On the Cultural Boycott of Israel Guidelines

Ruth Tenne [Middle East Online] 3 August 2009 – The anticipated guidelines for international cultural boycott of the State of Israel have been issued recently (20 July 2009) by the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

The guidelines spell out clearly the different criteria to be applied for exercising a cultural boycott, stating “The general principle is that an event or project carried out under the sponsorship/aegis of or in affiliation with an official Israeli body constitutes complicity and therefore is deserving of boycott.” This may pose a great challenge for peace campaigners who are committed to face up to the powerful pro-Israel lobby which intends to defeat any attempt of protest against Israel’s occupation and dominance over the Palestinian land and people.

Such a challenge has recently came about when, in an unprecedented action , University College London apologized to the Zionist Federation for cancelling a celebration for Israel Independence day at the Bloomsbury Theatre in April this year . (re Jewish chronicle 14 July- http://www.thejc.com/articles/university-apologises-zf-cancelled-event).
The Bloomsbury Theatre, which is owned by UCL, had decided earlier to cancel the scheduled event (28 April) since the central performance was to be performed by an IDF band whose members were featured in the ZF’s ad in military uniform.

As an Israeli peace activist I was one of the hundreds of people and groups who requested the Bloomsbury Theatre to cancel the IDF performances (advertised as a family event). I challenged the Bloomsbury Theatre’s early decision to host the event, saying that “I fail to understand how a university theatre (UCL) which claims to be “a core community resource” and aims to “enrich teaching and learning”, with “commitment to focusing on a diverse education programme”, is prepared to host an entertaining band of an army which only few months ago mounted a brutal onslaught on the defenceless 1.5 million residents of Gaza, killing more than 1300 people(400 of them are young people and children), and destroying homes, hospitals, schools universities ,mosques ,community centres and medical facilities – leaving thousands of people desolate and desperate”. The letter was ended by arguing that Bloomsbury Theatre’s decision to host an IDF band will have some severe implications for the Theatre’s position in the community and for its patron -University College of London.

In response to the intensive campaign by peace activists The Zionist Federation changed its ad for the “family event” by re-posting on their website a new ad with the IDF band appearing with civilian clothes – thus turning a military band into a civilian troupe literally literary over night. Following the intensive campaign of local and national solidarity groups, who exposed the fallacy of the ZF ad, the Director of the Bloomsbury theatre decided to cancel its contract with the ZF. In his letter he wrote to say “Further to my recent email regarding proposed performances at the Bloomsbury Theatre by an entertainment troupe associated with The Israel Defence Force it has now been decided that, despite assurances that the troupe had been withdrawn from the line-ups, the events in question will now be cancelled “.

This courageous action on the part of the Director of Bloomsbury Theatre -Peter Cadley- was hailed as victory for justice. It demonstrated that the cultural boycott of Israel resonates with the wider community and its cultural institutions. The surprise decision by University College London’s to apologize to the Zionist Federation for cancelling the celebration of Israel’s anniversary at the Bloomsbury Theatre , and paying undisclosed sum in compensation ,demonstrated a regrettable moral spinelessness on the part of a reputable University which enjoys high academic and liberal reputation across the world. It seems that the Zionist Federation could not tolerate such apparent support for the course of Justice and has used all forms of influence to defeat, if not intimidate, the brave stance taken by the Bloomsbury Theatre of which university College London is the owner .

Having taken part in the successful campaign against the IDF’s performance at the Bloomsbury Theatre, I felt both appalled and outraged to learn of the craven action by University College London. In a letter to the Head of Resources of University College I expressed my objection to their decision and went on to say “You are surely aware that the event was cancelled because it was a political, not a cultural event, as had been stipulated in the contract signed with the Bloomsbury Theatre. UCL was therefore under no obligation to apologise publicly or make amends by paying compensation to the ZF. The event aimed to celebrate Israel’s 61st anniversary by a central performance of a band representing the Israeli Army – an army which had recently caused untold devastation to Gaza Strip…… Making an undisclosed donation to the ZF , as a compensation for cancelling the performance of the Israeli army on the stage of a well known community theatre which has a strong educational message , constitutes an immoral political statement on the part of UCL. …. I urge you to issue an appropriate public statement and pay a similar sum to a project which supports the devastated residents of Gaza Strip who are still under a two- year strangulating blockade by the Israel army”.

Disappointedly, the response I received from the Head of Resources of University College was no more than few feeble lines. She noted that my letter has already been forwarded to the Bloomsbury Theatre and advised me to contact the Theatre as “this is not something I can help further with” . The letter, thus, implied that it was Bloomsbury Theatre rather than University College which took the decision to make an apology and compensate the Zionist Federation. Being bewildered by UCL’s reply I am yet to receive a response from the Director of Bloomsbury Theatre, hoping that he would be able to offer some information about the reasons behind the controversial decision to apologise to the ZF for cancelling a performance by the Israeli military on a British stage.

As an integral part of the worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign the academic and cultural boycott is gaining momentum among civil society. Last year a direct-action protest had been mounted by the Scottish PSC against the Jerusalem Quartet which appeared in Edinburgh Festival. Though members of the public reacted positively to the campaign and some concert goers returned their tickets for the performance, five of the campaigners were ironically and most cynically charged with “racially motivated conduct”. This year a campaign by the renowned director – Ken Loach- made the organisers of the Edinburgh Film Festival to return sponsorship money offered to them by the Israeli Embassy. As could be expected, ken Loach was reviled by the influential pro-Israel lobby, but this did not deter him from deciding recently (July) not to take part in the Melbourne International Film festival as a protest against Israel’s sponsorship of the festival . In a letter to the Director of the festival Ken Loach said.” Palestinians, including artists and academics, have called for a boycott of events supported by Israel”. He cited “illegal occupation of Palestinian land, destruction of homes and livelihoods” and “the massacres in Gaza” as reasons for the boycott. His action, he said, aimed “not at independent Israeli films or filmmakers”, but at “the Israeli state”.

Boycott in all its forms – be it arms embargo, economic and trade sanctions , financial divestment, and academic and cultural bans and protests – is a non violent act of resistance by the Palestinian civil society and its supporters . It intends to serve as a wake -up call for the international community and the state of Israel, but above all it
is an act of commitment and solidarity with the decades-long oppressed Palestinian people. Such a grassroots action helped abolish Apartheid South Africa. It would, inevitably, help eradicate another deep-rooted Apartheid regime in the Middle East. Are we to stay oblivious to the desperate plea by the Palestinian people and take no action in response to their call for boycotting their oppressors?

Ruth Tenne was born and bought up in Israel by staunch Zionist parents who were among the founders of the socialist Kibbutzim”s movement. She served as a conscript in the Israeli army during the 1956 Sinai War and as a reservist in the 1967 Six Days War. She is currently an active member of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Camden- Abu Dis Friendship Association (CADFA), Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JFJFP) and Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-BIG).

Comments are closed.