Israel vs. South Africa: Reflecting on cultural boycott

8 May 2008

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In 1965, the American Committee on Africa, following the lead of prominent British arts associations, sponsored a historic declaration against South African apartheid, signed by more than 60 cultural personalities. It read: “We say no to apartheid. We take this pledge in solemn resolve to refuse any encouragement of, or indeed, any professional association with the present Republic of South Africa, this until the day when all its people shall equally enjoy the educational and cultural advantages of that rich and beautiful land.”

If one were to replace “Republic of South Africa” with the “State of Israel,” the rest should apply just as strongly. Israel today — 60 years after its establishment through a deliberate and systemic process of ethnic cleansing of a large majority of the indigenous Palestinian population (for an authoritative historical account of the “birth” of Israel, refer to Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine) — still practices racial discrimination against its own “non-Jewish” citizens; it still maintains the longest military occupation in modern history; it still denies Palestinian refugees — uprooted, dispossessed and expelled by Zionists over the last six decades — their internationally-recognized right to return to their homes and properties; and it still commits war crimes and violates basic human rights and tenets of international humanitarian law with utter impunity.

Israel at 60 is a more sophisticated, evolved and brutal form of apartheid than its South African predecessor, according to authoritative statements by South African anti-apartheid leaders, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the country’s current government minister Ronnie Kasrils, who is Jewish. It therefore deserves from all people of conscience around the world, particularly those who opposed South African apartheid, the same measures of solidarity and human compassion, through an effective application of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it abides by international law and respects basic human rights.

However, some may argue that, to them, art should transcend political division, unifying people in their common humanity. They forget, it seems, that masters and slaves do not quite share anything in common, least of all any notion of humanity. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I recall the wise words of Enuga S. Reddy, director of the United Nations Center Against Apartheid, who in 1984 responded to criticism that the cultural boycott of South Africa infringed the freedom of expression, saying: “It is rather strange, to say the least, that the South African regime which denies all freedoms … to the African majority … should become a defender of the freedom of artists and sportsmen of the world. We have a list of people who have performed in South Africa because of ignorance of the situation or the lure of money or unconcern over racism. They need to be persuaded to stop entertaining apartheid, to stop profiting from apartheid money and to stop serving the propaganda purposes of the apartheid regime.”

It is worth noting that the United Nations General Assembly adopted a special resolution on the cultural boycott of South Africa in December 1980, almost two decades after civil society unions and associations in Britain and, later, in the US, adopted such a boycott. That decision also heeded consistent appeals by black organizations in South Africa which effectively censured several foreign entertainers who violated the boycott. Accusing those who defy the boycott of complicity in apartheid, Reddy stated: “There is no parallel to this in history, except to some extent under Nazism. The issue in Germany then was not segregation of audiences, but inhumanity and genocide and that is the issue in South Africa today.” Despite all the obvious differences, so is the situation in occupied Palestine today as well.

Omar Barghouti is a freelance choreographer and founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (www.PACBI.org). This essay was first published as part of a file compiled by Randy Gener, titled: “12 Positions on Cultural Sanctions — Theatre practitioners offer their views on a call to boycott Israel,” in American Theater Magazine, May-June 2008 issue.

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