Defence of artistic freedom ignores Palestinian plight

In Mid-MAY, the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign presented a tour of Ireland featuring, among others, the Palestinian-Canadian performance poet Rafeef Ziadah and the Palestinian-Israeli singer Terez Sliman.

These artists are also articulate advocates of the Palestinian cause and of the cultural boycott of Israel. They were made available for interview to the media, including The Irish Times, but there were no takers. This becomes less surprising when one reflects that Irish media outlets scarcely mentioned the recent hunger strike by up to 2,000 Palestinian political prisoners, described by Jewish Voice for Peace as “a new chapter in the history of non-violent resistance”.

Had they been interviewed, these Palestinian artists would surely have repeated their comparison of the boycott to a picket line which conscientious people would not normally cross because they respect the wishes of those who are fighting exploitation.

They would have mentioned the 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice that Israel’s construction of a wall on Palestinian territory was “contrary to international law” and that governments were “under an obligation not to . . . render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction”.

They would have clarified that in 2005 the failure of governments to act on this obligation, and the continuation of “aid and assistance” in the shape of trading privileges offered Israel by the EU, led over 170 Palestinian civil society organisations to call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the Israeli state until “it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights”.

This call was followed by the foundation of the Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel, which has laid down rigorous conditions for the implementation of the cultural aspect of BDS. Citing Nelson Mandela’s dictum that “boycott is not a principle but a tactic depending on circumstances”, it emphasises that the target of this non-violent tactic is not culture per se, but its manipulation by the Israeli state.

Visiting Israeli artists are to be welcomed unless their trip is supported by the Israeli state and/or they have performed in the illegal West Bank settlements.

In an article in this paper on May 19th, Fintan O’Toole, without once mentioning the Palestinian origin of the BDS call, criticised the cultural boycott as “a blunt and backward instrument”. But surely it is not as blunt as F16s, Hellfire missiles, white phosphorus and the other “instruments” used by the Israeli state to terrorise, maim and murder Palestinian civilians?

Or as backward as the wall, four times as long as the Berlin Wall, being constructed within the occupied West Bank in violation of international law, with cement provided by a subsidiary of Irish multinational CRH?

These excesses occur on a daily basis. Meticulously documented by Israeli human rights groups like B’tselem and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions , they are practically ignored by our media and fail to trigger sanctions by EU governments that are mandated by the human rights clause (article 3) of the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement that grants Israel significant trading privileges.

O’Toole’s critique of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign pledge “not to avail of any invitation to perform or exhibit in Israel” because it “makes no distinction between government-sponsored events and, for example, the courageous Israeli theatre companies that present critical work” neglected to quote the Israeli foreign ministry’s assertion in 2005 that “[we] see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and do not differentiate between propaganda and culture”.

O’Toole’s injunction to artists not to “let yourself be used for propaganda purposes” underestimates the degree to which a state like Israel, which has a ministry devoted entirely to propaganda, can exploit the mere presence of foreign artists as a tool for the whitewashing and normalisation of its suppression of Palestinian rights.

O’Toole chose not to mention prominent Israeli dissidents who support BDS, including the cultural boycott, such as the historian Ilan Pappe or Jeff Halper, co-founder of the committee against demolitions. In raising the history of anti-Semitic boycotts as an impediment to BDS, O’Toole equates the Jewish people with the state of Israel – an equation common to anti-Semites and Zionists alike – while cutting the ground from under Israeli and other Jewish opponents of that state’s violations of Palestinian rights.

Finally, O’Toole’s criteria for a “code of conduct for artists and performers in relation to regimes that egregiously abuse human rights” included well-meaning advice to artists not to “perform to audiences forcibly segregated on lines of race, gender or ethnicity”.

This overlooks the fact that Israeli audiences will inevitably lack those forcibly excluded from attendance by the Separation Wall or the siege of Gaza. His criteria are supposed to “save [artists] from being pressured”, but why should artists, unlike other citizens, be absolved from reflecting on the possible consequences of their actions?

A similarly narrow view of artistic responsibility is found in novelist Gerard Donovan’s rambling and vindictive opinion article (May 26th), in which the Palestinians merit not a mention. According to Donovan, even to request artists not to cross the Palestinian picket line constitutes “a threat”, “interference” and “intimidation”, meriting invocation of article 40 of the Constitution protecting the Irish citizen “from unjust attack”.

The polite and formal letter from myself that prompted this article, appealing to him in three impersonal sentences not to break the boycott by attending the International Writers’ Festival in Jerusalem, was withdrawn from circulation when I learned that, because of illness, Donovan had not gone to Israel. It is now again in the public domain (Letters Page, May 29th) so readers can assess the falsehood of Donovan’s claims. In this respect, his diatribe is akin to the baseless campaign of vilification of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign because of its fictitious “intimidation” of the band Dervish.

Consultation of Dervish’s Facebook page by some intrepid investigative journalist would have revealed that the only intimidation came from supporters of Israel.

Equally problematic is the editorial postscript supposedly providing “background” to the article. Here it is implied the campaign invented the cultural boycott whereas, like comparable campaigns throughout the world, it merely implements the call from Palestinian civil society. Mention of this fact, however, would have entailed mentioning the Palestinians.

Seemingly for the Irish media the Palestine issue is summed up by the imaginary “intimidation” of Irish artists, who are apparently exempt from appeals to their consciences, rather than the violent dispossession of the Palestinians and the belligerent occupation of their lands by the rogue Israeli state.

In October 2010, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, revered veteran of the South African Anti-Apartheid campaign, appealed to Cape Town Opera to call off a tour of Israel “until both Israeli and Palestinian opera lovers of the region have equal opportunity and unfettered access to attend performances”. Shortly before his death, Kader Asmal, founder of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, expressed his support for “calls around the world to disrupt normal relations with Israel, by boycotting cultural and academic activities, by disrupting trade relations . . . and by pressurising governments to impose economic sanctions.”

The momentum of the peaceful tactic of BDS, including the cultural boycott of Israel, is global and unstoppable.


Raymond Deane is a composer and cultural liaison officer of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign

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