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Are artists justified in boycotting Israel?

30 November 2015

From the December issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here

Calls for cultural and academic boycotts of Israel continue to hit the headlines. Should we regard such politically charged stances as divisive or necessary for change?

Brian Eno

I was born on 15 May 1948, the same day as the modern state of Israel. This coincidence fostered in me both curiosity and sympathy for the country, and I followed its development at a distance. Interested in communes, as many of my generation were, I was impressed by the kibbutz movement, and for many years cited kibbutzim as successful examples of communal living.

Then I started to become aware that there were other people there too – the indigenous Palestinians. Things didn’t look anywhere near as good for them, but I still believed that the Israelis intended a state shared by both peoples.

By the 1990s it was increasingly difficult to maintain this belief. The many attempts at solutions to what was now a crisis failed one after the other: every round of peace talks was followed – or even accompanied – by settlement building, often on land that had been lived on and farmed by Palestinian families for generations. Despite Israeli claims to be seeking a ‘two-state solution’, more and more Palestinians were being pushed off their land into smaller and smaller enclaves patrolled by Israeli military units, or into refugee camps outside the country. At the same time Jews from anywhere enjoyed a ‘right of return’. People from Brooklyn and Moscow and Cape Town – people who’d never met a Palestinian, who’d never heard them referred to as anything other than ‘the problem’ – moved to Israel in the full expectation that this was their land. In what can only be described as ethnic cleansing, the Palestinians are accorded no corresponding right of return.

By the turn of the millennium, and to my great disappointment, I had woken up to the realisation that Israel was a racist state. There are several racist states in the world, so why was I particularly interested in this one? Four reasons: Britain was partly responsible for establishing the state as a Jewish homeland: which makes me, as a Brit, complicit. Second, Israel depends on Western support to maintain its agenda. Third, the EU has spent a fortune rebuilding Palestinian housing and infrastructure smashed by Israeli bombs, only to see it destroyed again. Our governments pay for the targets and fund their destruction. Fourth, Israel seeks to represent itself as a Western country with Western values – but without the inconvenience of behaving like one.

What I see happening now is eerily reminiscent of the Wild West: an indigenous people, relatively powerless, facing a heavily armed group of settlers backed by a large modern army and a government. The natives are pushed off their land, and when they resist, they’re called terrorists. It’s a familiar colonial story: the victims are turned into ‘the problem’. I became acutely aware of this when I visited and witnessed the glaring differences between Jewish Israeli and Palestinian lives – the inequitable distribution of resources, the daily humiliation and harassment that Palestinians undergo.

Given the abhorrent treatment of the Jews historically it’s clear why they would want a homeland. What is not so clear is why it has to be exclusive: why it can’t also be a homeland to the Palestinians. Alas, the main stream of Israeli politics is committed to a one-state solution: an exclusively Jewish state. Benjamin Netanyahu made that completely clear during his election campaign.

There isn’t much I can do about this situation other than refuse to become part of the cultural propaganda effort on which Israel spends so much money. I don’t know if that translates into being part of the solution – that’s an act of faith on my part. But I also can’t condemn other artists who decide not to take this position: if you really believe that Art conquers all, then you could legitimately conclude that withholding it is counterproductive. I don’t believe that myself: for I see Art being used by Israel as a PR tool, the velvet glove on an iron fist.

I think very few Israelis would be disappointed if I never went there again: I don’t flatter myself to think that my Art is of any particular interest to them. But I also want to make it clear that I don’t support their government’s project, and this is one way that I can do it.

Brian Eno delivered the annual BBC Music John Peel Lecture, 2015.

Tiffany Jenkins

Too many prohibitions are issued to artists today: don’t exhibit, don’t perform, don’t listen, don’t look, don’t collaborate. Worryingly, it is artists themselves who proclaim the majority of them.

In February 2015, more than 100 artists announced a cultural boycott of Israel. A list of cultural luminaries signed a public letter, published in The Guardian, which stated that: ‘We will accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government.’ It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. Barely a month passes without someone calling for a boycott of Israel, arguing that artists and academics should not visit Israel, nor should Israeli artists or academics be permitted to work in the UK.

Such sententious calls for boycott have divisive consequences, and, more than this, they shut down the arts. I was at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe two years ago when angry protests and calls for an Israel boycott from prominent members of Scotland’s creative community, including the national poet Liz Lochhead, brought to an end a run of the musical The City. The Incubator Theatre, the company that was to stage the show, was from Jerusalem and had accepted a small amount of funding from the Israeli government.

Consumer boycotts of products, like oranges from South Africa, big during the apartheid-era, are questionable. They encourage a passive form of resistance, and it is self-flattering to think that one’s shopping choices can impact on political struggles elsewhere. But the deleterious effect of cultural boycotts is worse than the ban on consumer products, because they place an embargo on artistic exchanges. They are an insult to artistic autonomy and free speech, and they negate the idea of the arts as a forum for complexity, experimentation and difference.

When the cultural boycotters argue that artists should stay away from Israel, or that Israeli artists should not come to us, they are not only demanding that people stop communicating with each other, but they are also claiming a right to deny ordinary people the chance to engage with artistic work.

Despite the destabilising occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by US and British forces, there were no calls for a cultural boycott of either of the occupying countries. So there is a certain amount of hypocrisy at play. Those calling for a cultural boycott of Israel seem happy to take state funding and not be aligned with their government’s position on foreign or domestic affairs, but they do not accept that it is possible for artists from Israel to do the same.

Artists and audiences in Israel are not responsible for the actions of the Israeli state; just as we in Britain are not responsible for the actions of our government – indeed, many of us protest them. If all artists were forced to consider the dodgy politics of every country they visit and not travel accordingly, international performances would end: no country is clean. There would be total cultural isolation.

Cultural boycotts separate people and erect barriers between them. The cultural boycotters demand that art is denied to one nationality in particular – in this case, people in Israel – which should make us uncomfortable. Though other countries have been the target of cultural boycotts, including Russia for its stance on gay rights, there is a distasteful preoccupation with Israel at a time when there are legitimate concerns about the growth of anti-Semitism.

Those calling for boycotts are arrogant enough to dictate that there is only one correct message for the arts – the one they support – which is a green light for art as propaganda. By all means argue over and debate the merits of an artwork; but don’t try to stop it travelling, don’t effectively censor it.

Artists should not be obliged to take a stance on global conflicts. Artists need to be free not to have an opinion, and when they do, to be able to express it. They should not be denied the opportunity to take part in international collaborations. A show of solidarity – ignoring and defying borders – would make a more positive case for a better future than any divisive and censorious boycott ever could.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural commentator and writer.

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