How a Selective Boycott Can Boost External Support for Palestinians

The late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, known to be one of the major Western exponents of the Palestinian independence struggle, co-founded the West-East Divan orchestra with an Israeli conductor, Daniel Barenboim, with whom he was able to share many disagreements. “It is the most important project in my life’’ the multi-accomplished thinker, Said, had confessed in an email to a friend, as he made his way to Seville (the orchestra’s headquarters) during a Summer heat-wave to see young Arab and Israeli musicians play a concert, despite that Said was then ailing and drained in his health, battling leukemia. In 2012, the PACBI or Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel, nonetheless violated his legacy, by deciding to ban the orchestra, placing effective pressure on the Qatari government to block the scheduled performance. PACBI exhorted doors to close for the symphony group around the world, claiming the orchestra is a form of ‘normalization’. Maryam Said, widow of Edward Said who continues to defend the continuity of his projects, has often supported other BDS actions despite differences. She responded to the news of the latest cultural boycott, flustered at first in a debate with the hostile accountants and managers of PACBI “The terrible irony is that by attacking the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and the vision of Edward (Said) and Daniel (Barenboim), PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel) is doing exactly what Edward saw the western media doing to the Islamic world, as he wrote in his book Covering Islam. When former US President George W. Bush attacked Iraq in 2003, Edward Said responded with a lecture on humanism in Beirut and Cairo. Bush told the world: “you are either with us or against us” she stated in her article “West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Does Not Support Normalization” (published in the Electronic Intifada’s website) At a PACBI panel discussion held during Israeli Apartheid Week in New York a Palestinian speaker confronted Maryam Said telling her “To those who profess to be our friends and talk only about humanism, we say Fuck humanism. You are either on board or not.” “I wonder what is the difference between him and Bush?” Said concluded. A predictable sneering retort came from Omar Bhargouti, the chairing manager of a sectarian branch of the pro-Palestinian movement, disparaging and further insulting the significance of Said and his legacy in an article in Al-Akhbar titled ‘’Normalization hits a snag’’, insisting deceitfully that Barenboim is an ardent “Zionist’’’ ‘’who cleverly attempts to clean up Israel’s image’’

The touting of ‘’fuck humanism’’ to the widow of Edward Said should be a clear warning sign. The campaign to spread misinformation and contempt for a Palestinian project, signaled then, four years ago in 2012 how the tactic of a broad, cultural boycott is proving defective and worthy of reassessment. This essay asks BDS activists to consider replacing the broad cultural and academic boycott with a more selective, more intelligent boycott. Much time is wasted in endless, labyrinthine polemics of needing to defend BDS as not being a threat to cultural and academic freedoms. That time would be better spent while informing audiences about the blockade and how they can push for sanctions, divestments, and commercial boycott.

The pro-Palestine solidarity movement could enlarge its following, convince more influential supporters, and get past trivial, harmful and sectarian disputes—if it wants to. A boycott must be humanist, as is the cause of supporting Palestinian self-determination. Boycotting humanism allows the cynical internal corrosion of any political movement of the left.

The Unexplored South-African Tactic of Selective Boycott

The first step is to specify what it is boycotting, and to adapt certain tactics of boycott. There is an ethical entrapment that BDS-advocates have typically shrugged off and denied whenever the issue was raised. Many outsiders or potential newcomers to the cause of ending the militarism and the occupation of West Bank Gaza and East Jerusalem, still cannot—for good reason—get around the tactics of cultural and academic boycott. It strikes an odd cord with their historical memory of how the more didactic and authoritarian manifestations of the left in the past once resorted to censorship and monitoring of artistic and intellectual difference. It leads to endless harangues, as it for good reason conflicts with their notion or commitment to intellectual freedom, artistic and scholarly freedom and the importance of promoting argument.

The BDS is fond of comparisons to the South African anti-apartheid solidarity movements, which during the 1970s helped bring about the downfall of Apartheid while stimulating the ANC and other black liberation movements with funding and Northern-European money. The external solidarity movements, both the socialist as well as the church-based, till today are willing to recognize how their external efforts of boycott, divestment and sanctions, however important, did not in any way substitute the local African mass-movement struggles. Quite often such external solidarity proved, at its very best, an important statement but not the prime factor in bringing down Apartheid. Such a view admitted by Dutch supporters of Kairos-Netherlands and other influential solidarity groups from the era, might be rather first-worldist, however: as their self-criticism does not count the more important international solidarity from the Cuban army, which aided many of the anti-colonial revolts in Africa, especially in most of SA’s neighboring countries.

Whether or not such comparisons between Israeli and South African regimes are valid (commentators such as Chomsky and Finkelstein have often pointed out the many important differences) or whether a comparison to Algeria of the 1950s might be better insights, are for the scope of separate argument. For now, let us for the sake of argument assume the BDS’ own argument: that South Africa is a treasure-chest full of good examples for a movement that seeks to end the occupation Israel continuously enforces in Gaza, in East Jerusalem and West Bank since the decisive 1967 war. What kind of polemical discussions and disagreements about the boycott-tactic existed then in SA?

Not all were convinced by the confidence expressed by many activists with absolute moral certitude about the effectiveness of boycotts.

Among these critics who contemplated and suggested the idea of a ‘’selective boycott’’ or a more intelligent and self-critical boycott, were Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the head of the Capetown University medical center, Solomon Benattar. Benattar was then indiscriminately treating young black and coloured demonstrators and resistance fighters who were wounded in combat. But Benattar, despite his efforts, was appalled and confused by some of the effects of the boycott: medical goods, for example, were not always supplied in the necessary quantities. He therefore called the indiscriminate, total boycott measure into question, calling for a “Selective Boycott.” (Benattar later became the chairman of Capetown’s center for bio-ethics.)

Contrast that position to the main advocate of the boycott tactics. Omar Bhargouti curiously remained enrolled in Tel Aviv University for years even while calling for academic boycott, dismissing any questions or criticisms about enrollment as ‘’a personal matter’’ That decision has drawn fire from some self-described supporters of BDS, such as Norman Finkelstein, who says he is quite often mischaracterized as an opponent to the methods of BDS. “For me there is no question about boycott, divestment, sanctions’’ he stated at a recent lecture together with the South African liberation theologian Farid Esack. But Finkelstein also quoted the Guinea Bissau’an anti-colonial resistance leader Amilcar Cabral, ‘’tell no lies, claim no easy victories’’ insisting that Palestinian NGO bureaucracies in Ramallah as well as the university movements in the West are incapable of implementing change when the Palestinians are fragmented and demoralized by a leadership void.

Regardless of whether one clings to the explanations offered by Bhargouti’s dogmas about the possibility for cultural/academic boycott to coexist perfectly well with academic and cultural freedom, the discussion has changed the subject in the Western societies in futile direction. The polemics on BDS are a distraction from discussion of the blockade on Gaza–that part of Palestine that lacks any economy to speak of, despite the sea of reports on “the economy of Gaza’’ generated by Ramallah NGOs and “Civil Society’’ bureaucracies that have prevented any indigenous Left from re-growing roots again, as the real-estate prices on Ramallah lands sky-rocket.

Instead of the blockade or the destruction of 19,000 houses in the most recent Gaza bombings, the discussion usually gravitates on moot points about certain tactics of BDS, and on the threat these might pose to academic and cultural freedom in the West.

The movement has surprisingly shown more eagerness and flexibility when it comes to the commercial and consumer boycotts against Israeli exported products in Western supermarkets. For example, Mouin Rabbani (who is no foe to BDS) has expressed the wish to see a consumer boycott specifically against products from the settlements, which should be labeled as blood diamonds. That development was recently, partially consolidated as a victory in 2014 when European market authorities finally moved to label such imports from settlements, effectively a government-level boycott of the kind long desired.

No similar energy, however, has mobilized towards scrutinizing the efficacy or the non-logic of cultural and scholarly boycotts. Scholars like the radical Shlomo Sand have pointed out that Israel has allowed critics and opponents of its policies such as himself to travel the world, on lecture-tours on the budget of Israeli universities, despite his position on Israel not straying far from that of many Palestinians.

The intention of academic boycott, in the logic construed by BDS, is at best to undermine the Israeli PR-warfare, so that it may not “sell the occupation” and to prohibit further pro-Israeli PR on universities as long as Palestinian illegally detained, exiled or secretly executed intellectuals are not free to defend themselves.

But that is inconsistent with the reality of how military apologists actually thrive in the Israeli systems of higher learning: professors such as the author of the “Purity of Arms Code’’ Asa Kasher and other so-called ‘’military philosophers who have (for example) legitimized drone warfare, do not depend on any vulnerable position that can be affected by BDS: they are directly supported by the Israeli military, which runs a lucrative occupation that derives investment from weapons corporations and defense contractors the world over. The university researchers who work for the military are the most secure, and those least affected by foreign boycotts. The scholar who might be subversive or have pro-Palestinian leanings, in the social studies or in the arts or the sciences, will usually be the most vulnerable, therefore the most affected by the academic boycotts. But if boycotts were to concentrate on preventing the imports from the settlements and occupied territories, on damaging companies that do business with the occupation’s and settlement’s machinery (as many international movements did to foil corporations that did business with Apartheid SA) it would be a far more sympathetic boycott that would enlarge the movement of solidarity.

Ramallah is currently beseeched by a culture of NGO practitioners, who indirectly collaborate with the most reliable collaborating institution that Israel’s army has known: the corrupt and dictatorial Palestinian Authority, which regularly keeps down Palestinian dissent, kidnapping and torturing those Palestinians in whom the seed of future intifada’s might ferment if they were not also suppressed by their own people. The NGO culture in Ramallah is a lucrative culture, and an average half-acre of land in Ramallah for that reason today costs 15.000.000 USD. (Compare that to the price of an acre of land in Gaza.) According to some it was the free-market policies started by PA prime minister Salam Fayyad in 2007 which lead to the real-estate tyranny, though it is also the presence of a consortium of humanitarian NGOs that are beginning to closely resemble the European cottage industry that sprang up in relation to the South African anti-Apartheid cause during the 1980s, with many activist entrepreneurs who did not want to see the end of their market come about in 1994.

Arguably, the soft power of NGOs are a strangling power, weeds that prevent the vineyard and the paradisiac red garden of an indigenous Left from ever rising again. There are multiple layers of colonization or neo-colonization in Palestine: first and foremost the Israeli military occupation, the blockade and the settlements; not least the façade regime of the PA; but the layer of NGO civil society could be a manifestation of what has been critiqued as the ‘’soft-colonialism’’ of NGO culture. NGO-society loves the cultural and academic boycott, precisely because it is ineffective and harmless. Those methods can express some rage and hate, making lists of banned musical and theater groups and flamboyant spectacles that make film festivals in Europe pull the Israeli films. But those efforts do relatively little to gain harsh reprisals from the Israelis against the NGO web-work which finds itself in as lucrative and as cozy a situation as is possible in that very unusual, exceptional enclave of Palestine that Ramallah has become.

Imminent Threats

To the delight of BDS activists, the Israeli minister of culture Miri Regev—who probably poses a much greater threat to Israeli artists, writers and intellectuals than any puny European-based BDS —has gathered together her minions for conferences on “the existential threat of BDS” It was no coincidence that the string of “Anti-BDS” conferences about the latest ‘’existential threat’’ to Israel and its PR, commenced as soon as Washington had for once ignored Netanyahu’s protest, and went ahead with support for the Obama-Iran deal.

When the parade of announcing Iran to be the existential threat was no longer possible, spectacles of ‘’anti-BDS conferences’’ became urgent, though neither Iran nor BDS have given objective reasons for the Israeli army to tremble so.

Miri Regev has perhaps conducted a more sweeping cultural boycott within Israel as minister of culture. Plays and companies that involve Palestinian actors, such as playwright Bashar Murkus or the company of Norman Issa are routinely wiretapped, censored and otherwise oppressed by Regev. Artists who refuse to play shows on the settlements have also been persecuted and molested by the current minister of culture. Regev has used the ‘’cultural and academic boycott’’ in order to emphasize her politicking ways of calling off all Israeli critical artists and public intellectuals as traitors to each other and to Israel. She can protect them from foreign boycott while censoring them at home.

During the coma of Ariel Sharon, it was Netanyahu who adopted his mantle, casting himself as Sharon resurrect, the messianic hope of the settler movement: Sharon had been the patron and architect of the settlements, speaking their language. Sharon was only the more extreme manifestation of the widespread Israeli politics of fear. Israeli hysteria about BDS is insufficient evidence that BDS is a success-story. Activists have nonetheless contented themselves on that proof.

No more jargon : towards clearer tactics

BDS advocates will continue to cite a Qatari-bred guru Bhargouti’s logic on cultural and academic boycott, maintaining its wisdom to be as clear as clean platinum:

They will maintain the tactic concerns only boycott on the “institutional level”: that is applies only to the artist or scholar who obtains funding from an Israeli institute, which is either an accomplice of the Israeli economy, or otherwise in cahoots with the Israeli government purposes of PR (otherwise known by its Hebrew euphemism hasbarah “explanation”) But most artists’ work, if it was successful, has been used in ways unintended by the artist. And if the existence of difference of opinion inside Israel is interpreted as ‘’PR trying to prove that Israel is democratic’’ such a bargaining boycott can lead to the stifling of subversion inside Israel, despite that Israel needs to change soon and can only do so if there are internal critics.

For Bhargouti-influenced BDS advocates, it is assumed that an artist who eats thanks to arts-funding from an Israeli institution is being used as a prop or a propaganda-ornament by Israel—for Israel wishes to depict itself as a ‘’normal’’ country, or a liberal democracy, by flaunting its artists and its scholars.

Such a logic is deeply condescending and damaging to artists, and is reminiscent of the explanations given by the Egyptian Minister of Culture in collusion with general Sisi’s regime: artists and intellectuals are like jewels, are beautiful and sensitive creatures, who sometimes might not know how they are being used for wrongful purposes. The artists (according to both BDS and El-Sisi’s minister of culture) don’t always know what is good for them, likely pawns of subversive political forces to do harm. Egypt’s Minister of Culture ensures that national, Egyptian artists do not make subversive statements. The BDS cultural boycott, on the contrary, punishes foreign, Israeli artists regardless of their message being subversive, and only on account of the institutional and funding-framework and platform of their work in relation to Israel. Yet, in both cases, the artist is dismissed as the authority on his own political views and on the public role and dimension of his work.

BDS started its actions long before the erosion of the core that held the Israeli, ethnocentric democracy and its modern institutions that at least ensured basic freedoms and rights for Jews outside of religion.

Now, as Israel under the Likud-Yisrael Beyteynu coalition is transparently a military and police regime fed on racialist fundamentalist politics, many artists are exiled, and the danger of becoming like the twisted protagonist in Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, who engages in self-deception about his being free as an artist valued in Nazi Germany, is dangling over the head of Israeli artists who have not left their country or who are not yet exiled. The tactic of BDS, however, is still on the brink of censorship and is anti-democratic as well as naïve and it is by far expendable, as it is not the most important boycott of all the boycotts that BDS maintains. This is not because of art not being relevant—art is powerful.

The irrelevance of a cultural boycott exerted by the left against Israeli culture, owes itself in part to the fact that

1) Neoliberal and right-wing extremist Israeli authorities do not care for culture.

2) Israeli software companies—which also depend heavily on grants—are far more powerful and integrally related to the military apparatus of Israeli occupation and war

3) Many of the artists who have not yet left Israel, and who in theory could be exposed or in fact have been exposed to the boycott, happen to be subversives who are in a deadly standoff with the current Israeli regime, and who want to see an end to the occupation. One example is the actress Gila Almagor, who has refused to act in shows for the army on settlements, and who received many death-threats delivered to her doorstep by right wing hooligans (reported in a 2015 NY Times article “How Israel Silences Dissen” by Mairav Zonnsein)

4) The ‘’cultural boycott’’ operates on the logic that art is merely a prop of democracy, which is an affront to art in all societies and times, and not merely to the art in Israel. Such a belief in the function of art as merely a decoration upon politics, implies that no revolutionary force or spirit in art, other than a mild diplomatic-civic service, is possible

Regardless of the aesthetic position or one’s position on Israel, it is a fact that a country’s having state-funded theater, arts or universities says nothing about whether that country’s political system is democratic. State-funded theater existed, and often played a subversive role, in Ceauçescu era Rumania, and in other protective police states such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. State-funded art academies and universities existed in Ben Ali-era Tunisia, and without them the Tunisian revolts of 2011, ousting the RCD regime, would not have occurred. Composers like Henryk Górecki, who was persecuted in Poland by the atrophying regime after his Symphony no 3, the symphony of Sorrowful Songs mourning the falling apart of Polish socialist society, had his symphonies performed by a state-funded philharmonic.

Perhaps the above-mentioned regimes were less disciplinarian than today’s neoliberal system. BDS –supporters show naïveté about art, about scholars and about political systems, when they make a hurried equation between democracy and the existence of art, or when they assume that the state’s institutes and local foundations’ willingness to have supported artists in the past automatically meant zero autonomy and zero possibility for subversion in the artist. In fact, those who most easily shrugged off the boycott so far have been the entertainment and corporate-driven art in Israel: they will sooner produce films, plays and exhibits of a propagandistic, Neo-Riefenstahlean nature aggrandizing the militarism, and the racism that grows from militarism.

The belief that existence of public universities or of cultural life and institutes is the sign of a functioning democracy, is a uniquely Western, imperial fantasy about the third world having a total absence of intellectual or cultural life, simply because those societies have defective political systems.

The presumption of the Western xenophobe and of the well-meaning activist is often the same. They cannot understand or imagine the importance art held and will have for the Syrian-Palestinian refugee who took solace in memorized songs or poems of Nizar Kabbani or Mahmoud Darwish, while attempting to cross the Mediterranean sea against all odds. The illusion reveals an imperial mentality about the third world, which has no place in a movement supporting third world interests.

Perhaps the best argument in favor of ignoring whether or not the cultural and academic boycott resembles censorship, is also the best argument against it: for many years, supporters of the Israelis used tactics of censorship and ‘’activist’’ intimidation to shut down lectures about Palestine. Maryam Said has denounced that relativizing logic when she defended the East-Western Divan orchestra against PACBI. Regardless of whether activists see it as ethical or not, the circular polemic is distracting and alienating many Western audiences who would otherwise support the movement.

Arturo Desimone (Aruba, 1984) is an Aruban-Argentine writer, poet and visual artist. His articles on politics previously appeared in  CounterPunch, DemocraciaAbiertaBerfrois UKDiem25news and elsewhere. Author of the poetry collection Mare Nostrum/Costa Nostra (Hesterglock 2019) and the bilingual book “La Amada de Túnez” which  appeared in Argentina during the pandemic, he has performed at international poetry festivals in Granada, Nicaragua, Buenos Aires and Havana.