Three days after carrying Stanley Fish’s argument against the academic boycott of Israel, the Times may have unwittingly offered the best argument for the cultural boycott. Ethan Bronner’s front page article “After Gaza, Israel Grapples With Crisis of Isolation” outlines Israel’s efforts to “rebrand” itself after the war in Gaza. Bronner notes that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has been given an emergency $2 million grant to “improve Israel”s image through cultural and information diplomacy”. Bronner quotes the ministry’s deputy director:
“We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits,” said Arye Mekel, the ministry”s deputy director general for cultural affairs. “This way you show Israel”s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”
We’ve looked at Israel’s attempt’s to put a “pretty face” on the conflict in the past (the operative term was “pubic diplomacy”). Lately there was a campaign to boycott performances by the Batsheva Dance Company. A profile of the dance company in the Independent of London pointed out that “it’s funded by Israel’s government, its performers include none of Arab extraction, and it is ‘proud to be considered Israel’s leading ambassador.'” Not surprisingly the idea of the cultural boycott makes many people uncomfortable, because they feel it adds a layer of politics to what is essentially an apolitical event. Mekel shows that this is not the case. The quote above demonstrates that many events that may seem to be simply cultural events, have a deeper political motive and agenda.
The Bronner article goes on to refer to Israeli officials who say the world only sees conflict when they look at Israel. Bronner quotes Ido Aharoni, manager of a rebranding team at the Foreign Ministry, “When we show Sderot, others also see Gaza. Everything is twinned when seen through the conflict. The country needs to position itself as an attractive personality, to make outsiders see it in all its reality. Instead, we are focusing on crisis management. And that is never going to get us where we need to go over the long term.”
Aharoni wants to use culture to erase the conflict from public consciousness. To take the “Gaza” out of “Sderot.” The boycott is an attempt to interrupt this process. It’s hard to argue with that.