Last month, two Norwegian artists published an “apology” from their country’s national theater over its collaboration with Israel’s government-backed Habima theater.
The video apology was a performance, meant to highlight Norway’s complicity in Israel’s crimes and its use of culture to whitewash them.
The artists, Pia Maria Roll and Marius von der Fehr, sparked a national debate in Norway. Their intervention has received a warm welcome from the Palestinian arts community as well as from Israelis who are active against their country’s occupation, colonialism and apartheid.
But the “apology” provoked a furious reaction from the Israeli government, which demanded that all copies of the video be scrubbed from the Internet.
Norway’s embassy in Tel Aviv rushed to reassure supporters of Israel’s abuses that the apology wasn’t really from the Norwegian national theater and that Norway’s government opposes boycotts of Israel.
What the diplomats conspicuously failed to do is to affirm that Norwegian citizens’ outrage is a predictable reaction to Israel’s actions.
“Lack of principle”
“It is no surprise to us that the government has a strong public position against boycott of Israel,” Kathrine Jensen, chair of the Palestine Committee of Norway, told The Electronic Intifada. “The Progress Party, one of the two political parties in government, has an extreme position regarding support for Israel in their political platform.”
Jensen, whose solidarity organization was founded in 1969, said the government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, has vowed to increase trade and academic cooperation with Israel.
“What is more surprising is the fundamental lack of principle found in some of the reactions and comments regarding the national theater ‘apology,’” Jensen added.
Instead of dissociating itself from the apology, the Norwegian embassy “should have defended the principle of freedom of speech and emphasized that Norwegians have the right to express their opinion and speak their mind,” Jensen said.
She noted that even in Norway there are “increased attacks against political activists, particularly those who advocate for boycott, divestment and sanctions.”
Jensen said a rise in Islamophobia is also making Palestine advocacy more challenging: in Norway, like other European countries, “refugees, immigrants and Islam are ingredients” in the discourse of those supporting right-wing parties.
“So far we have not been hindered in our work by Norwegian authorities,” Lars Gule, a university professor and board member of BDS Norway, told The Electronic Intifada. “However, we would like Norwegian diplomats to make clear to Israeli authorities and citizens that it is not illegal in Norway to call for a boycott of Israel.”
Gule says his organization is working for a “comprehensive boycott, including an academic and cultural boycott” of Israel.
The Electronic Intifada attempted to gain some clarity from the Norwegian foreign ministry. We put to them that other governments – Sweden, the Netherlands and Ireland – had emphatically recognized that BDS activism is protected by free speech.
The ministry provided a terse response: “Norway’s position on these questions should be clear – the government strongly opposes boycotting Israel and there is freedom of expression in Norway.”
This is a grudging recognition that Norwegian citizens do indeed have a right to boycott Israel.
The government could hardly say otherwise, given its prime minister’s recent public showdown with Facebook over free speech.
But does this opposition to holding Israel accountable extend even to boycotts that are limited to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank? Norway’s policy is that Israel’s settlements violate international law.
In a follow-up, The Electronic Intifada asked the Norwegian foreign ministry: what is Norway doing to stop Israeli settlements and why would Norway oppose its own citizens organizing effective boycotts aimed at stopping settlements?
Their answer: “We have no further comments in this matter.”
“The official Norwegian position on boycott of Israel, on the illegal settlements, is well known – and deplorable,” BDS Norway’s Gule said. “By pretending that Israel is a normal state and that the occupation can be terminated through negotiations without serious pressure on Israel, the official position has shown itself to be incredibly naive.”
Not only does Norway’s government oppose effective action against Israel’s violations of international law, it assists them: while Norway burnishes its image as a global humanitarian leader, Norwegian-supplied arms were used in Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza.
According to Gule, Norwegian officials refuse to endorse boycott or any other form of pressure on Israel, “as this would jeopardize Norway’s role as head of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee.”
The AHLC is a body that coordinates among international aid donors to the Palestinian Authority, including the EU, UN and the United States.
“For Norwegian officials, the prestige of this chairmanship seems more important than justice for the Palestinian people,” Gule said.
Norway’s role in the defunct peace process dates back to its brokering of the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Deference to the US also plays a role in Norway maintaining the illusion of negotiations that “ended in less than nothing – a situation that is worse for the Palestinians than it was before the Oslo process started,” Gule added.
But activists in Norway are not deterred. “In the longer run, the Norwegian government needs to recognize the racist character of political Zionism and Israeli policies in relation to Palestinians,” Gule observed. “To achieve this will take time. Mobilizing the trade union movement for a boycott of Israel will be an important step in this direction.”