Palestine and the Cultural Boycott

April 2009, by Rafeef Ziadah.

Since its inception Israel has taken great pains to destroy all signs of Palestinian culture and target Palestinians who chose cultural production as their method of resistance. Edward Said explained “Culture is a way of fighting against extinction and obliteration”, and it is basic to colonial policy to present the colonized as primitive, backward and uncultured.

In 2002, when Israel invaded the West Bank town of Ramallah (which they have done many times before and since), they trashed the Sakakini Cultural Centre. Among the things they destroyed were some of Mahmoud Darwich”s manuscripts. At the time Mahmoud Darwich told William Dalrymple of the UK Guardian:

“The Israelis wanted to give us a message that nobody and nothing is immune – including our cultural life,” he says. “I took the message personally. I know they”re strong and can invade and kill anyone. But they can”t break or occupy my words. That is one thing they can”t do. My poetry is the one way I have to resist them.”

Palestinian cultural production has to been seen in this light – as an act of reasserting identity and existence. When calls came from Palestine for the cultural boycott of Israel ( until it complies with international law, many around the world protested against the “censoring of art”. Opponents of the cultural boycott of Israel said that art should be separated from politics (this argument was answered by Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian choreographer). The supposed separation has offered Palestinian artists and art no protection from political persecution and censorship. We do not hear complaints from these cultural boycott opponents about the reality Palestinian artists live under, about the fact that it is Palestinian artists who are under de facto boycott (whether in the West Bank / Gaza, inside 1948 Palestine or in the diaspora) – sometimes by means of overt censorship by a military occupier, other times by subtle censorship in the form of pleas for “balance”.

Reality for Palestinian artists

Though Palestinian artists are recognized across the Arab world, their opportunities to exhibit are continually restricted by Israel. Palestinians in the West Bank live under the constant threat of having their exhibitions ransacked and their art galleries destroyed. They also can not move from one area to another due to the complex web of Israeli checkpoints, settlements and the apartheid wall. Certainly no exemption is made for artists: they are not separated from this political reality.

In the occupied territories the arts are constantly targeted. During the first intifada (1987-1989) the Israelis banned the use of the colours of the Palestinian flag. Painter Vera Tamari said this about some of the Palestinian art exhibitions at the time:

“It was very exciting, but the Israelis soon became aware of the importance of these exhibitions and started hitting the League of Palestinian Artists. They made us get permits to show our work, censoring art and invading artists” studios. Several of us were imprisoned, usually on charges that they were painting in the colours of the Palestinian flag. They would say, “You can paint, but don”t use red, white or black,” and they would imprison you if you used those colours. You couldn”t paint a poppy, for example, or a watermelon: they were the wrong colours. Often it was up to the artistic judgment of the particular officer in charge.”

No medium is spared. The popular dance troupe El Funoun was banned and for a long time forced to practice their routines underground, without music. From their website: “… producing dance in a traditional society living under occupation has always presented El-Funoun with particularly serious challenges. Travel bans and random arrests of Troupe members, on the one hand, were some of El-Funoun”s special share of the repressive measures of the Israeli Occupation.”

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, it went to great lengths to destroy cultural centers Palestinians had built and any archives of artistic materials. For example, the entire archive of the Palestinian cinema collective was completely destroyed. Anne Marie Jacir wrote about this for Electronic Intifada in 2007:

“In the late 1960s, a group of young Arab women and men devoted to the struggle for Palestinian freedom chose to contribute to the resistance through filmmaking – recording their lives, hopes, and their fight for justice. Working in both fiction and documentary, they strived to tell the stories of Palestine and to create a new kind of cinema.

“These filmmakers included founders Mustafa Abu Ali, Sulafa Jadallah, and Hani Jawhariya. Others were Khadija Abu Ali, Ismael Shammout, Rafiq Hijjar, Nabiha Lutfi, Fuad Zentut, Jean Chamoun and Samir Nimr. … in 1982, the Israeli army invaded Lebanon and the Palestinian film archives disappeared, along with the rest of the PLO”s cultural heritage collections.”

This attack on Palestinian art extends to inside Israel proper where artists like Muhammad Bakri find their films banned.

Polite Censorship and Censorship by “Balance”

The censorship of Palestinian art is not limited to the occupied territories or to Israel. It is done in the West as well – just more politely.

In May 2008, Chicago”s Spertus Museum, an important Jewish cultural center in Chicago, opened an exhibit called “Imaginary Coordinates”. The exhibit was described as featuring the work of eight Palestinian and Israeli women who were well known in Israel and around the world for their work challenging predictable notions of space, geography, boundaries and what may be summed up as the right to sorrow – who may feel sorrowful for whom and why. But, as Deanna Isaacs put it in the Chicago Reader, the show shed “too much light”:

“…word on the street was that the exhibit had proved too controversial for some key members of the Spertus audience. The Jewish United Fund, a major Spertus supporter, had taken a look and promptly canceled a May 13 fund-raising dinner booked for the tenth floor boardroom. Michael Kotzen, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, says he moved the event after hearing from “a number of people who thought the exhibit wasn”t appropriate” in “content and point of view.” Then came word that the show would reopen “tweaked,” as Rosen put it, and with a new protocol: visitors would be admitted only on guided tours, to be conducted hourly.”

At Brandeis University in 2006, Jewish student Lior Halperin curated an exhibit of visual art by Palestinian teenagers, called “Voices for Palestine.” This was mainly photographs that the teenagers had taken, mainly of each other. But four days into a two-week exhibition, college administrators removed the work, claiming it “confused” and “upset” some students.

The “Made in Palestine” exhibition was pulled from numerous galleries before finding a place in New York and other cities in 2005. A review of the exhibit in the Electronic Intifada describes the typical story:

“We”ve basically received a “no” from everyone,” says Halaby [one of the organizers of the exhibit], discussing efforts in New York City and other cities to secure exhibition space. In November of last year, a group in nearby Westchester County, New York organized a benefit to raise funds to have the exhibition in their community. A pair of county representatives went ballistic on hearing about the event and fired off an angry press release that characterized the Made In Palestine exhibit as “offensive art that glorifies terrorism” and “contained anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hatred, as well as pays tribute to terrorists.” A state legislator described the exhibit as a “propaganda show for assassins.” The benefit went ahead as scheduled, but the incident exemplifies the impediments in having Made In Palestine displayed in cities across the country.

In Ontario, a book of stories by and for children called Three Wishes was banned from school libraries.

“The controversy began in February 2006 when the Canadian Jewish Council wrote to the Ontario Libraries Association and every school board in the province, asking them to withdraw the title from the reading program, arguing that it lacked historical context, was too sophisticated for children in the recommended age group, and demonized people on both sides of the conflict… In a statement, Three Wishes author Deborah Ellis said, “I have done many school talks around my books about children in war. Kids can handle the truth about what is being done to other children. It”s adults who get squeamish. They say, “We must protect our children from such things,” when really they are protecting themselves from having to answer the question: “What are you doing to make the world better?””

All these examples of what I”m calling “polite” censorship rely on an elusive concept of “balance”. The idea is that every Palestinian voice has to be “balanced” by an Israeli voice. So, as a Palestinian poet, I can do poetry only so long as a “balancing”, opposing view of the poetry is presented. And indeed, after I performed at a high school here in Toronto, the Toronto District School Board enacted a policy that performers have to be vetted before hand for political content. I haven”t performed since. The lines were from a piece called I want to write a poem, and the offending line was:

I want to write a poem – sad
like my grandfather”s smile when they stole his land.

This made a student “uncomfortable”, even though every word of it is completely true – my grandfather”s land was stolen and he was made a refugee. But even though it was true, it was banned because it was “unbalanced”. The teacher was disciplined for inviting me and the school board changed its policy on performers.

“Balance” is now the leading pretext for silencing Palestinians, cancelling invitations to speakers, or closing exhibitions. But “balance” can”t be applied to plays, speeches, or curated exhibitions. They are, by their nature, organized around a specific perspective. The requirement that a single event reflect the whole spectrum of positions on a given subject would be paralyzing. What single exhibition could possibly contain the range of positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The requirement for balance is in any case only applied to the oppressed. Only Palestinians have to always present a balanced and nuanced view. Balance is never sought or urged when it comes to Israeli artists, writers, or filmmakers expressing themselves.

Cultural Boycott

Israel has used many weapons to try to destroy Palestinian cultural life: direct violence, direct censorship, polite censorship, and also boycotts. Attacks on Palestinian art range from: shutting down exhibitions, preventing Palestinians from performing, preventing institutions from sponsoring and hosting events. This means a de facto boycott of Palestinian artists. This siege on Palestinian artists much be broken.

Breaking the siege means that Israel has to change, and it won”t do that without pressure. That”s why many Palestinian artists have appealed to cultural workers and artists in the rest of the world to boycott Israeli government institutions. The cultural boycott is another way of resisting apartheid, as it was in South Africa. This is part of the 2006 letter from Palestinian artists:

We, the undersigned Palestinian filmmakers and artists, appeal to all artists and filmmakers of good conscience around the world to cancel all exhibitions and other cultural events that are scheduled to occur in Israel, to mobilize immediately and not allow the continuation of the Israeli offensive to breed complacency. Like the boycott of South African art institutions during apartheid, cultural workers must speak out against the current Israeli war crimes and atrocities.

We call upon the international community to join us in the boycott of Israeli film festivals, Israeli public venues, and Israeli institutions supported by the government, and to end all cooperation with these cultural and artistic institutions that to date have refused to take a stand against the Occupation, the root cause for this colonial conflict.

We call upon you to take a stand in order to appeal to the Israeli people to give up their silence, to abandon their apathy, and to face up to their responsibility in the destruction and killing their elected government is wreaking. To the Lebanese and Palestinians terrorized by this Army”s planes, bombs and missiles, this silence, apathy and lack of action from Israelis, are regarded as complicit in the ongoing war crimes, as for those Israeli artists, academics and intellectuals who continue to serve in the Israeli army they are directly implicated in these crimes.

We call upon you to give way to action that would replace words spoken too often and forgotten too quickly. We call upon you to make your voices heard in calling for an end to this bloodshed and an end to this oppression that has lasted too long.

The PACBI boycott is widely supported by leading cultural figures around the world.

The cultural boycott call was immediately attacked as detrimental to free expression. But the alternative is complicity in the use of culture for apartheid by an apartheid state, as well as in the deprivation of free expression for Palestinians. Palestinian artists defended the cultural boycott call on these grounds.

Ann Marie Jacir said this about the cultural boycott:

“As Nelson Mandela said, boycott is not a principle but a tactic depending on circumstances. For many, boycott is a non-violent method to resist the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Especially at a time where, after 58 years of resisting Israeli oppression and apartheid, nothing else has worked.”

And just like the anti-apartheid struggle was for the ultimate good of South Africans, including whites, the struggle against Israeli apartheid will benefit Israelis as well. Steven Biko, one of the leaders of South Africa”s black consciousness movement said: “In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.” With the cultural boycott of Israel, we hope to bestow a more human face on a society that was able just recently to bomb civilians in Gaza who had no way of fleeing a war zone.

As I started, I will end with Mahmoud Darwich, answering the charge that Palestinian poetry is too political.

“For us the tunnel is so dark that you cannot even see the light at the end. In a different situation I would like to give up my poetry about Palestine. I can”t keep writing about loss and occupation forever. I feel it deprives me of my freedom as a poet. Am I obliged to express my love for my country every day? You have to live for love, for freedom. The subject of occupation itself becomes a burden. I want, both as a poet and as a human being, to free myself from Palestine. But I can”t. When my country is liberated, so shall I be.

“When that happens, all Palestinian artists can go off and write about love and hope and all the other things in the world. But until that time, our duty is clear. We have no choice.”

Rafeef Ziadah is a third-generation Palestinian refugee, spoken word artist, and organizer with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. She lives in Toronto. This article is based on a talk given for a panel on “Palestinian art and cultural resistance”, Saturday November 1, 2008, New College, University of Toronto.

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