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.

Comments on this post are now closed.

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
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.