PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, released a hard-hitting statement on 29 June demanding that international artists, performers and academics “refrain from undermining our boycott principles.” PACBI assesses the current attacks against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and the continued use of “normalization” projects designed to create cover for the Israeli government’s pursuit of ongoing colonization and subjugation of Palestinians. The full text follows below.
In the context of applying the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s guidelines for the international academic and cultural boycott of Israel, PACBI sometimes faces scenarios where boycott bashers attempt to redeem their conscience, and with it some moral ground, by using token Palestinians (or more rarely other Arabs) as a fig leaf to cover up their complicity in Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights. While the pool of available “fig leaves” is diminishing every year, thanks to the recent impressive spread of BDS consciousness among Palestinians and in the Arab world, there are still those who are ready to accept for their names to be manipulated in the cynical political agendas of international boycott violators. When these Palestinians and Arabs play such roles, it is sometimes due to a lack of political understanding, but, more often than not, it is due to a willingness to put personal interest ahead of collectively upheld principles of resistance to colonial oppression and apartheid.
Through the 1990s and the first half of the last decade, many Palestinians were lured into joint projects because of the hope for a real just peace, as well as the fact that seemingly unlimited sums of money were allocated to such joint projects by European and U.S. donors. Over the last two decades, it became clear that these projects had political agendas that centered on selling the illusion of peace to Palestinians – and the world – and on bribing Palestinians into submission to Israeli dictates and its perpetual colonial hegemony. If an Israeli organization wanted to secure generous funds for a project all it had to do was to include a Palestinian “partner,” and vice versa. These Palestinian-Israeli collaborations created the perfect cover for Israel’s ongoing colonization, occupation and apartheid, and they undermined the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
By now, most normalization projects involving Palestinians and Israelis have ceased after being exposed as utterly futile or, worse, as a well-designed fraud meant to give Israel leeway to pursue its colonial project under the cover of “peace-making” from the bottom up, as was fabled during the Oslo “peace process.” The few remaining normalization projects have continued due to the lingering structures of power domination and dependency created throughout the Oslo years.
One good example is the McGill Middle East Program (MMEP) in Civil Society and Peace Building, a leftover normalization project from the heyday of Oslo that has yet to be challenged. In the context of a single joint project, the prestigious Canadian university signed separate agreements with Arab academic institutions (An-Najah University, Al-Quds University, and Jordan University) and with Israeli institutions. The fact that representatives of “both sides,” as it were, participate in the overall project with its common goals, sit on the same project committees, and attend joint meetings, largely blows the cover of “separateness” and exposes the normalization agenda of this project. The Palestinian institutions involved, while publicly eschewing normalization with Israeli universities, have continued to be active in this project, apparently seeing more benefit to their own institutions from keeping this partnership alive than the harm it does through undermining the growing academic boycott of Israel and its complicit institutions.
Palestinians are not unique in this sense. Given the dire conditions of resource starvation resulting from decades of Israeli occupation, ethnic cleansing and apartheid policies, Palestinians, like most other peoples struggling for de-colonization and self-determination, have had our share of not just what we call willing fig leaves, but also of those who collaborate at a much deeper level with the oppressors in return for narrow benefits. Avoiding the romanticization of the oppressed, and of the Palestinian struggle, is important to arrive at a rational critique of this phenomenon that is as old as revolutions all over the world. As in most other cases, there are generally those who would put their own interests above that of their community. However, a few wilting trees of opportunism or even betrayal should never hide the forest of consensus behind Palestinian civil resistance against Israel, a consensus that is reflected in the leadership of the boycott campaign, the BDS National Committee (BNC).
International academics and cultural figures, including music bands, that insist on crossing the Palestinian boycott picket line despite being asked by the BDS movement not to do so, often seek to organize a concert, a lecture, or even a symbolic tour in the occupied Palestinian territory — especially Ramallah, Jerusalem and Bethlehem — as the standard way through which they try to “balance” their political position and redeem themselves after violating the boycott appeal. By doing so, they in fact add insult to injury, as they are asking Palestinians to engage in normalizing projects similar to those of the Oslo era discussed above. Claiming neutrality in this blatantly lop-sided colonial situation and trying to project a false image of symmetry between oppressor and oppressed is beyond groundless and ill-conceived; it is morally suspect.
Musicians will often ask Palestinian organizations to organize a “Palestine tour.” Some Palestinian organizations may naively agree to such tours without first checking whether the musicians are simultaneously violating the boycott. Other organizations may willingly provide a Palestinian cover for such boycott violations because they themselves have not been able to transcend the corrupting, co-opting, and dependency-creating relations and dialogue discourse that have prevailed during the failed so-called Oslo “peace process.”
Managing to speak to some Palestinians here or there, or to partner with some clueless or deliberately fig-leafing Palestinian institution, cannot possibly reduce the damage done by violating the boycott guidelines, as such violations serve first and foremost to save Israel’s fast-dissipating veneer of respectability on the world stage. No fig leaf, no matter how large it may seem, can hide the act of complicity in whitewashing Israel’s occupation and apartheid that these boycott bashers commit when they cross the picket line.
One classic example was Leonard Cohen, who despite being repeatedly appealed to by PACBI and its partners everywhere to cancel his gig in Tel Aviv, insisted on going ahead with it and even accepted as a main sponsor of the gig an Israeli bank deeply implicated in the construction of illegal Israeli colonies on occupied Palestinian land. After being widely criticized for this blatant violation of the Palestinian-led boycott, Cohen sought just about any Palestinian interlocutor, venue or organization that he could use for “balance” and to fend off the critics. However, by wearing a mantle of “healing” and “peace” without uttering a word about justice or about Israel’s violations of international law, Cohen failed to convince any Palestinian organization to cooperate with him, leaving him without the frantically coveted fig leaf. This, in conjunction with concerted pressure campaigns waged in many countries, ultimately convinced Amnesty International to abandon the idea of cooperating with Cohen to channel proceeds from his concert to “human rights” groups.
Another example was the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ), which fell under enormous pressure by South African academics to break its links with Ben Gurion University (BGU) and, as a result, attempted to find a Palestinian university ready to engage in a trilateral, albeit indirect, relationship with BGU. UJ was faced with a consensus in the Palestinian academy — including government officials, university presidents and academic unions — rejecting such a relationship, and insisting that meaningful solidarity with Palestinians today means severing links with complicit Israeli institutions like BGU and respecting the BDS principles. Unable to find such a Palestinian partner, the UJ Senate ultimately canceled its joint project with BGU.
More recently, Shakira tried to do the same, using her UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador status to arrange a visit to a Palestinian NGO in occupied Jerusalem to “balance” her shameful participation in an official Israeli propaganda event at the invitation of the Israeli president, Shimon Peres. Peres’s well documented role in the myriad crimes and international law infringements committed by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory and in South Lebanon is undeniable. The targeted Palestinian NGO canceled Shakira’s visit at the last moment when it realized how she had violated the boycott, and that providing her with a Palestinian alibi could damage the BDS movement’s peaceful struggle for freedom, justice and equality.
Of course, no society can ever be monolithic or of one mind. Despite the persistence of some international artists, musicians and other cultural workers in breaking the boycott, and despite the willingness of a dwindling number of Palestinians to continue to serve as fig leaves when lured to do so, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, through their representative organizations and unions, have endorsed BDS and its guidelines. It is time that international writers, academics, artists and others start listening to the voices of this vast majority and to respect our struggle for freedom and justice by, at the very least, refraining from undermining our boycott principles. This is a basic moral obligation that most of the world had honored during the struggle against South African apartheid and should consistently honor in our case as well.