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11 April 2012updated 04 Oct 2023 12:02pm

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

By Ben White

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”.

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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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