In September last year, a day before Iain Ewok Robinson (KZN poet/performer and activist) was scheduled to perform at the Hilton Arts Festival he pulled out. His absence he hoped would draw attention to the inclusion of an Israeli theatre company in the festival programme while showing solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians.
Robinson and I have always enjoyed healthy, if not heated, discussions and shortly after his boycott of Hilton I wrote him a long letter part criticism and part inquiry.
I was asking why he had stood up school audience with barely 24 hours-notice and left a cultural festival (which has supported him over the years) in a programming lurch. I deemed his no show as an “ultimately ineffectual action.” In the letter I asked Iain just how successful he thought his boycott action really was and wondered if there was perhaps not a better means of getting one’s message across by using the platform of an arts festival to educate audiences on the cause.
Many South African artists are faced with a similar dilemma and there seems to be an argument that rages every few months in the national press whenever a South African (be it individual or organization) decides to perform on Israeli turf or host Israeli artists here in South Africa.
As we enter ISRAELI APARTHEID WEEK (5-11th of March) Iain and I thought we would open up our ongoing conversation to a public platform.
Comments are of course welcome and encouraged and we hope the below discussion sheds light on a predicament and responsibility many South African Artists find themselves facing at one time or another.
NC stands for Neil Coppen and IR for Iain Robinson.
NC. So let’s start at the beginning. Why the boycott? What do such sanctions achieve? Why is important, more so than ever, for young South Africans to take action now. How does it all work? Are we expected to boycott all aspects of Israeli culture, even those critical of the current political regime?
IR: Right then, from the beginning. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is modelled on the same movement employed by the South African anti-Apartheid activists that was used to bolster the internal resistance within South Africa, and ultimately weaken the international economic and diplomatic support that the Nationalist Government enjoyed, thereby strengthening the resistance activities being directed by South African struggle leaders from both inside and outside the country. Simply put, we choose to boycott because we have been asked to, by a coalition of Palestinian civil society and human rights groups. This movement is being led by the victims of Israeli Apartheid and all action undertaken by BDS is directed from within Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As was the case with South Africa, the Israeli government would not be able to operate such a legislated and comprehensive system of separation on an ethno-religious basis if it did not enjoy the economic and diplomatic support of both international private corporations and public enterprises. That is to say companies and governments who continue to do business with the Israeli Government despite proof that these relationships lead directly to human rights abuses and breach of international law. For example, the machinery that the Israeli Defense Force uses to conduct its illegal program of house demolition is not manufactured by Israeli owned companies, but rather by compan17NAT8hm7ZgONLJ Content-Disposiitish construction company JCB (http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/adri-nieuwhof/uk-charity-condemns-jcb-over-demolition-jerusalem-playground). The fact is, like South Africa, Israel, in isolation, cannot maintain its system of Apartheid, and the BDS movement is about global solidarity in enforcing such isolation.
To be more specific about the cultural aspect, the call for BDS is very clearly aimed at Israeli cultural institutions that are directly or indirectly linked to the Israeli Government program of ‘hasbara’ or ‘explanation’. Again, this simply means any cultural activities or programs that are recognized as an attempt by the Israeli Government at ‘whitewashing’ or legitimizing its criminal activities. The Israeli Government makes no attempt to hide this work, collectively titled ‘Brand Israel’, spending in the vicinity of 26 million US dollars a year to keep a vast and well oiled propaganda machine running. Referring back to the question of BDS, the money Israel is able to spend on such a campaign is readily available in the form of large scale capital loans from the United States, totaling approximately one third of the entire annual US foreign aid expenditure. The Israeli Government describes itself as ‘fighting on two fronts: against the Palestinians/Arabs and world opinion’
(http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Hasbara). The cultural boycott is intended to counteract this propaganda campaign and meet it head on by protesting, boycotting and highlighting such attempts.
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has always been depicted as one of equal sides locked in a battle, as if they were evenly balanced and neither side held ascendancy. This has long not been the case and it is only in the last 10 years or so, through both an increase in Israeli brutality and Palestinian passive resistance, that the reality of the inequality of this situation has come into global focus. Social media has played no small part in disseminating new truths that were for years subject to distortion and misrepresentation through media control and manipulation on behalf of ‘Brand Israel’. A very recent example is the 2010 attack on the Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara in which nine peace activists were killed by the Israeli Defence Force. When that story broke, the passengers who survived were detained for 72 hours before being released and able to tell their story. While they were detained, the IDF was free to tell the world media their version of events with no conflict from the victims of the attack. By the time the activists were released the world already believed, wrongfully, later to be retracted by the IDF, that they had been armed and that they had attacked first. The truth that was to come out was that the Mavi Marmara and other vessels of the Freedom Flotilla that were sailing to break the illegal siege of Gaza, were heading away from Israel, in international waters, when they were boarded by the IDF, constituting an act of piracy under international maritime law. This kind of controlled propaganda campaign, backed by the authority and strength of an armed military presence is exactly the kind of target that BDS is targeting.
Young South Africans should recognize more than ever in this situation the absence of a freedom that we enjoy daily, and remember how it was won and why. This is detailed in the wording of the BDS call to action itself “Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid and in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression;” (BDS call –http://www.bdsmovement.net/call#.T1PUuuXsFNU)
NC: Many might argue that a boycott is a reductive sort of action to take in that it lumps artists with politicians and punishes them for the sins and stupidity of the select few. Are we not silencing some valuable voices in the process and is this not perhaps counteractive to the cause?
With this in mind I quote Sinai Peter, an Israeli actor and artistic director who writes:
“If you boycott everything Israeli, all you achieve is to create a tool to delegitimize Israeli art, Israeli Culture, and by extension, the Israeli’s right to survive. We should draw lines between us and evil and conduct a very severe struggle against the occupations, against the settlements, against the non-proportional retaliation of the Israeli army in Gaza, against all kinds of aggressive methods that are used by Israel (and by its fundamentalist rivals) from time to time. One should speak out against them very clearly through art and literature, buy you should do it together with us. You should not avoid us. You should not boycott us. If you do so you will push Israeli society to become much more monolithic””and much more narrow minded and right-wing.”
IR: While the ‘sins and stupidity of a select few’ continue to serve the interests of a select minority, however unwittingly or unwillingly, they should be targeted and resisted, even more so by those who are living within the safety and security that those sins provide. The most valuable voices are ones that will not be silenced, regardless. Art and Culture do not exist in some kind of a vacuum that separates them from society, on insulates them in any way, while still giving them a space to criticize and create discourse around injustice. How could you knowingly engage in the freedom of expression and enterprise that artists enjoy, at the expense of an oppressed population? What kind of line is Peter suggesting? Is BDS not a very clear and well defined strategic line in this struggle? While Israel exports and promotes culture in the name of democracy and dialogue it continues to enforce a cruel and brutal system of separation on a subjugated occupied people. How can this hypocrisy be seen as anything other then a blatant attempt at disguising its criminal actions? The BDS call is by no means to boycott ‘everything Israeli’. Its target, again very clearly defined, is the propaganda machinery employed by the Israeli Government and its ‘Brand Israel’ campaign. A good example is the recent international support enjoyed by a group of 60 Israeli artists who refused to perform in a new theatre built within an illegal Israeli settlement
(http://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/campaigns/making-history-support-israeli-artists-who-say-no-normalizing-settlements-4). They were called ‘back-stabbers’ by their own government, and praised by the those who stand in solidarity with Palestine. In talking about the collective crimes of the Israeli Government Peter says ‘One should speak out against them very clearly through art and literature, but you should do it together with us.” Who is the “us” that he is speaking of? In light of the fact that many Israeli human rights and cultural activists have endorsed and continue to support BDS, has Peter not missed the line that has been quite clearly drawn by his own colleagues?
NC: An article published in The America Theatre magazine (May/June 2008) features 4 positions on cultural sanctions, whereby theatre practitioners were asked to offer their views of the call to boycott Israel. I’ve taken quotes from two of them. The two I chose are anti- boycott and seeing you are presenting the FOR case I thought I would quote their viewpoints here and ask you for a comment.
Saoud Heidami (An actor of Palestinian descent) claims:
“When we watch a play we are compelled to ask questions about ourselves and the world around us, we are connected to our humanity, our social responsibility, our intellect. Art can be very powerful political force, in its ability to change perspectives, to bring audiences together, to engender dialogue. Depriving people of theatre will not bring us any closer. As artists we should be supporting theatre that crosses boundaries in the middle-east, not efforts which take it away from it in the region. We should not be asking if theatre should be taken away from the Israelis but perhaps how it can be brought to the Palestinians.”
Heidami closes by saying”¦
“As artists it is our responsibility to lobby for the practice of art not the deprivation of it. Of course we should be asking how we can use our talents to affect positive change in the world. But we should be finding ways to create theatre, not trying to decide who should and should not have it.”
Motti Lerner (An Israeli Playwright) states:
“Yes a cultural boycott is a statement. It’s a rather strong one, but it’s still only a statement and, therefore, its power to create change is limited. It would be very easy for Israeli society to ignore it by responding: This is old fashioned anti-Semitism now dressed as anti-Zionism and criticism of Israeli Policy. Even if certain circles of Israeli society will feel insulted by the boycott, this insult will only harden their positions. At that moment, the effect of the boycott will end. On the other hand, an ongoing cultural dialogue is much more powerful and effective instrument. I believe that every piece of good art which deeply explores human nature will inevitably strengthen the struggle of human beings for freedom, for equality, for human rights, for justice. During the last 60 years Israeli society has forgotten many of these values, and voices within Israel calling for justice are sometimes silenced””not by official censorship buy by the hypocrisy of the media, by the vulgarity and superficiality of public discourse, and also by indifference, fear and despair. This must be changed. If the world wants to support change and allow Israeli society to open itself for the better and deeper awareness, for self- criticism, for progress””then the world must use all the cultural forces it has to enable this change to take place. Instead of boycotting the state of Israel, the artists of the world should gather all their strength and present their art in Israel as often as they can. Hopefully this cultural force will succeed in balancing fundamentalism, racism and patriotism, which has infected the Israeli society, and support Israeli artists who are engaged in the same struggle for change.”
NC: I feel the two artists above present persuasive cases against cultural sanctions. Are their views not valid in this argument?
IR: Firstly, all views are valid in an argument such as this. Secondly, allow me to rebut certain notions expressed by both Heidami and Lerner. “When we watch a play…” applies only to those of us who are allowed to watch plays. I contest that the millions of Palestinians who exist in the severest conditions in Gaza, what has been termed the world’s largest outdoor prison, have no access to any of the cultural platforms patronized by Heidami and his colleagues. Until we are ALL able to“watch a play” his statement has no relevance to this situation of enforced inequality. He goes on to support my point by saying “Depriving people of theatre will not bring us any closer.” Of course, here he is speaking about the international community being deprived Israeli theatre which would not bring the rest of the world any closer to Israelis, its true, but its not the Israelis who need closer relations with the rest of the world, its the Palestinians, a people who are being systematically denied their many human rights, including freedom of movement and freedom of expression. If Heidami indeed wants to discuss ways of “…how it can be brought to the Palestinians” he can join the rest of the Israeli and Palestinian solidarity and human rights activists in their struggle to delegitimize the restrictions of movement and expression imposed by the Israeli Government on both Arab-Israelis and the people of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. When new theaters are being built in areas only accessible to Jewish settlers there can be no disguising the brutal nature of the kind of cultural isolation being imposed on the Palestinian people. This would be a good starting point for Hediami to “lobby for the practice of art, not the deprivation of it.”
I do not agree with Motti Lerner. A cultural boycott is not a statement, it is an action. It both motivates for and actively employs direct activity that furthers its purpose. Whats more, he talks about “an ongoing cultural dialogue” as a “powerful and effective instrument”. I question, which cultures are being invited to dialogue? Certainly not the Palestinian culture, which is consistently denied a voice through the suppression of expression and basic rights of the Palestinian people, even as far as Israel employing a system of education that completely ignores the history of dispossession and colonialism suffered by the Palestinians. How then are Palestinians afforded the opportunity to engage in such a dialogue? Israel, in much the same way as South Africa, will be afforded ample opportunity to “open itself for the better and deeper awareness, for self-criticism, for progress…” once it ends its unjust and illegal oppression of an indigenous people, affording them their equal rights to freedom, justice and equality. Once Israel commits to the realization of such a democratic equality for all people, I have no doubt that there will be a wave of global cultural support for such a humane action.
NC: Let’s discuss the Hilton festival .Sue Clarence and the festival organisers made it clear that they did not object to you changing the topic of your schools workshop or poetry production to educate learners on your political sentiments and the actuality of the Israel/Palestine situation. At the time I felt that your silence (no show) had little effect. You claimed at the last minute that “on principal” you could not perform at the festival. Where though was your presence, your fire and brimstone when it was needed the most? Countless school kids had committed to coming to the festival to attend your workshop and it was felt that you let these youngsters down at extremely short notice. What were you trying to achieve and did you not feel your absence from this festival denied everyone the conversation, debate you were hoping to illicit around these issues? It’s like initiating and inviting a crowd to participate in a heated conversation via email and then failing to arrive to truly engage them on it in the flesh.
IR: I contest that opening statement in its entirety. I had absolutely no communication, and still have had none, from either Sue Clarence or the festival organizers detailing either their awareness of my political sentiments or their willingness to support them. This is simply not true. In actual fact, my two letters to the festival prior to this event, one in the first part of the year and the second a few months before, in which I explicitly raised my concerns at the possibility of their being involved in breaking the BDS call, have both gone unanswered.
My silence or no show had exactly the effect it was intended to. It furthered the cause of the local BDS campaigners, it was recognized and received as an act of solidarity by the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott Institute, who are one of the organizers of the international BDS movement, it was sanctioned by the Church Land Movement who had made the most current call to artists to divest from the festival, and it was challenged by various anti-BDS and pro-Israeli groups with whom I was afforded the opportunity to “dialogue”. I also argue that my intention was not to have any kind of ‘debate’ or ‘conversation’ around these issues. The Hilton Festival had made it quite clear that no debate was to be had through its endorsement of the Israeli sponsored productions. Anyone who makes their intentions clear, acts on them, and then chooses to have a ‘debate’ around them, is not really affording any opportunity for redress or access to alternatives.
Let me make it clear, that my main motivation for cancelling at such late notice was a direct request from the BDS South Africa working group. Up until that point I had planned to use my appearance to address the situation directly, and it was only in response to this direct call to me personally that I resolved to respect the declarations of both South African Artists Against Apartheid (http://www.southafricanartistsagainstapartheid.com/2010/11/declaration.html) and BDS in their entirety.
I also believe that it is our responsibility as artists and cultural workers to hold our arts institutions accountable in their representation of us, and not to allow them to implicate us, by association, in gross acts of human rights abuse. I believe that the Hilton Arts Festival, as a respected and well supported event and institution, has a clear opportunity to use its status in a powerful show of support for the Palestinian cause, by choosing to openly divest from any association with the Apartheid Israeli Government. I believe this act would go entirely towards the festival showing its respect for our history as South Africans, and specifically as South African artists and cultural workers, and I think they would be supported and promoted by all artists of conscience by taking such action.
NC: It was not your Hilton statement or the cause that I (or most people who conversed with me on the matter) took issue with. The simple fact of the matter is that there are millions of folks out there who know very little about the boycott nor the true complexities and injustices of the Palestine/Israel situation.
I wrote in my letter”¦
“Sadly not everyone has a social conscience as voracious and extensive as your own. For many the world tends to exist as a small bubble where global affairs, let alone local, seldom permeate. To support a cause one has to know what it entails and this is where I believe you could have been far more pro-active and present in your activism.”
I suppose my question here is where can local artists wanting to make an informed decision find more information on the situation? It is undoubtedly complex and convoluted and fraught with religious and historical sensitivities. Where does one start?
IR: I’m sorry, I can’t accept that as anything other than apathy. I didn’t go to any kind of classes for this cause, or sign up for any courses. I wanted to know more so I looked. There can be absolutely no excuses for anyone even vaguely interested in this situation not being able to access information. As convoluted and fraught as it might seem, at the end of the day it is actually very simple. You can take the conflict back hundreds and thousands of years if need be, but show me a conflict where that is not the case. What conflict is not historically convoluted and fraught? If you want to look at the reality right now it is very very simple. You have a regional nuclear super-power (Israel), backed by the economic and military support of a 1st world global super-power (USA), that is engaged in a military occupation deemed illegal on many counts by numerous international bodies, including the United Nations, that has resulted in the complete disenfranchisement of an indigenous population including their dislocation from their homeland and their continued subjugation under military rule. It is an entirely unbalanced unequal situation in which one side enjoys total economic, social and military authority over the other, and this dominance has resulted in the realization of a slow genocide, a literal ethnic-cleansing, of an entire population (Palestine). People think that it is a conflict about religion, and while it certainly plays a large part, it is not the case. It is about human rights. It is about International Law, which Israel has broken and continues to flout. It is about freedom, justice and equality for all people, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, culture or class. Simply, it is about Apartheid.
NC: In my letter I wondered how much more constructive would it have been if you had used your slots at the Hilton festival with audiences to educate youngsters on the importance of a cultural boycott especially within our South African context? I thought it would be far more proactive to speak up rather than be silent on the matter. The public show which you cancelled on the Saturday, I imagined presented the perfect opportunity for you to call a press-conference or protest performance in which interested parties and audience members could ask questions”” thus entitling them to an informed opinion on the matter and hopefully spreading the word. You had a captive audience, young impressionable minds, a lonely microphone and several journalists looking for something worthy to write about in the national papers? Was this not a wasted opportunity and if you were to do this again would you do anything differently?
IR: See my answer to question 4 above. Again, my intentions had been very much as you have detailed, to use my presence to present the Palestinian cause. As I have explained, I have aligned myself with a larger social justice movement embodied in two parts by South African Artists Against Apartheid and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and it was on direct request from them, in order to further their action and strengthen the larger movement, that I responded in the manner I chose.
My action had not closed off any avenues of discourse or information. I am now as open to engagement as I was then. If my action has resulted in this interview with you, then I have in effect achieved both a pro-active stance in support of the movement, and taken a personal position that has opened up the discussion on the ground.
NC: Should South African Artists want to find out more about the boycott where can they find it?
IR: This week (5-11th of March) South Africa is observing ISRAELI APARTHEID WEEK (apartheidweek.org).
For a complete list of NATIONAL ACTIVITIES, including film screenings, seminars and art happenings you can go to http://www.bdssouthafrica.com/2012/02/8th-international-israeli-apartheid.html and for DURBAN people its at durban.apartheidweek.org
You can find BDS on twitter @BDSmovement or @BDSsouthafrica, and search #IAW or #IAWsouthafrica for updates on activities and actions.
For more information on BDS and the current status of the resistance check out –
NC: Anything you would like to add?
IR: Many people are often paralyzed to inaction by the seemingly enormous scale of this conflict, by its obvious religious tones and its misrepresented image as an equal conflict in which “both sides are wrong so why choose either?”. It is in actual fact very unequal, and very simple. If you believe in freedom, justice and equality for ALL people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, culture or class, then there are real opportunities for you to play a part. The BDS movement is growing internationally as more people become informed and choose to participate. Just by staying informed, by reading and sharing information, we are able to balance the control of the media that has for too long skewed this situation into one of seemingly epic proportions. In actual fact, it is very simple, and can be dealt with in any number of ways, starting with awareness and education and a willingness to act.
Don’t believe that you have no power to change a situation. The only way to defeat paralysis is to move, and whether you are twitching a finger or punching a fist, that movement is breaking that paralysis. More then ever, from the Occupy Movement to the Arab Spring to Wikileaks, people are taking the power back. When it comes to human rights, a victory for one is a victory for all.
RESPECT to you for this interview, and to all of you who took the time to read it.