Boycott or censorship?

On 5 March 2010, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that producer Shuki Weiss, who has been involved in producing many of the Israeli concerts headlined by international stars in recent years, has attacked human rights activists for calling on the Pixies to cancel their 9 June concert at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. Weiss is reported to have said that “There’s no difference … between a regime in China that silences a performance from fear of westernization, an Islamist regime that stops a performance because of revealing dress and a political group attempting to express itself at the expense of music lovers.” Weiss is responding here to the growing movement to boycott, divest from and sanction (BDS) Israel, and in particular to advocates of a cultural boycott who have reached out to the Pixies, Elton John, U2, Santana and Leonard Cohen, calling on them to boycott Israel. At the heart of Weiss’ comments is a more common statement that is a misleading conflation in the realm of cultural production between censorship and boycott.

It is important for people on all sides of the spectrum, but especially those trying to decide about their position vis-a-vis boycott, to understand the differences between censorship and boycott. Censorship (McCarthyism being one of its forms) is the act by an institution, generally governmental, to control and manage morals and conduct. It is the act of securing and suppressing, from the public eye, anything that is deemed immoral, heretic or offensive to the government. To this belong the first two cases, of China and “Islamist regimes” referred to by Weiss. Advocating for the Israeli government to ban the Pixies, or launching a campaign to ban the group for the values it represents or may disseminate, would be an act of censorship.

On the other hand, a boycott is a form of protest that may be promoted by a government or nongovernmental entity, as is the case of the movement to boycott Israel, which was put forth a Palestinian grassroots movement. Unlike censorship, the boycott of Israel does not try to hide or suppress anything from the public eye, it does not protect the interests of a government or any type of regime and its objective is not to control the flow of information or culture.

Let me elaborate on this by returning to the two cases of censorship, which Weiss tried to conflate with “a political group attempting to express itself at the expense of music lovers.” In the case of censorship, the unclean, deviant or corruptible object is either the band itself or some other undesirable, such as westernization, that is reflected onto the band. What this means is that in the case of China, the band serves as the evil mask that will reveal westernization to the Chinese (accepting Weiss’ assumptions about China for the purpose of argument). In this instance, the band must change its principles or content if it is to perform in China. In the case of boycott, however, there is no issue to be had with the band. The band is always welcome and does not need to change anything about it. The undesired object remains Israel’s policies of apartheid and occupation and it is this that should change before the band itself accepts any invitation to play in Israel. Shuki Weiss is trying to conflate things by transferring the grievances of “the political group” from the occupation onto the band itself.

We must be clear. The boycott movement is calling for a boycott of Israel; specifically in the case of academic and cultural boycott it is a boycott of institutions.

The movement is not calling on a boycott of the Pixies, Elton John, or U2, but for a boycott of Israel. It is asking these artists along with others to heed the call from Palestinian civil society and not accept invitations to perform in Israel until the demands of the movement are met and until “Israel withdraws from all the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; removes all its colonies in those lands; agrees to United Nations resolutions relevant to the restitution of Palestinian refugees rights; and dismantles its system of apartheid” (see the website of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel). It is asking these performers to be morally conscientious and recognize their roles as public figures, and what their willingness to play in Israel would mean. Essentially, it would serve to rebrand Israel as a place of culture and peace, completely depoliticized, thereby whitewashing its continuing crimes — not least of which is the siege of Gaza now in its 1,000th day.

Unlike censorship, which suppresses information and knowledge, boycott is a communicative act par excellence that seeks to re-imagine and re-envision a dialogue between oppressors and oppressed; it is predicated on mutual principles and a confrontation with the political and its structures of power. In this way the boycott movement has been able to bring together Israelis and Palestinians into a reconstituted public sphere for truly collaborative political actions, recognizing the power, privilege and spaces of maneuverability for each side. In doing so, a real movement has developed that has empowered people to imagine change and then act upon it in a nonviolent, moral, yet confrontational posture.

Those who still fear what this movement is about should be embraced and made to understand the progressive and moral nature of boycott. The movement to boycott Israel must be fundamentally understood in its opposition and rejection to state censorship.

Sami Hermez is a doctoral candidate of anthropology at Princeton University working on questions of violence and nonviolence and can be reached at shermez A T princeton D O T edu.