Why the cultural boycott of Israel is a blunt and backward instrument


CULTURE SHOCK:IN THE 1970S AND 1980s, I was an active member of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement and supported the cultural boycott against South Africa.

That action is the explicit inspiration for the campaign for a similar boycott against Israel that has in turn led to pressure on the band Dervish and the novelist Gerard Donovan. (Donovan had in fact already cancelled a planned visit to the International Writer's Festival in Jerusalem.) It might seem hypocritical, therefore, to say that I feel very uncomfortable about the idea that artists should refuse to perform in Israel.

In the first place, the cultural boycott of South Africa turned out to be a very blunt instrument. Its original focus was on the artists who agreed to perform - or, in the case of playwrights or composers, allowed others to perform their work - before racially segregated audiences. (In 1964, 28 Irish playwrights signed a declaration announcing that they had instructed their agents to insert a clause in all future contracts automatically refusing performing rights for any theatre "where discrimination is made among audiences on grounds of colour".) It also took aim at the huge resort and entertainment complex Sun City, which was an instrument of the apartheid regime's "Bantustan" system of allegedly independent black-ruled statelets. (Acts like Queen and Frank Sinatra took fat fees for playing Sun City.) These aims were specific and practical, and their moral foundation was very solid. But things became much more ambiguous when the boycott was widened by the United Nations. The original ban was on contacts with "the racist regime" and organisations that practised apartheid. This was extended, unwisely, into an attempt to prevent all cultural and academic contact with South Africa.

The ban became arbitrary and self-defeating. It made no sense to prevent, for example, the Market Theatre of Johannesburg, which was desegregated and presented searing work on the corrupting effects of apartheid, to be denied international contact. Attacks on Paul Simon for working with black South African musicians on his album Graceland teetered into a self-defeating absurdity that threatened to discredit the whole boycott movement.

The anti-apartheid precedent is therefore one that should be treated with caution: it worked very well when it was carefully targeted but very badly when it was crude and general. And this is the first problem with the call to boycott Israel: it is far too sweeping to be either morally justifiable or politically effective. The pledge "not to avail of any invitation to perform or exhibit in Israel" makes no distinction between government-sponsored events and, for example, the courageous Israeli theatre companies that present critical work. Lumping governments and civil societies together is a form of collective punishment. But this crudity has a special dimension. If there's one thing western intellectuals can't afford to be crude about, it's the relationship of their own cultures to Jewish history. The Holocaust doesn't excuse Israeli abuses of human rights, but it does form the context in which collective acts like boycotts have to be set. There is a nasty history of using boycotts to isolate Jewish communities in Europe: Limerick in 1904 is a relatively minor example. In the extreme case of Nazi Germany, boycotting was a prelude to attempted elimination.

This history changes the dynamic of a boycott. In the case of South Africa, the idea was that boycotts might induce shame in white South Africans, causing them to question their support for the system. In the case of Israel, Jewish history means that this effect is impossible.

Boycotts will always be interpreted as an expression of anti-Semitism and as a prelude to worse attacks.

Critics of Israel will dismiss this as special pleading and point to the cynical way the Israeli government uses accusations of anti-Semitism to deflect legitimate questions about its policies and behaviour. But the problem is actually a double one. There are false accusations of anti-Semitism - the vast majority of those supporting a cultural boycott are not motivated by anti-Jewish prejudice. But there is also a minority strain of false concern for the Palestinians, whose sufferings are used as cover for anti-Semites.

Because anti-Semitism still exists, there is a duty to be especially careful about a boycott that suggests that Israelis as such are not fit people for cultural exchange. Why Israel in particular? Would Dervish be hounded if they agreed to play in Iran, whose regime is viciously contemptuous of human rights? Should Riverdance stop touring China? None of this is to defend the "we're only musicians, we know nothing about politics" line. But it is to suggest that, rather than focusing so crudely on Israel alone, campaigners should be looking for a consistent code of conduct for artists and performers in relation to regimes that egregiously abuse human rights.

Its basic elements are not hard to define:

1) Don't take money, directly or indirectly, from governments that systematically abuse human rights, or from oligarchs who benefit from those abuses.

2) Give a significant part of your fee to human-rights defenders or oppressed artists in the relevant country.

3) Don't accept any restrictions on your own freedom of expression when you're in that country.

4) Don't perform to audiences forcibly segregated on lines of race, gender or ethnicity.

5) Don't let yourself be used for propaganda purposes.

There are organisations, Amnesty International being the obvious one, that have the standing to draw up such a code in conjunction with, say, Aosdána or the Arts Council. I'd be surprised if the vast majority of Irish performers and artists wouldn't be happy to sign up. It would save them from being pressured and save everyone else from the perils of double standards.