Babylon & Beyond: Observations from Iraq, Iran, Israel, the Arab world and beyond
September 8, 2010 | 7:37 am
Israel is dogged by boycott initiatives from different directions. Academic, commercial and cultural ties are threatened as organizations and individuals protesting Israel’s policies turn to boycotting in an attempt to apply practical pressure that will lead to change — or at least exact a tangible price.
Some direct their efforts against any kind of collaboration with Israel. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for Palestine movement, or BDS, says academic and cultural cooperation with Israel boosts its international image and that refusing to take part in any exchange can send Israel the message that its “occupation and discrimination against Palestinians in unacceptable.”
Other efforts are more selective, boycotting Israeli products and produce originating in the territories, such as Ahava. A while back, a campaign to boycott the popular Dead Sea cosmetics was dubbed “stolen beauty” and called on consumers to shun the products made with “stolen Palestinian natural resources.” “Sex in the City” actress Kristin Davis, who promoted Ahava products, was entangled in the controversy, losing her position as an Oxfam ambassador.
Israel also faces taxation issues over settlement products. The European Union exempts from tax most products hailing from Israel proper and the Palestinian territories, but goods coming from the settlements get a different customs arrangement. One Israeli company faking an inside-the-Green-Line address was busted by a peace organization earlier this year.
More recently, the Palestinians have introduced a legal ban on settlement goods, deeply displeasing Israeli authorities.
There are also calls for boycotts from within Israel. A group of theater actors and playwrights recently signed a letter stating their refusal to perform in the territories and asking the country’s main theaters to perform within “the sovereign borders of the State of Israel within the Green Line” only. Their move came a few days before the relaunching of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians in Washington last week and in advance of the expected inauguration of the new center for the performing arts in the settlement of Ariel.
Government ministers criticized the move, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed to the “international delegitimization assault” on Israel, saying the last thing the country needs is a boycott from within. Netanyahu said that while he didn’t want to minimize the right of every individual and every artist to hold political views, “we in the government must not fund boycotts of Israeli citizens or support them in any way.” The theaters whose artists signed the letter receive state funding.
Right-wing circles took offense at the proposed boycott, and the residents of Ariel were offended. The Yesha Council — the settlements’ umbrella organization — said unfounded hatred and factionalism had caused the biggest disasters to the Jewish people throughout time and that the appropriate response was for people to “flock to the beautiful city of Ariel in masses.” Further to the right, the tone was much harsher. The “‘liberals and enlightened” are “always on the Arabs’ side,” said a counter-campaign calling the letter’s signatories “traitors.” When there is a war, they side with Hamas. When Israel’s enemies boycott it, they side with the enemy. Go perform in Gaza, said the campaign by Our Land of Israel.
As the dispute intensified, some artists withdrew their signatures, and the large theater companies stated that they would perform wherever invited.
Some Israeli cultural figures opposed the boycott, including left-leaning Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, the city praised/blasted as a bastion of secular Israeli liberalism and home to several of the theaters. But many others expressed support for the proposed boycott, including more than 150 U.S. artists.
Government minister Daniel Hershkowitz said he regretted the mix of culture and politics, but left-wing
lawmakers said the two could not be separated. “Politics and art are one,” Haim Oron said last week at a small rally in support of the outspoken artists organized by Peace Now. Dov Hanin said, “Our theater is not a puppet theater.”
“Where there is occupation, there is no culture,” rally banners said.
After a week of getting angry, some thought they’d get even.
Among the members of the audience that came to see a play at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv on Monday night were lawmaker Michael Ben-Ari and his parliamentary assistant, Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Waiting for an opportune moment in the play written by Anat Gov and Edna Mazia, who signed the letter, the two stood up and heckled the actors loudly, disrupting the play for several minutes.
The boycott was racism and apartheid, they said.
Ben-Ari explained the next morning that the left must understand that freedom of expression runs goes both ways.
People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, he preached on Israel radio.
However, Ariel Mayor Ron Nahman and Israel’s culture minister, Limor Livnat, both opposed to the boycott, strongly denounced the act of busting up a play as a legitimate mode of protest.
— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem