The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), established in April 2004 by a small group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals and widely supported by leading civil society associations, unions and networks, has not witnessed a sustained surge in cultural boycott of Israel as in the last year and a half, since the Israeli war of aggression on Gaza.
Today there are campaigns for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel in the US, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Australia, Germany, Belgium, Canada, Norway, among others.
When artists or arts groups announce plans to perform — or display as the case may be — in Israel, PACBI and its partners around the world appeal directly to these artists, if a direct communication channel avails itself. Otherwise, we issue open letters and network with other groups to apply moral pressure on the artists/bands to convince them to cancel performances and exhibits in Israel.
Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid cultural boycott, PACBI has relied entirely on moral pressure, appealing to the conscience of the artists in question as well as their fans. When all else fails, supporters do at times organize civil protests at international concerts of artists who adamantly refuse to heed our calls. Our main argument is that performing in a state that practices occupation, colonization and apartheid, as Israel does, cannot be regarded as a purely artistic act, if any such act exists. Regardless of intentions, such an act is a conscious form of complicity that is manipulated by Israel in its frantic efforts to whitewash its persistent violations of international law and Palestinian rights. This is because artistic performances in Israel promote a “business as usual” attitude that normalizes and sanitizes a state that has committed war crimes over several decades — in Gaza, Jerusalem, the Naqab (Negev), and now in the high seas against international humanitarian relief workers aboard the Freedom Flotilla.
An artist who performs in Israel today — just like any artist who violated the boycott and performed in Sun City, South Africa, during apartheid — can only be seen by Palestinians and people of conscience around the world as motivated by profit and personal gain far more than by moral principles. We know that Israeli concert promoters offer large sums of money to lure international performers as part of Israel’s “Brand Israel” campaign, designed explicitly to hide Israel’s criminal violations of human rights under a guise of artistic and scientific glamour and a deceptive image of cultural excellence and “liberalism.”
In 1965, the American Committee on Africa, following the lead of prominent British arts associations, sponsored a historic declaration against South African apartheid, signed by more than 60 cultural personalities. It read: “We say no to apartheid. We take this pledge in solemn resolve to refuse any encouragement of, or indeed, any professional association with the present Republic of South Africa, this until the day when all its people shall equally enjoy the educational and cultural advantages of that rich and beautiful land.” PACBI hopes to achieve the same level of commitment from international artists in isolating apartheid Israel.
The main impact of the boycott at this stage is to expose Israel as a pariah, to increase its isolation, thus raising the price of its injustices against the Palestinian people and challenging international complicity in perpetuating its occupation and apartheid.
In reaction to Israel’s Freedom Flotilla massacre which led to the murder of 9 unarmed Turkish humanitarian relief workers and human rights activists – one with dual Turkish/US citizenship — and to the injury of dozens more from several countries, leading cultural figures and bands reacted swiftly and decisively.
Endorsing a cultural boycott of Israel, world renowned British writer, Iain Banks, wrote in the Guardian that the best way for international artists, writers and academics to “convince Israel of its moral degradation and ethical isolation” is “simply by having nothing more to do with this outlaw state.” This position by Banks was later endorsed by Stephane Hessel, co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Holocaust survivor and former French diplomat.
Many British literary and academic figures published a letter in the Independent that said, “We … appeal to British writers and scholars to boycott all literary, cultural and academic visits to Israel sponsored by the Israeli government, including those organised by Israeli cultural foundations and universities.”
Cartoon artist Martin Rowson expressed the shock shared by millions in a cartoon in the Guardian. Rowson depicted intimidating, heavily-armed Israeli commandos commandeering Noah’s ark, incarcerating all the frightened animals, with one of the soldiers cruelly crushing a dead peace dove — olive branch and all — justifying it to a devastated Noah by saying, “[The dove] was clearly intent on pecking innocent civilians.”
In the world of performing arts, the Klaxons and Gorillaz Sound System cancelled their scheduled concerts in Israel, reportedly due to the Flotilla attack, and so did the Pixies.
The latest famous performer to cancel a gig in Israel was US folk singer Devendra Banhart. While holding on to the delusional and peculiar concept that a musician can simply “share a human not a political message” even if performing to the oppressor community, as it were, in the context of occupation, apartheid and extreme violations of human rights, Banhart justified his withdrawal by saying that “it seems that we are being used to support views that are not our own.” Israeli media outlets had tried to portray his scheduled gig as a political message in solidarity with Israel at a time of increasing isolation.
World best-selling writer, the Swedish Henning Mankell, who was on the Freedom Flotilla when attacked, called for South-Africa style global sanctions against Israel in response to its brutality.
The best-selling US author, Alice Walker, reminded the world of the Rosa Parks-triggered and Martin Luther King-led boycott of a racist bus company in Montgomery, Alabama during the US civil rights movement, calling for wide endorsement of BDS against Israel as a moral duty in solidarity with Palestinians, “to soothe the pain and attend the sorrows of a people wrongly treated for generations.”
In the weeks before the Flotilla attack, artists of the caliber of Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron and Carlos Santana all cancelled scheduled performances in Israel after receiving appeals from Palestinian and international BDS groups.
But even well before the latest Israeli bloodbath, many prominent international cultural figures had heeded or directly supported cultural boycott appeals issued by the PACBI and widely supported by Palestinian civil society. It may be most convenient to break down the various artists/cultural figures’ responses to the PACBI Call into three categories:
(A) Cultural figures (artists, authors, etc.) who explicitly support the Palestinian cultural boycott of Israel.
The statement by 500 Artists against Apartheid in Montreal is the latest, most impressive of these efforts.
Earlier, in 2006, the famous British author and artist, John Berger, issued a statement explicitly endorsing the cultural boycott of Israel. He collected 93 endorsements then on this powerful declaration, including some very prominent writers and artists.
Other intellectuals and artists in this category who were not on the Berger list include: Ken Loach, Judith Butler, Naomi Klein, The Yes-Men, Sarah Schulman, Aharon Shabtai, Udi Aloni, Adrienne Rich, John Williams (perhaps the greatest classical guitarist alive), and now Iain Banks, Alice Walker, among others.
(B) Cultural figures who openly refuse to participate in Israel’s official celebrations and festivals for unambiguous political reasons.
In 2008, countering Israel’s “60th Anniversary” celebrations, PACBI collected tens of signatures of prominent artists and authors for a half-page advertisement that was published in the International Herald Tribune on 8 May that year. The list included luminaries like Mahmoud Darwish, Augusto Boal, Roger Waters, Andre Brink, Vincenzo Consolo, and Nigel Kennedy. Some of the signatories on that ad later adopted the boycott explicitly, moving to Category (A) above.
(C) Cultural figures who decline offers to perform/speak in Israel or agree and then cancel without giving any explicit political reasons.
This category includes: Bono, U2, Bjork, Jean-Luc Godard, Snoop Dogg, and others.
PACBI appealed to Bono, for instance, in 2008 and again in 2010, urging him not to perform in Israel. Both times his performances were cancelled, but he never gave a specific reason to the media, other than the regular “scheduling” problem. PACBI deeply appreciates his decision not to entertain Israeli apartheid.
Many top artists refuse to perform in Israel from the start. The Forward, the leading Jewish daily in New York, informs us that at least 15 leading performers actually refused to play Israel, despite lucrative remuneration offers:
“In reaction, a music industry insider confirmed that the winds could be shifting. The music executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity in light of his ongoing business ties with artists, said that in recent months he had approached more than 15 performing artists with proposals to give concerts in Israel. None had agreed. The contracts offered high levels of compensation. He called them ‘extreme, big numbers that could match any other gig.’”
Some artists argue that, instead of boycotting, they prefer to visit Israel and use the performance opportunity to express their views against Israeli injustices. This ostensibly noble idea is not only — unfortunately — too rare to be viewed as significant; it is ill conceived. Such a hypothetically courageous stance cannot possibly outdo or neutralize the far more substantial harm done due to these performances taking place, as Israel, with its formidable influence in mainstream Western media, cynically uses them to project a false image of normalcy that enables it to maintain its occupation and apartheid. Ultimately, a conscientious artist is expected to heed the appeals of the oppressed as to what they really need from them in the struggle to end injustice and colonial oppression. This was true in the South African anti-apartheid struggle, too.
As to the commonly used “art ought to be above politics” argument, it is patently ahistorical and political par excellence. Artists are humans who are expected to be more, not less, sensitive than others in empathizing with human suffering and rejecting oppression. When they choose to side with hegemonic oppressors for money, fame or other material gains at the expense of basic commitment to human rights, they end up selling their souls and declaring their utter ethical corruption. Artists, like Elton John, who violated the anti-apartheid cultural boycott and entertained South Africans at Sun City, were viewed as crossing a moral picket line. So are those that insist on entertaining Israeli apartheid today.
The great majority of Palestinian cultural figures stand solidly behind the call for a cultural boycott of Israel, as do all the main cultural institutions and associations. While Palestinian artists may indirectly suffer from a worldwide boycott, they view and accept this is as a minimal price to pay in order to see the light at the end of the long tunnel of Israeli occupation, ethnic cleansing, apartheid and racist denial of our refugee rights. In this context, Palestinian artists often express the commonly held view that world artists have a moral obligation to stop colluding with the oppressor, at the very least, in order to help end this multi-tiered oppression and bring about freedom and just peace.