December 23rd, 2006


Berger and Eno propose a cultural boycott of Israel

"And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him," commands Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 33. "The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." In case there's any doubt about whose advice this is, verse 34 has a signature: "I am the LORD your God."

Perhaps the Israeli state is attempting to respect this advice by building a security barrier which ensures that the Palestinian "stranger" will never dwell with the Israeli people, and thus never have to be treated as equal to Israelis, and never loved as the Israelis love one another. It's one possible interpretation, anyway -- the most charitable we can muster. Others simply call Israel's treatment of the Palestinian "strangers-in-their-own-land" a new form of apartheid.

We saw earlier in the year how the young Gordon Brown (Britain's next prime minister) battled, as student rector of Edinburgh University back in the 1970s, to boycott cultural and intellectual exchanges between African apartheid states and the UK. When the more cautious University Secretary (the university's head official) found Brown's stance on excluding all Rhodesians from an Edinburgh University conference -- blaming liberal academics for their government's racialist stance -- a bit unfair, Brown replied:

"The argument for the continued contacts between South African and Rhodesian "liberals" and ourselves is based on the assumption that efforts of these University liberals will help the fight against apartheid, which seems to us dubious... Isolation -- rather than contact -- will stimulate fundamental change. The liberal dialogue... has failed."

Thirty years later, with apartheid defeated, in part, by exactly such outside pressures, including cultural ones, Brown's stance seems much more reasonable and orthodox than it may have done at the time. Bans and boycotts may have stymied Rhodesian liberal dialogue, but they contributed to the creation of democratic republics in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Despite their imperfections, both are better than what went before. Hard-line white settler minorities were displaced from the centres of power.

There's an increasing sense that something similar must happen in Israel, and that even artists might have a role to play. Last week a long-time hero of mine, the writer John Berger, wrote a letter to The Guardian newspaper calling for a cultural boycott of Israel. The letter was signed by about 90 artists, musicians, writers, film directors and intellectuals including another hero of mine, Brian Eno, the artist Cornelia Parker, the writer Arundhati Roy, and many others.

Berger explained that for him the boycott involved refusing to let his novels be published by Israeli publishing houses until the Palestinian question is satisfactorily resolved. Film director Ken Loach said he'd keep his films out of state-sponsored Israeli film festivals. "It could be a factor in Israeli policy changing," Berger said. "Of course its effects will not be gigantic but it is a way of not staying silent. It is a very personal call ... a way of encouraging the very courageous Israelis who oppose their government and an encouragement to Palestinians to somehow go on surviving."

As an article on American site Alternet points out, "surviving" is currently the best the Palestinians can hope for.

"The bleakness of life for Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip, is a mystery only to us. In the current Israeli campaign in Gaza, now sealed off from the outside world, almost 500 Palestinians, most unarmed, have been killed. Sanctions, demanded by Israel and imposed by the international community after the Hamas victory last January in what were universally acknowledged to be free and fair elections, have led to the collapse of civil society in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as widespread malnutrition. And Palestinians in the West Bank are being encased, in open violation of international law, in a series of podlike militarized ghettos with Israel's massive $2 billion project to build a "security barrier." This barrier will gobble up at least 10 percent of the West Bank, including most of the precious aquifers and at least 40,000 acres of Palestinian farmland. The project is being financed in large part through $9 billion in American loan guarantees, although when Congress approved the legislation in April 2003, Israel was told that the loans could be used "only to support activities in the geographic areas which were subject to the administration of the Government of Israel prior to June 5, 1967."

"But it is in Gaza that conditions are currently reaching a full-blown humanitarian crisis. "Gaza is in its worst condition ever," Gideon Levy wrote recently in the Israeli paper Ha'aretz. "The Israel Defense Forces have been rampaging through Gaza -- there's no other word to describe it -- killing and demolishing, bombing and shelling, indiscriminately. ... How contemptible all the sublime and nonsensical talk about 'the end of the occupation' and 'partitioning the land' now appears. Gaza is occupied, and with greater brutality than before. ... This is disgraceful and shocking collective punishment."