Israel’s cultural diversions are never normal, never neutral

Out of tune with human rights? TheeErin, CC BY-NC-SA

Two cancelled shows at the Edinburgh fringe, a theatre in London refusing to host a film festival while it was partly funded by the Israeli Embassy and now, on the other side of the spectrum, Belfast City Council is seeking legal advice about an event featuring Respect MP George Galloway, after he urged people in Bradford to reject all Israeli goods, services, academics and tourists.

The cultural boycott of Israel has high stakes, as were revealed in the dispute with the Tricycle Theatre. The London venue has for the past few years hosted the UK Jewish Film Festival. This year the theatre asked the UK Jewish Film Festival to abandon its Israeli government funds:

Given the current conflict in Israel and Gaza, we feel it is inappropriate to accept financial support from any government agency involved.

The theatre even offered to replace the funds that would be lost.

Yet the festival’s Director, Judy Ironside declined the offer, on grounds that Jewish culture is “intrinsically connected to the state of Israel”. She also portrayed all Jews as victims:

This decision is shameful and shows that boycotts of Israel inevitably lead to the harassment of Jewish culture and individuals across the world.

So the Israeli funds aim to present the country as a promoter of “Jewish culture” and sanitise it. This presents Israel as a cultured Western country, supporting its official image as “the only democracy in the Middle East”.

But democracy has always been a slippery word, and cultural diversions have always played a key part in politics. And, like many Western democracies that have claimed a heritage from the classical past, Israel has a shameful history of imperialist expansion and brutal oppression.

When Israel calls itself a “democratic Jewish state”, what does this mean? Since 1948 the state has combined aspects of settler-colonialism and racist apartheid, marginalising Palestinian Arabs as second-class citizens or worse. Israel is governed by institutions promoting Jewish domination over the Arab population inside and outside its considerably expanded borders.

All these injustices are compounded by the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. The occupation is still being enforced through land seizures, economic blockades and war crimes. Palestinian cultural projects have been suppressed or even physically attacked.

Israeli democracy has produced a nation prepared to carry out the slaughter of civilians, including hundreds of children, during past and present conflicts. The “normal” situation in Gaza is one of slow starvation in an open prison policed by the Israeli Defence Force. Surely Israel should not get away with parading itself to the world as a civilised and cultured state synonymous with Jewish culture, beliefs and historical traditions.

Since 2004 the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has advocated a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions. The boycott challenges “Brand Israel”, a political strategy of normalisation. The boycott exposes those who are commissioned or recruited to rebrand the Israeli state or complicit institutions (artistic companies and universities). Through their silence about or direct involvement with the occupation, these cultural institutions have been justifying, whitewashing and/or diverting attention from Israel’s violations of international law and human rights.

The boycott has gained worldwide support. In the UK its supporters have targeted performances of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), the Habima Theatre Company and Batsheva Dance Company. Protesters raised the slogan: “The IPO is out of tune with human rights” at its Proms concert. All three groups are among many receiving government funds to serve as cultural ambassadors for Brand Israel. The first two have proudly given performances in illegal Jewish settlements, arguably further promoting the occupation.

Whenever and wherever Israel attempts to promote its cultural events, we should publicise the fact that for decades it has stifled the cultural and educational expression of those living in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the millions of Palestinian refugees rendered homeless and stateless by its expansionist policies.

The Palestinian people have called upon us to boycott Israeli goods, Israeli universities and Israeli artistic companies. To do so is vital for solidarity, raising awareness of the just cause of the Palestinian people and making their voices better heard through our protests. The boycott exposes the complicity of cultural bodies in Israel’s violation of human rights and international law.

Despite those violations, Israel has been favourably singled out for political and financial support by Western governments. Living in the UK, whose government has been complicit in Zionist expansion and war crimes since the Balfour Declaration, we have a special responsibility to respect the 2004 boycott call of Palestinian civil society.

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