Do cultural boycotts achieve anything?


Dervish’s cancellation of concerts in Israel highlights a thorny dilemma, writes MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent

LAST MONTH the folk band Dervish became the latest in a long list of artists to get caught up in the debate over whether Israel should be boycotted in protest over its treatment of the Palestinians.

The former Eurovision entrants were due to perform a series of concerts in Israel next month, in collaboration with the Israeli musician Avshalom Farjun, whom the band describe as someone who “has worked to bridge divides between people through music for much of his life”. The three-day tour, they added, was “organised in this same spirit”. In a statement posted on their Facebook page, Dervish said that at the time they agreed to take part in the concerts, they were “unaware there was a cultural boycott in place”.

In fact, there is no official boycott equivalent to the UN- supported one imposed on apartheid-era South Africa, but since 2005 an alliance of Palestinian civil-society organisations has called for a boycott, divestment and sanctions – or BDS – campaign against Israel. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has endorsed the BDS push since 2007.

“Our decision to withdraw from the concerts reflects our wish to neither endorse nor criticise anyone’s political views in this situation,” Dervish said. Their singer, Cathy Jordan, added that she “wasn’t quite prepared for the extent of the venom directed at us”, presumably a reference to the torrent of messages left on Dervish’s Facebook page and other websites calling for the band to pull out.

The episode raises yet again the prickly question of whether a cultural boycott of Israel helps or hinders the cause of peace in the region. In Ireland, more than 200 artists – including the musicians Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Christy Moore, Damien Dempsey and Sharon Shannon, the novelist Seamus Deane, the poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and the actors Stephen Rea and Sinead Cusack – believe it helps. All are signatories to a boycott pledge organised by the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which also orchestrated efforts to force Dervish to cancel their performances.

The Dervish experience, which prompted the Israeli embassy in Dublin to label those calling for a boycott “Israeli self-haters and anti-Semites” and drew similar opprobrium from Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, caused barely a ripple in Israel, in contrast to other controversies involving major international acts.

In recent years, several artists and bands due to perform in Israel, including Elvis Costello, Roger Waters, Pete Seeger, Gil Scott-Heron, Santana, The Pixies, The Klaxons and the Gorillaz Sound System, have cancelled shows. Some of the acts have remained coy about the reasons, often citing scheduling conflicts, but Elvis Costello sought to explain why he didn’t want to get pulled into a political tug of war.

“There are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung, and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent,” Costello said in 2010. “If [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is] actually too grave and complex to be addressed in a concert, then it is also quite impossible to simply look the other way.” Costello, however, had previously told the Jerusalem Post that not playing in Israel would be like “never appearing in the US because you didn’t like Bush’s policies or boycotting England because of Margaret Thatcher”.

The same year the former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon defended his decision to perform in Tel Aviv, telling the BBC: “You cannot separate yourself from your audience because of political powers that be. I mean, I’m anti-government, I have been all my life, no matter where I go, and I shall be making that loud and clearly proud once I’m in Israel.”

Whatever about calls for divestment or economic sanctions and protests such as refusing to buy produce grown in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the notion of a cultural or academic boycott leaves many, including some sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight, conflicted or uneasy.

“I think intellectuals always have an obligation to debate and to keep the lines of communication open,” the British novelist and Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson recently told the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “No matter how angry you are at a country, or how much you want it to change, you don’t close off the possibility for change.” He argued that was precisely the effect of a cultural boycott, because “the people you are boycotting are the people who will effect change. When you boycott an author or a literary festival, you boycott the voices of reason.”

The British playwright Howard Brenton has deplored a call for Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, in London, to cancel a forthcoming performance by Israel’s national theatre company, Habima, saying to do so would be a “disgraceful act of censorship”. Insisting he has “long supported the cause of Palestinian freedom”, Brenton added: “Denounce, don’t censor; argue, don’t ban.”

Last year Riverdance responded to calls for it to boycott Israel by saying it supports the policy of the Irish Government, and every other EU state, “that cultural interaction is preferable to isolation”.

Instead of boycotting, some prefer to highlight the Palestinian issue while participating in events in Israel. The novelist Tracy Chevalier has requested meetings with activists in the West Bank town of Ramallah when she attends the Jerusalem-based International Writers Festival next week.

Last year, Ian McEwan rejected calls to boycott a literary prize he was awarded by Jerusalem’s controversial mayor, Nir Barkat, choosing instead to splice his acceptance speech with a call to end illegal Israeli settlements, and to donate to an organisation that brings together former Israeli and Palestinian combatants.

Activists in favour of a boycott argue that culture does not exist in a vacuum, and they also note that Israel deliberately seeks to use “cultural diplomacy” to improve its image internationally at a time when criticism of the state’s treatment of the Palestinians has reached new heights.

The BDS campaign, which has gained considerable momentum since 2005, has riled the Israeli government. Last year it introduced controversial legislation allowing for civil suits against individuals and organisations that call for economic, cultural or academic boycotts of Israel, Israeli institutions and Israeli settlements. The law, criticised by the EU, also prevents the Israeli government from doing business with firms that comply with such boycotts.

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