I am proud to be among the many Irish and Ireland-based artists from across creative disciplines who have chosen to publicly support the growing campaign of boycott against apartheid Israel. Compared to the imprisoned Palestinian people themselves and to those taking part in flotillas and other perilous anti-apartheid activities in Palestine our contribution and risk may be justly considered small. At most we might lose the chance of lucrative invitations to read, perform or display our works in parts of the US where apartheid Israel’s supporters hold the power of censorship. Departments of foreign affairs and ministries of culture may also not include us among those artists they can rely upon to project a lying image of a harmonious, bon vivant and, above all, harmlessly apolitical intelligentsia. We are sure to be slandered and ridiculed by the hired bullies of the global media empires.
These are tiny punishments indeed compared to the instant annihilation that Israel with its snipers and bombers and jet planes and tanks has visited on a daily basis upon Palestinian men, women and children for the last 62 years. The threat we come under for speaking out at a safe distance is nothing beside the threat apartheid Israel holds constant over every urban civilian in the Middle East with its 200-bomb-strong nuclear arsenal. Besides, to be ostracized and blacklisted by these last remaining friends of apartheid Israel, the gangster governments of west and east and their spies and ideological enablers, is to be reminded of the phrase of that great political artist William Blake, who tells us to “Listen to the fool’s reproach — it is a kingly title.”
The argument that artists should remain aloof from politics does not survive the most cursory of cross examinations. Over the centuries artists have taken every possible political stance both inside and outside their art. They have also performed every possible political action without it having the least negative effect on their own work or on art in general. Indeed, much great art has been produced out of intense engagement with political events and with social movements. One can look up the biographies of the list of Nobel prize winners in literature, or take a stroll around one’s nearest significant gallery if one needs any proof of this.
Artistic aloofness in relation to Israel-Palestine is without doubt a political stance, a signal that one will not stand in the way of the strong as they bear down with all their might upon the weak. But to perform in Israel, or to leave oneself open to performing there, is not simply remaining aloof. It is choosing the side of tyranny. It is a decision to ignore the cry of the oppressed.
Some artists will make this decision out of ignorance, or because they believe in or are confused by apartheid Israel’s untiring propaganda machine, which is so consciously assisted by the western media and politicians. To these artists I say, take a few days to look behind the headlines, give yourself some time to familiarize yourself with the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict in all of its contexts. Inform yourself properly, and then make your decision.
Obviously there are artists, motivated by fame and finance, who will perform in apartheid Israel knowing full well that their actions are an integral part of the war effort against the Palestinians, while of course loudly protesting otherwise. In the long run this may count against them. Their memory will be linked throughout posterity with all those images of rubbled apartment blocks, of old farmers shackled at crossroads, of sad-eyed children dying in makeshift hospitals for lack of basic medicines due to the illegal blockade.
Alongside the financial, political and military support of western rulers, the cultural support of western artists is a crucial link in the chain of oppression that tightens every passing minute around the neck of Palestine. Artists occupy a position of public privilege. What we think and feel as it is expressed through our art is elevated above ordinary discourse and seriously discussed at events, in classrooms, and in all kinds of media. Both individually within our local networks and communities, and collectively at a national and international level, we can and do have a disproportionate effect on opinion. We are, I think, perhaps the last significant body of people to enjoy large-scale public trust in most parts of the globe. Added together, what we say and do publicly in our art and in our lives as citizens is reflected upon by many people in a much more profound way than the utterances of most politicians. Our deeds and words ring louder then, and wider, and longer, then those of many others. But so do our silences, our non-actions. That is why both the tacit and the enthusiastic support of artists have been worth so much to dictators and criminal systems like apartheid over the centuries, and why we have been so brutally persecuted when we have refused to give it.
All an Israeli major has to do to unwind after a day directing the bulldozing of ancestral Palestinian homesteads is to change into her casuals and head out to see a platinum-selling rock group, or to clap along politely like everyone else is doing at the poetry of some prize-glittering western writer. Then she can feel as refined, as hip, and as justified, as any other liberal westerner. The presence of international artists in apartheid Israel normalizes and buttresses the apartheid system, contributing to its self-confidence and smooth functioning.
By performing in Israel, in despite of the clear call of the Palestinian artists and cultural institutions to boycott Israel, an international artist gives — whether or not they are conscious of it — a signal of approval to the settler-pirates and to the racially brainwashed conscripts who take pleasure in having themselves photographed beaming with national joy in front of blindfolded and humiliated Palestinians. Approval for these and countless other abuses and injustices is exactly how the appearance of international artists in apartheid Israel is interpreted by its politico-military leadership and, crucially, by its rank-and-file soldiers, boosting the morale of those who must implement the bloody practicality of apartheid on the ground.
The boycott, if it gained momentum, could have just the opposite effect. It could remove the visage of respectability and normality which the leaders of apartheid Israel so desperately crave in order that they can continue with the dirty work of oppressing the Palestinians unperturbed by the moral opinion of the rest of the world. It could undermine the confidence of the military rank and file and cause significant numbers to question and refuse the implementation of apartheid policies. Above all, it could help to inspire the continuing anti-apartheid resistance of the Palestinian people, and contribute — similarly to how international solidarity with black South Africans did in their case — to the eventual collapse of the apartheid system. To have played even the tiniest of roles in such an outcome would be a greater honor than any prize, review, or invitation is capable of giving us.
Dave Lordan is an Irish writer. His latest collection of poetry is Invitation to a Sacrifice (Salmon Poetry, Cliffs of Moher, 2010).