Sociable

Monday, September 13, 2010

PACBI – Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel Criticizes the Boycott by Israeli Theater People on Ariel*

As we know, some 60 Israeli theater people came out a few weeks back with a declaration that they will refuse to appear at the Ariel “Culture” Hall located in the occupied territories. It is important to stress that actors-artists are employees subordinate to the administrative and financial owners of the theater who are their employers in every sense. So, we are not speaking only of taking a courageous stand, but an act which puts the actor on a collision course with his boss. And we are not speaking of any kind of profession. An actor, without the theater, cannot work, create or make a living. Therefore, most honest people tend naturally to honor and applaud the brave tens of theater people for their act of protest.

It is also natural that the Israeli theater people received support from abroad. Indeed 150 central cultural figures, mainly from the US and the UK expressed their admiration for the courageous stand of the Israeli theater people.

This chain of events is yet another component in a broad movement in Israel and abroad serving to delegitimize the occupation regime and overall Israeli policies. It is important to note that this movement is itself composed of a variety of various, independent, groups and organizations, each of which has a record of long and difficult struggle against the occupation and its evils.


Boycott in Principle
For quite a while a serious debate has been taking place in our circles and in the broad public as to whether the boycott is an appropriate instrument for our struggle. There are those who argue that any boycott against Israel is unjust, really an act of anti-Semitism. But this is a rather naïve position of those who refuse to recognize the suffering and the deprivation of the Palestinian under Israel occupation. Those who support peace and are struggling against the occupation cannot reject any non violent activity aimed at advancing the struggle against the occupation. It is necessary to add that by virtue of its emotionally charged nature, boycott is never a simple affair. It is always a complex mechanism and should be employed with caution and wisdom. Boycotts should be aimed at a definite goal and should be accompanied with detailed political explanation on the cause and the goals of the boycott.

In general, the left in Israel supports boycott activity that conforms to the aforementioned reservations.


PACBI - The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
Those who follow Palestinian politics know that we are talking about a small and energetic group of activists who have a very explicit political agenda. They see in boycott activity a political instrument with a clear and definite message. This message is revealed in the first statement of their program, which declares the purpose of the boycott: “the elimination of the colonization of all Arab lands.” (see here). This formulation expresses the position of the group, which negates the existence of the state of Israel. In of itself, there is nothing illegitimate about this position. We are talking about leading intellectuals who are members of a nation oppressed by Israel for decades. Difficulties arise on the strategic level. Within the framework of BDS activity, the PACBI people represent a determined line, which demands that boycott activity should conform to their principled position. It is worth being clear on this question from the onset: they do not support activity against the occupation in and of itself because they see such activity as a diversion from the main issue. Their hard-line interpretation that all Israel must be considered territory under occupation brought them into conflict with important leaders of the peace movement such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein.

I confess that I am not enthused about getting into a critical discussion about PACBI. I have no doubt regarding the noble intentions of members of the group and their devotion to non-violent struggle against the occupation as they perceive it. However, when they decide to deride the brave struggle of Israeli members of the peace movement and at the same time demonstrate their lack of understanding of our conditions, it is necessary to comment on this. Precisely out of concern for the campaign of the Israeli left against the occupation it is necessary to come out clearly against Palestinian friends who desire to insult with callousness and derision courageous and effective protest.


PACBI Against the Theater People and their International Supporters
We cannot know why PACBI issued, in the space of two days, two separate declarations that deal with the Israeli protest action against the “Cultural” Hall in Ariel. We will deal first with the declaration dated 7th of September (see here). There is nowhere in this text a good word about the activity of the Israeli theater people, and the declaration gives us a detailed and lengthy explanation for this. “While we welcome acts of protest against any manifestation of Israel's regime of colonialism and apartheid, we believe that these acts must be both morally consistent and anchored in international law and universal human rights.” These words serve as an introduction to a text in which PACBI explains that the action by the theater people does not meet these criteria.

These are the faults in the behavior of the theater people:
“First, we believe that the exclusive focus on settlement institutions ignores and obscures the complicity of all Israeli academic and cultural institutions in upholding the system of colonial control and apartheid under which Palestinians suffer. PACBI believes there is firm evidence of the collusion of the Israeli academic and cultural establishment with the major oppressive organs of the Israeli state. Focusing solely on obviously complicit institutions, such as cultural centers in a West Bank colony, serves to shield mainstream Israeli institutions from opprobrium or, ultimately, from the growing global boycott movement that consistently targets all complicit institutions. Furthermore, the cherry-picking approach behind targeting a notorious colonial settlement in the heart of the occupied West Bank diverts attention from other institutions built on occupied land. Supporters of this peculiarly selective boycott must be asked: is lecturing or performing at the Hebrew University, whose Mount Scopus campus sits on occupied Palestinian land in East Jerusalem, acceptable?

The PACBI people go on to submit a list of “test questions” to the theater people: why did they refrain from taking a position against the suffocation of Palestinian cultural institutions in conquered Jerusalem? The PACBI people continue the test questions: “If the artists' and intellectuals' role as voices of moral reason is behind this most recent call to boycott Ariel, where were these voices when academic and cultural institutions were wantonly destroyed in Israel's war of aggression on Gaza in 2008-2009?”

In all seriousness, there is no sincerity and no honesty in referring these questions to these people in these circumstances. The theater people under discussion were never a separate and organized movement but only an ad hoc formation. At the same time, among the theater people there are indeed those who protested the war on Gaza, against the occupation of East Jerusalem and the like. In any event, the “cross examination” style is not appropriate here.


The Second Document
As we have noted PACBI published a second declaration on this subject (see here). The second document, issued two days after the first, is different in that it is in the form of an open letter to the American and English cultural figures who cam out in support of the cultural boycott against the Israeli settlement of the West Bank. Their letter praises and commends the theater, film and television people following their declaration of support of those boycotting Ariel. Reasonably, PACBI calls on the artists abroad to deepen and expand their steps for yet a more comprehensive boycott. However, it is a bit strange to praise and to commend people abroad on their declared support for peace-loving Israelis, while the Israeli activity in itself is not considered worthy in PACBI eyes.

The explanation for this is contained in a paragraph which presents a set of “test questions” similar to those addressed to the Israeli theater people. PACBI wants to know why the cultural figures abroad refuse to act in good time: “In light of this inspiring history, we cannot but ask, why haven't you taken your taboo-breaking position in response to appeals by the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, including almost all leading artists? Why did you have to wait for a relatively small number of dissenting Israeli artists and academics to initiate a boycott, a peculiarly selective and morally-inconsistent one at that? Do authentic voices of the oppressed, especially those in the besieged Gaza Strip, incarcerated in the world's largest open-air prison, also count?” PACBI concludes its letter to the artists abroad that they act according to the spirit of its positions.


In Summary
PACBI, as important as it is, is not the only political factor in Palestinian society, but only one of many Palestinian organizations. While all Palestinians support, in principle, actions against the occupation and against Israeli policies, there are discussions and debates all about the vital issue of strategy and tactics. PACBI represents a version that causes unnecessary difficulties for building the unity of all peace loving forces, who support the Palestinian right of self determination. The recent appearance of an important coalition built on the parties of the Palestinian left and on the political initiative of a grouping around Dr. Mustafa Barghouti is of tremendous importance. This group has criticized the defeatism of Abu Mazen and his people while continuing its support for a just peace. And in respect to our concern here it is important that this coalition supports cooperation on the basis of mutual respect between themselves and the democratic and peace forces in Israel. Solidarity can only be constructed on the basis of mutual respect and a deep understanding of the difficulties of the left opposition in both nations.


*This article was written and published originally in Hebrew. I was concerned that its publication in English might needlessly intensify the debate. However, a number of good friends, who are sincerely devoted to BDS activity, requested an English translation, and convinced me of its value.