with Israeli artists who have committed by way of signing a legal contract to whitewash Israel’s system of discrimination and oppression? How can we accept the claim that concerts or cultural events can ‘bring people together’ when these events often work to promote and to support an existing system of discrimination designed to keep the people apart?
Protecting artistic freedom of expression
Israel has argued that the cultural boycott infringes on artistic freedom. While it is true that Israeli artists are free to express and share their art with the world, Palestinian artists face tremendous challenges with stifling travel restrictions, arbitrary detention, political repression and various roadblocks that get in the way of them holding rehearsals, exhibiting their work or even performing the simplest tasks, which becomes quite impossible under occupation.
Today, Palestinian artists and theatre makers are caught in an intricate and multi layered system of oppression. Take for example the Freedom Theatre in Jenin and the tremendous challenges they face. A Human Rights Watch report this year (27 July 2012) accused Israel and its perceived security arm the Palestinian Authority of “trampling on the rights of Freedom Theater’s staff,” adding that “[a] theater should be able to offer critical and provocative work without fearing that its staff will be arrested and abused.”
The HRW statement referred to Israel’s ongoing system of arbitrary arrests and detention and called for an investigation into allegations of mistreatment, raising the concern that since the murder of its director and co-founder, Juliano Mer-Khamis, in April 2011, the Israeli occupation forces have “repeatedly raided the theater and beaten and arbitrarily arrested employees”.
Israel’s occupation and system of discrimination infringes daily on the Palestinian artists’ freedom of expression. So the question here is should Israeli state sponsored artists’ freedom of expression override that of the Palestinians? There is Hypocrisy to the Israeli claim that it does. In 1984Enuga S. Reddy, then director of the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid, responded to similar criticism about the cultural boycott of South Africa; the following is an excerpt of his press briefing published on the PACBI website:
“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.”
Profiting from the occupation
But profiting from apartheid and serving its propaganda purposes is precisely what artists do when they cross what the Palestinian solidarity movement now calls ‘the world’s largest picket line’ (Billet 2012). Take for example Madonna’s Israel Peace Concert during which Madonna told her fans in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Gan stadium, “It’s easy to say I want peace in the world, but it’s another thing to do it”. Her recipe for peace was simple; she told her fans that “[i]f we rise above our egos and our titles and the names of our countries and names of our religions, if we can rise above all that, and treat everyone around us, every human being with dignity and respect, we will have peace” (Steinberg and Bronstein, 2012). But the reality is that Madonna’s peace speech was lost on the Palestinians, who were denied access to her ‘peace concert’ and who remain locked up behind Israel’s high walls and barbed wires.
More significant is the fact that Madonna’s so called ‘peace concert’, which gave lip service to peace, in fact was successful in promoting tourism in Israel, bringing in 4,000 tourists with some fans paying up to NIS 5,000 for VIP tickets and accommodation packages (Domke and Halutz 2012). So in reality, the concert was great for Israel, its economy, its image and its institutions but did not do much for the cause of working toward creating a real environment for a peace with justice.
Singling out Israel
Some argue that boycotts single out Israel unfairly and that artists – as Elton John said – should not “cherry pick” their conscious (Daily Mail 19 June 2010). Some Israeli artists feel that there is a sense of prejudice, as was expressed by Habima’s artistic Director Ilan Ronen:
We come to the Globe along with 37 countries and languages. And this is the only theatre, and the only language, that should be boycotted? Everything is OK in those other countries – no problem at all? Artists should not boycott other artists… I think, as an artist, that this is wrong. We should have a dialogue with everybody. We should discuss and disagree. (Tonkin 2012)
But Palestinians have every right to single Israel out for occupying and oppressing them, and to call for the help and the solidarity of the international community in a non-violent, peaceful form of resistance that is anchored in human rights and progressive liberal values. Ronen’s assertion that Israeli artists are unfairly singled out is also misleading. Unlike South African academic and cultural boycott, which was actually a “blanket” boycott, BDS does not target individualIsraeli academics, writers or artists. Israeli artists are welcome to cooperate with Palestinian artists as long as the projects they are working on together do not whitewash Israel’s occupation, ignore the inequality and discrimination against Palestinians or work to promote Israel’s softer side, while the state continues its gross violations of the human rights of the Palestinians. Israeli artists who receive Israeli state funding are in fact under contractual duties, as illustrated earlier, to do just that.
Boycotts raise awareness
As this debate continues, it is important to note that even when artists choose not to abide by the boycott call, the controversy that surrounds their performances or their participation in Israeli sponsored events at times within itself serves to educate and raise awareness around the issues and creates opportunities for discussions and for constructive dialogue about what is going on in Israel/Palestine.
This was apparent here in Melbourne when the Boycott fever caught on with the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2010. At the time, the makers of the film Son of Babylon, having realized that the Melbourne Film Festival was sponsored by Israel, tried to boycott the event. The film’s director Mohamed Al-Daradji and producers Isabelle Stead and Atia Al-Daradji demanded the film, a Palestinian co-production, not to be shown in protest against Israel’s “illegal crimes against humanity” (Quinn 2010). The festival director Richard Moore declined the request and the film was shown as scheduled. However, this incident created waves of media coverage as most major news outlets and tens of bloggers around the world weighed in their opinion. The controversy opened the gates to debate and discussions around Israeli actions and the ethics of the boycott movement. This was a refreshing change given that before the Boycott calls, Israel was only in the spotlight when a major event took place; often a suicide bombing, rocket attacks wars or massive bombardments.
Palestinian Civil Society’s call for a cultural boycott of Israel is a legitimate non-violent form of resistance that aims to put international pressure on the state of Israel in order to end its occupation and discrimination policies against the Palestinian people. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis believe that culture is apolitical. Israel’s assault on Palestinian culture is well documented and its targeting of Palestinian cultural figures has been denounced by various human rights groups. Israel uses culture as a branding tool to promote its softer side and to whitewash its violations of the Palestinian people’s basic human rights. Palestinians also view their art and their culture through the prism of their struggle for freedom justice and equality. From erasure to resistance, Palestinian culture today is an expression of the Palestinian people’s story with all its dimensions, including the political. For Palestinians art is a form of resistance; theatre is political mutiny, dance is rebellion, and singing is liberation.
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Samah Sabawi is a writer, political analyst, commentator, author and playwright. She is co-author of the book Journey to Peace in Palestine and writer and producer of the plays Cries from the Land and Three Wishes. Sabawi is currently in the process of working on her third play Tales of a City by the Sea – a love story set against the backdrop of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in 2008-2009.
Sabawi is a policy advisor to the Palestinian policy network AlShabaka and former public advocate for Australians for Palestine. Her past work experience include holding the position of Executive Director and Media Spokesperson for the National Council on Canada Arab Relations (NCCAR) and working as Subject Matter Expert (SME) on various countries in the Middle East’s cultural and political landscape for the Canadian Foreign Service Institute’s Center for Intercultural Learning.