Boycotts don’t equal censorship

Film-makers should support the growing international movement to boycott Israel – it’s wrong to cast our actions as censorship

* Ken Loach, Rebecca O’Brien and Paul Laverty
*, Tuesday 1 September 2009 09.10 BST

When we decided to pull our film Looking for Eric from the Melbourne International Film festival following our discovery that the festival was part-sponsored by the Israeli state, we wrote to the director Richard Moore detailing our reasons. Unfortunately he has misrepresented our position and did so again last week on Comment is free by stating that “to allow the personal politics of one film-maker to proscribe a festival position … goes against the grain of what festivals stand for”, and claiming that “Loach’s demands were beyond the pale”.

This decision was taken by three film-makers, (director, producer, writer) not in some private abstract bubble, but after a long discussion and in response to a call for a cultural boycott from a wide spectrum of Palestinian civil society, including writers, film-makers, cultural workers, human rights groups, journalists, trade unions, women’s groups and student organisations. As Moore should know by now the Palestine Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was launched in Ramallah in April 2004, and its aims, reasons, and constituent parts are widely available on the net. PACBI is part of a much wider international movement for “boycott, divestment, and sanction” (BDS) against the Israeli State.

Why do we back this growing international movement? Over the last 60 years Israel, backed by the United States, has shown contempt for hundreds of UN resolutions, the Geneva convention and international law. It has demonstrated itself to be a violent and ruthless state, as was clearly shown by the recent massacres in Gaza, and was even prepared to further challenge international law by its use of phosphorous weapons. Israel continues to flout world-wide public opinion; the clearest example of its intransigence is its determination to continue to build the wall through Palestinian territories despite the 2004 decision of the international court.

What does the international community do? Nothing but complain. What does the United States do? It continues to voice its “grave concern” while subsidising the Israeli state to some $3bn a year. Meanwhile “on the ground” – a good title for a film – Israeli settlers continue to take over Palestinian homes and lands making a viable Palestinian homeland an impossible dream. Normal life, with basic human rights, has become a virtual dream for most Palestinians.

Given the failure of international law, and the impunity of the Israeli state, we believe there is no alternative but for ordinary citizens to try their best to fill the breach. Desmond Tutu said: “The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the past century, but we would not have succeeded without the help of the international community – in particular the divestment movement of the 1980s. Over the past six months, a similar movement has taken shape, this time aiming at the end of the Israeli occupation.”

At a recent BDS event in the West Bank town of Ramallah Naomi Klein argued that those who claim there is no exact equivalency between Israel and South Africa should think again. “The question is not ‘Is Israel the same as South Africa?’, it is ‘do Israel’s actions meet the international definition of what apartheid is?’.” And if you look at those conditions which includes the transfer of people, multiple tiers of law, official state segregation, then you see that, yes, it does meet that definition – which is different than saying it is South Africa. No two states are the same. It’s not the question, it’s a distraction.” Not long after the Gaza invasion we spoke to the head of a human rights organisation there who told us that the Israelis were refusing enough chemicals to adequately treat the civilian water supply; a clear example of vindictive collective punishment delivered to one half of the population.

On this site last week, Neve Gordon, a Jewish political professor teaching in an Israeli university argued: “The most accurate way to describe Israel today is an apartheid state.” As a result he too is supporting the international campaign of divestment and boycott. We feel duty bound to take advice from those living at the sharp end inside the occupied territories. We would also encourage other film-makers and actors invited to festivals to check for Israeli state backing before attending, and if so, to respect the boycott. Israeli film-makers are not the target. State involvement is. In the grand scale of things it is a tiny contribution to a growing movement, but the example of South Africa should give us heart.

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