Last week I went to see an excellent play at the National Theatre called The Collaborators by John Hodge. The play explored Josef Stalin’s unlikely admiration for dissident playwright Mikhail Bulgakov and the complex bond between art and ‘the State’. The play was a reminder that historically, even when culture has been puppeteered by an authority, unapproved and unintended meanings have a way of leaking out. Had the horror of Stalin’s Holodomor been contemporaneous today, we may well have been called upon to boycott the works of Bulgakov. This would do a great disservice, not only to the cannon of great literature, but also to the counter-revolutionary spirit evoked by Bulgakov’s work. I don’t claim that all art originating from criminal or repressive states, is loaded with subversive messages, but that art has the capacity to transcend the binary world of ‘placard politics’ (‘for’ this or ‘against’ that) and deliver the transforming might of pathos, spirit, sadness and beauty.
Reflecting on this reinforced my reluctant opposition to the cultural and academic boycott of Israel and, in particular to the call by the BDS to sabotage or ban any mode of expression delivered by state-enforced Israeli artists, musicians and thinkers. While the motives of many activists speaking out against Israeli artists and intellectuals are well intended and heart-felt, any action that seeks to abolish freedom of expression or thought is not winning any prizes for tolerance. Jews had their books burnt by Nazis & Israelis continue this dubious tradition by banning writer Gunter Grass, composer Daniel Barenboim and academic Norman Finkelstein. Surely, if we are ‘humanists’ we cannot be lured into suppressing or vandalizing art or ideas. If we do, we enter the supremacist domain of those we claim to oppose.
Furthermore, while the BDS sanctioning of goods is a logical, pragmatic tactic that I whole-heartedly support, I fail to understand the rationality of banning certain Zionist artists and not others. Last weekend Gilad Atzmon’s devoted nemesis, Tony Greenstein, took it upon himself to publish an inordinately long piece about some comments I wrote on this issue on the Facebook page of Ben White, an activist and writer who argues that Israel is essentially identical to South African Apartheid. I don’t agree with White’s prognosis. In the thread I wrote the following:-
(Culturally) ‘boycotting a nation state’ is premised on the notion that the country functions autonomously & can be ideologically quarantined. I’m not an expert on South African politics, but I certainly don’t recall the Apartheid regime enjoying the most powerful lobby group in the United States, I don’t recall the Apartheid Friends of Labor Org in the UK – nor do I recall British lawyers abandoning Universal Jurisdiction to allow SA leaders to travel freely. In short, Israel is unique in that it is maintained by Zionists across the globe on the Left & the Right. Boycotting academics & artists who happen to be born within the perimeters of Israeli sovereignty is futile. Who cares if some art-house Israeli movie gets refused from European film festivals when you’ve got Steven Spielberg’s ‘Munich’ grossing $130,358,911 worldwide?
Predictably, Ben White did not address my questions. Nor did Tony Greenstein when he recycled my words, along with an impressive gallery of photos lifted from my personal Facebook account, on his amusingly foul-mouthed blog.
Supporters of the cultural boycott state that they don’t boycott individual Israelis if those individuals are anti-Zionist (like academic Shlomo Sands). This is very kind of them. However, if it is a person’s political persuasion, not the arbitrary lottery of their Nationality, that determines whether they are spared prohibition, why is it only Israeli-born Zionists get banned? Why not picket the lectures of Zionist ‘University of London’ professor David Hirsh? Why interrupt a work of a genius like William Shakespeare (not commonly known to have been a massive Netanyahu supporter) while in cinemas across London, Sasha Baron Cohen’s Zionist propaganda film, The Dictator is delivered on a loop? I really don’t get it. Last year Wikileeks revealed that the Arab League boycotted Steven Spielberg, not for beaming Islamphobic global blockbusters like Munich onto our screens, but for donating $1 million to Israel during their 2006 war with Lebanon. This is coherent. Indeed, too many Lefties in the West refuel their self-love by waving placards without ever asking themselves why. Given the war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan committed by my democratically elected government in the UK, shouldn’t Tony Greenstein et al also boycott British Artists who receive money from the Arts Counsel of Britain? Add to this the recent revelation that BDS hero Omar Barghouti is a student in Tel Aviv University, the very institution he encourages us to ban, and the ‘movement’ begins to resemble a tangled web of hypocrisy and redundant gestures. Barghouti’s attendance at TA University doesn’t exactly make Israel resemble the Apartheid State he tells us it is. The Apartheid 1959 ‘Extension of University Education Act’ bared non-whites from entering white Universities. This has not happened to Barghouti. His presence there reinforces TA Universities’ reputation as a tolerant and multicultural institution.
Interfering with freedom of thought and expression, academic exchange and artistic liberty is a sensitive Issue. Tolerance and pluralism are core and precious values within western discourse. We should boycott Israeli products, not art, spirit and ideas. Recently I read an article from Ben white in which he admits that the ”boycott is a strategy not a principle’. This is exactly my problem with the BDS Cultural and academic boycott. It is not principled, & it lacks integrity. By refusing to have the argument you have lost the argument.