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"

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war