Why a cultural boycott of Israel is justified

The Habima boycott call is a response to an appeal for support from a people dispossessed and occupi

A fortnight ago, dozens of actors, playwrights and directors called on The Globe to cancel a planned performance by Israel’s national theatre company Habima, to avoid complicity with “human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land”.

Along with Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh and Caryl Churchill, opposition to the invitation includes Mark Rylance, founding artistic director of The Globe. The letter follows on from an earlier call by ‘Boycott From Within’, a group of Israelis who support the Palestinians’ Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Since then, the letter’s critics have responded in an over the top fashion, successfully missed the point. Howard Jacobson reached for absurd clichés (“Kafkaesque”, “McCarthyism”) while Simon Callow and Louise Mensch signed a letter describing the boycott call an example of “the continued persecution of Jews”.

“Theatre ban ‘like Nazi book burning’ say West End stars” ran a headline in The Jewish Chronicle, whose editor Stephen Pollard compared pro-Palestinian protesters at the Proms to “Nazi party members” in “Weimar Germany” (as did Labour MP Denis MacShane who recently linked the murders in Toulouse to Palestine solidarity motions in UK trade unions).

This shameless blustering ignores the specific reasons for the Habima boycott call, namely that the company performs in illegal West Bank settlements – colonies that form a key part of Israel’s apartheid regime – and indeed promised Israel’s Minister of Culture that it would “deal with any problems hindering such performances”.

The wider context is the decision by Palestinians to call for BDS as part of their efforts to secure basic rights and freedoms. That call, endorsed by trade unions, faith groups, political factions, and civil society organisations, includes cultural boycott. Groups like the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) play a critical role in mobilising support for the Palestinian struggle.

Culture does not operate in some special, apolitical space – just like academic institutions in Israel are also not removed from complicity in systematic human rights abuses. As the Habima general manager put it, the invitation by The Globe is an “honourable accomplishment for the State of Israel in general”.

Furthermore, the Israeli government and advocacy groups are deliberately seeking to use culture as a means of ‘rebranding’ a country increasingly linked in the pubic imagination to its crimes against the Palestinians.

In 2008, Israel’s Foreign Ministry hired a British firm to “craft” a “new image” for the country based on “Israel's scientific and cultural achievements”. After the Gaza massacre in 2009, Israel announced more money for ‘cultural diplomacy’, with an official declaring a plan to “send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits” to “show Israel’s prettier face”.

No surprise then that Israeli artists like Idan Raichel admit how: “We certainly see ourselves as ambassadors of Israel in the world, cultural ambassadors, hasbara ambassadors, also in regards to the political conflict”. Or that a touring Israeli chef is open about the government’s intention to use “artists, singers, painters, filmmakers” to improve Israel’s image “through culture”.

Aside from outright denial of Israel’s violations of international law and systematic racial discrimination, a common objection to cultural boycott (or BDS in general) is some version of ‘Why Israel’s musicians and not China’s?’

But this misses the point. Boycott is a strategy, not a principle. And as such, it’s a response to a call from Palestinian civil society, which is seeking to mobilise international civil society as a way of realising their basic rights. It is a familiar tactic, used to resist local and global injustices. Are Palestinians prohibited from resisting colonial occupation – and looking for allies as they do so?

In summary, the Habima boycott call – a microcosm of the BDS campaign – is a case of institutional complicity in clear human rights abuses, and a response to an appeal for support from a people dispossessed and occupied for decades. That’s it. No wonder the simplicity of it has Israel’s apologists reaching for the most well-worn smear of all.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy.

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Israeli forces fire tear gas towards Palestinian stonethrowers during a demonstration against the expropriation of Palestinian land by Israel. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.