From Challenge # 101,  January - February 2007


The Cultural Boycott: Punishing the Wrong Side

Asma Agbarieh

AT THE HEIGHT of the second Lebanon War, on August 4, 2006, 123 Palestinian filmmakers and artists, joined by 349 others, called on their colleagues "around the world to cancel all exhibitions and other cultural events that are scheduled to occur in Israel." Their petition continued: "We call upon the international community to join us in the boycott of Israeli film festivals, Israeli public venues, and Israeli institutions supported by the government, and to end all cooperation with these cultural and artistic institutions that to date have refused to take a stand against the Occupation, the root cause for this colonial conflict." (

The petitioners drew the notion of a cultural boycott from the experience with South Africa. As there, so here—they wrote—all people of conscience are obliged to oppose Israeli war crimes and atrocities. According to the petition, "…silence, apathy and lack of action from Israelis, are regarded as complicit in the ongoing war crimes; as for those Israeli artists, academics and intellectuals who continue to serve in the Israeli army they are directly implicated in these crimes."

Recently, their call has won support from influential figures such as film director Ken Loach, art critic John Berger, and novelist Arundhati Roy.

Boycotting oneself

The 123 signers rightly demand that Israel be brought to justice for its crimes. Oddly, however, the boycott's implementation has had an effect quite contrary to its expressed intent: outspoken supporters of the Palestinian struggle have found themselves under its ban. Apart from their political position, these victims of the boycott have another thing in common: an Israeli passport.

Among the banned, for example, is Avi Mograbi, who directed How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Arik Sharon. We also find Osnat Trabelsi, producer of Arna's Children, a documentary about the late anti-occupation activist Arna Mer Khamis, who founded an alternative educational system for Palestinians in Jenin. In deference to a request from a group of Arab artists, a French film festival barred Simone Biton from taking part in a film workshop; Biton, who has long lived in France, had produced Mur (Wall) in protest against the separation barrier. Even Arab artists living in Israel have not been spared. A Paris film festival banned Badal , a film on a marriage deal between Arab families, directed by Ibtisam Ma'arana, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. The height of absurdity was attained when one of the petitioners found himself under his own boycott. This was Arna Mer Khamis's son Juliano, who wrote and directed Arna's Children. In Hungary, the Palestinian community boycotted the film because Juliano is Israeli.

In protest against such abuses, Elia Suleiman of Nazareth suspended his signature from the boycott petition. (Suleiman directed Divine Intervention, a Chronicle of Love and Pain, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2002.) He explained his action in the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir, and his account provides a clue as to why the implementation of the boycott ended up digressing so far from the language of the petition: "My suspension comes in protest of the practices of certain artist petitioners who recently participated in cultural activities around the world. Such practices involved the boycott of filmmaker (individuals) known to these petitioners as (individual) artists who strongly support Palestinian and Lebanese resistance, align themselves with these struggles in political and cultural domains and whose artistic work testifies to nothing but that….Yet these filmmakers have been boycotted, ordered away, deserted as people of the plague because they happen to carry the Israeli identity." Such behavior, wrote Suleiman, is tainted by a chauvinism that stems "from the dark side of nationalism."

In other words, certain signers of the petition went to festivals outside Israel and worked to get particular Israelis blacklisted, although these Israelis support the Palestinian struggle.

Suleiman continued: "…in the name of whom and for what sacred collective cause did the respected petitioner artists and filmmakers line their fellow Israeli artists and filmmakers on the wall for a cultural execution?!... [O]ne cannot but wonder who will be next on the witch hunting list?!"

Suleiman did not withdraw from the boycott. (On December 15 he supported it, along with Berger, Roy and 92 others, in a letter to the Guardian.) Rather he demanded clear red lines. His call challenged a number of Israeli artists, among them Juliano Mer Khamis, to initiate a new petition. This too called for a cultural boycott—but only against persons who support the Occupation.

The distinction appears logical enough, but its implementation is not without danger. Osnat Trabelsi (Arna's Children) told me in an interview on November 9: "Who will be responsible for sorting us out? How will they decide who's kosher and who isn't?"

The danger is that self-appointed judges will circulate blacklists among festival organizers. We are liable to witness a reverse McCarthyism. Given the widespread and justified anger against Israel's policies, the mere brand "Israeli" may suffice to ban someone. Festival organizers do not ordinarily check people's political positions before screening their films.

The source of a work's funding, one might suppose, could serve as a criterion for deciding whom to boycott. But Trabelsi points out that almost all films made here, even many that bash the Occupation, get financial support from the Ministry of Education. Almost all travel by filmmakers to the festivals screening their works is subsidized, moreover, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The new petition by Israeli artists has added confusion to perplexity. Anat Even is known for her films against the Occupation. (She made Asurot [Detained], about three Palestinian widows and their eleven children living in Hebron while Israeli soldiers occupy their roof.) On November 8, Even told me, "I don't dismiss the possibility of supporting the boycott, because the despair is great. There's a feeling that nothing helps, not the demonstrations in Bil'in and not our films. Maybe a big shock like a boycott can change something. On the other hand, I can't help wondering how we can boycott ourselves, or how we can call on others to boycott Israeli cultural institutions, when we ourselves teach in the universities and are funded by Israeli foundations in producing our films?"

Even added, "I believe in a cultural boycott when accompanied by an economic one. A cultural boycott alone is not effective. …Most Israeli films shown abroad are anti-Occupation. The absurd result of participating in the boycott will be that my friends and I will stop making the films through which we express our positions. That's exactly what the Israeli right wing wants."

Further doubts were expressed by Tawfik Abu Wael, director of Atash (Thirst), which concerns an Arab family that flees from its village for reasons of family honor, eking out a living by making charcoal. (It won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes in 2004, as well as prizes in Paris and Jerusalem.) Abu Wael decided not to sign the petition. On November 9, in an interview with me, he said that the boycott is "unwise and impulsive. I don't understand the significance of artists boycotting one another on the basis of nationality. We artists have the privilege of seeing things otherwise, of making things that reflect reality and of trying to influence people to change it. Therefore, we need to present an example of communication and mutual understanding, not to mew ourselves up in a nationalism that will only strengthen, in the end, the nationalistic currents in Israel."

Abu Wael also accuses some of the petitioners, Arabs in Israel, of hypocrisy: "They call for a boycott of Israel, but they themselves depend on state budgeting to make their films."

A call to revenge, not an agenda for action

The boycott tactic, which worked well against South Africa, is not automatically transferable. In attempting to copy it, one had better be sure one is not misreading the political map.

In the South African case, there was a strong international consensus demanding change. The global balance of forces opposed its apartheid regime. But the global balance of forces today is squarely on Israel's side.

In the South African case, there was a popular leadership with the authority to manage the boycott. The black majority was led by the ANC, a revolutionary political movement whose representatives were spread throughout Europe and America.

The national Palestinian movement, which likewise started as a revolutionary one, underwent a transformation in the nineties, within the framework of the Oslo Agreement, and emerged as a new entity, the Palestinian Authority (PA). This at once became riddled with corruption, losing the trust of the people. Today the PA is on the brink of civil war. And amid the descent into the abyss, what do we hear? The call of the intellectuals for a cultural boycott?!

This call is not part of an organized plan. It does not issue from a leadership that has authority in every street and alleyway. It issues from isolated circles that in this way express their despair and rage—but fail to offer a program.

In the absence of a program, the boycott is merely a call to revenge, not an agenda for action. What do the boycotters want to push forward? The pro-American plan of PA President Abu Mazen? The fundamentalist program of Hamas? The same despair, we should remember, led many liberal Arab intellectuals to support Hassan Nasrallah in the recent war, just because he pounded Israel with rockets, or to support Osama Ben Laden because he taught America a lesson. When you ask them what reactionary Islamic fundamentalism, Shiite or Sunni, has contributed to the Arab cause, you get the answer: The important thing is, we showed 'em!

Given these factors, it is no wonder that the boycott's effect is marginal. To see just how marginal, consider this: In early December more than 200 festival organizers, script writers, directors and choreographers from a dozen countries, mostly western, visited Israel to choose materials and invite Israeli productions to their lands. Among the most courted works were those of the late Hanoch Levin, Israel's most prolific and critical playwright, who opposed the Occupation tooth and nail. Israeli choreography was also much sought after: it graces all the stages of the western world. Except for a tiny subsidy from the Ministry of Education, by the way, most of the visitors paid their own fares (Haaretz, Galeria, December 11).

An elitist boycott cut off from the people

The idea of boycotting Israel has been around since British academic circles raised it in 2002, when Israel re-occupied the West Bank during an operation it styled "Defensive Shield." Despite all the energies invested since then, the campaign has failed to gain steam.

The argument about it remains confined to elitist circles and those of so-called civil society. From working with Palestinian laborers on a daily basis for the last five years, I venture to say that the overwhelming majority hasn't heard of it. No one asked them their opinion of such a boycott, and no one requested their support or participation.

Given their natural instinct for survival, most Palestinian workers understand that the balance of forces is not in their favor. It is preferable, in their view, to deal with the burning issues of surviving from day to day. The worker from Jenin or Nablus is in a constant race against unemployment and poverty. If desperate enough, he sneaks into Israel to work without a permit, risking arrest and even death. The only boycotts he's heard about are the two that Israel enforces against him, first by not letting him work legally in its territory and second by orchestrating a worldwide economic blockade.

A growing number of the educated Palestinian bourgeoisie have migrated to Europe and America. They could not bear the injustice of the Occupation, the siege, the killing, the daily destruction. They were able to buy a ticket out. But the main part of the people, sinking beneath the burden, can only remain on the good and devastated earth.

Instead of wasting time on a struggle whose chief victims turn out to be Israelis who oppose the Occupation, we shall do better to focus our energies on questions we need to decide: What sort of society do we want to live in? Who are our allies? What kind of economic and political horizon do we want to open? What shall we do on a day-to-day basis to create, step by step, the society we want?

What we need is a program that will connect artists, filmmakers and other creators of culture with the people. The worries are great. Politics, unfortunately, is the least of these, because the horizon for a just solution is lacking. What concerns people today is their poverty. Unless we start with a social agenda, organizing workers into a union that can protect their rights and enable them to support their families, we shall have no prospect for building a political consciousness.

In the final lines of his letter to Elia Suleiman, Juliano Mer Khamis summarized the matter best: "Believe me, Elia, when I tell you that the real freedom fighters, the people who are constantly struggling against the Israeli occupation, do not participate in this boycott. They gladly accept the support of any Jew, Muslim, Christian or Israeli who joins them in their struggle for liberation."

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