Opinion: For a Cultural Boycott of Israel

Israel’s war on Lebanon has thrown into stark relief the debate about sporting, cultural and economic boycotts. By the time you read this article, the Israeli cricket team’s latest game in the European tournament in Glasgow, scheduled for yesterday, may have been cancelled. For sure, hundreds will have joined the Stop the War Coalition’s protest outside the Glasgow Academicals ground.

   Meanwhile, the Edinburgh International Film Festival has, in protest at the war in Lebanon, refused the offer of funds from the Israeli Embassy to pay for the air fares of Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir. His documentary Five Days, which charts the Israeli army’s withdrawal from Gaza, will still be shown at the festival, and there is talk of picketing taking place outside screenings.

   For some, both the campaign to boycott the Israeli cricket team and the various degrees of boycott over Shamir’s film (from refusing Israel’s money to a complete boycott of the film) are misplaced. Sports people and artists, the argument goes, are entitled to participate in their chosen fields without being punished for the perceived sins of the country from which they come.

   As a position which defends freedom of expression, this can seem like a very reasonable stance. Like most abstract principles, however, it is deeply problematic when applied to specific circumstances.

   In the 1960s, 70s and 80s the international movement against apartheid called for a global boycott of South Africa. Peter Hain of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, now a minister in Tony Blair’s cabinet, led campaigns of civil disobedience against South African rugby and cricket tours.

   The boycott placed the right of black South Africans to freedom from racist dictatorship above the supposed right of racially selected South African sports teams to take part in prestigious international competitions. The boycott ostracised South Africa from the family of nations. Who now doubts that it played an important role in the eventual collapse of apartheid?

   The arguments over the boycott of Israel today are remarkably similar. How can the so-called “right” of the Israeli cricket team (which is stuffed full of Israeli army reservists) to participate in an international competition possibly compare to the rights of the Palestinians and the Lebanese who are so clearly oppressed by the might of the Israeli military? 

   In refusing the Israeli Embassy’s cash, the Film Festival has, in effect, said that it considers such money to be tainted with the blood of the 900 Lebanese civilians massacred over the last four weeks. That isn’t an attack on cultural freedom, it is a principled statement of human solidarity.

   Of course, in every boycott there are areas of light and shade, issues where campaigners need to take a more nuanced position. Did, for instance, the cultural boycott of South Africa extend to anti-apartheid Afrikaner comedian Pieter-Dirk Uys; most supporters of the boycott agreed that it did not.

   The question of whether or not to boycott was decided, primarily, on the basis of the artist’s relationship to the state. Official state artistic companies, or companies supported by the state, were boycotted, but opponents of the regime were welcomed.

   Where Shamir’s film is concerned, things are less clear cut. I have not yet seen his movie, but it sounds to me as if it raises important questions about the Israeli military, rather than being a piece of Israeli state propaganda. The problem arises in that he appears to have been prepared to have his trip funded by the Israeli state.

   As a theatre critic and a lover of the arts, I instinctively uphold freedom of expression. However, I do not uphold it above all other freedoms. Just as I would never have agreed to review a work by a state company from apartheid South Africa in the 80s, I would refuse to review the work of the Israeli National Opera today. However, where Shamir’s film is concerned, I tend towards the view that the screenings should go ahead.

   The deciding factors are, firstly, the relationship of the artist to the state, and, secondly, the benefit of a boycott to those fighting against oppression. In the case of the Israeli National Opera, the benefits of a boycott which damages the prestige of the State of Israel are obvious. In the case of Shamir, it is hard to see how the Lebanese or Palestinian people would benefit from a boycott.   

   Those who persist in opposing all boycotts are either washing their hands of the oppression of the people of Palestine and Lebanon or pursuing an abstract principle which would have put them at odds with Mandela when he called for the global boycott of apartheid.

Mark Brown is theatre critic of the Sunday Herald and a member of the Stop the War Coalition.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald in August 2006 as part of an exchange of views. The complete exchange can accessed at: http://www.pacbi.org/printnews.php?id=320

© Mark Brown

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