The following open letter to the Cape Town Opera was issued by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel on 25 October 2010:
Dear members of the Cape Town Opera,
We at the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), have recently learned of your scheduled performance in Israel on 12 November 2010. As you may know, in 2004, inspired by the triumphant cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa, and supported by key Palestinian unions and cultural groups, PACBI issued a call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel (“Call for academic and cultural boycott of Israel”). We wish, in our letter to you, to stress the importance of this Palestinian call, and underscore the reasons for the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. We trust you will listen as we take our cue from your struggles and experiences in South Africa against oppression and injustice.
The 2004 Palestinian call for academic and cultural boycott of Israel appealed to international artists to refuse to perform in Israel or participate in events that serve to equate the occupier and the occupied and thus promote the continuation of injustice (“Palestinian civil society call”). Following this, in 2005, Palestinian civil society called for an all-encompassing boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign based on the principles of human rights, justice, freedom and equality . The BDS movement is asking artists to heed our call 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 “About the campaign”). In light of our call, your upcoming performance would violate the appeal of the Palestinian BDS movement which urges people of conscience throughout the world to isolate Israel until it ends its colonial and apartheid oppression of the Palestinian people, as was done to the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Your performance is especially disturbing considering the history of the “Porgy and Bess” production. In one of its initial tours in Washington, DC in 1936, the opera singer and actor Todd Duncan “led the cast in an ultimately successful protest against the National Theatre’s segregation policy, resulting in the first time an integrated audience attended a performance at the National Theatre” (“Cape Town’s Porgy and Bess opens the Israeli opera season,” Midnight East blog, 20 October 2010). Ironically, this rich history will be lost on your audience as neither the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, nor the Palestinian refugees in the Diaspora will be allowed to attend your show.
Important, too, is the very nature of this opera as carrying a social and political message, whether it is racial, as some critics claim, or a reminder of policies of segregation. Such a message is further evidence that opera, and culture more broadly, do not rise above politics but are deeply embedded within it. That the subject of your opera carries political overtones should alert you to the fact that performing it in Israel, in this climate of persistent oppression and racist subjugation, would effectively serve to cover up Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. Some of Israel ‘s violations of international law and Palestinian rights that you would be turning a blind eye to are:
- Its brutal and unlawful military occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip. Israel restricts Palestinians’ freedom of movement and of speech; blocks access to lands, health care, and education; imprisons Palestinian leaders and human rights activists without charge or trial; and inflicts, on a daily basis, humiliation and violence at the more than 600 military checkpoints and roadblocks strangling the West Bank. All the while, Israel continues to build its illegal wall on Palestinian land and to support the ever-expanding network of illegal, Jewish-only settlements that divide the West Bank into Bantustans.
- Its growing system of apartheid towards the Palestinian citizens of Israel, with laws and policies that deny Palestinian citizens the rights that their Jewish counterparts enjoy. These laws and policies affect education, land ownership, housing, employment, marriage and all other aspects of people’s daily lives.
- Its denial of the internationally-recognized right of return for Palestinian refugees who were ethnically cleansed in 1948 in the process of forming an exclusivist Jewish state. Israel also continues to expel people from their homes in Jerusalem and the Naqab (Negev). Today, there are more than 7 million refugees, still struggling for their right to return to their homes, like all refugees around the world.
- Its illegal and criminal siege of Gaza. As part of this siege, Israel has prevented not only various types of medicines, candles, books, crayons, clothing, shoes, blankets, pasta, tea, coffee and chocolate, but also musical instruments from reaching the 1.5 million Palestinians incarcerated in the world’s largest open-air prison.
Can you entertain such a state with a clear conscience?
Israel uses artists, musicians and other cultural workers as part of a campaign to Brand Israel, a campaign that has been launched by the Israeli government and promoted by institutions throughout the country and abroad in order to whitewash Israel’s violations of international law and project a false image of normalcy. But after Israel’s war of aggression against Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, which left 1,400 Palestinians dead, predominantly civilians, and led the UN Goldstone report to declare that Israel had committed war crimes, and after the flotilla massacre, many international artists have refused to conduct business as usual with a country that places itself above international standards. Elvis Costello, Gil Scott Heron, Carlos Santana, Devendra Banhart and the Pixies are but a few of the artists who have refused to perform in Israel in the past year. In his decision not to play, Devendra Banhart said:
“Unfortunately, we tried to make it clear that we were coming to share a human and not a political message but it seems that we are being used to support views that are not our own” (“Folk singer Devendra Banhart cancels Israel shows,” Ynet, 16 June 2010).
The call for BDS has also been supported by prominent and devoted anti-racist activists around the world, from South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to best-selling African-American author Alice Walker. Your own Archbishop Tutu recently noted in a historic statement unequivocally supporting the Palestinian boycott campaign against Israel:
“I never tire of speaking about the very deep distress in my visits to the Holy Land; they remind me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like we did when young white police officers prevented us from moving about. My heart aches. I say, ‘Why are our memories so short?’ Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their own previous humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? … When we say ‘Never again!’ do we mean ‘Never again!’ or do we mean ‘Never again to us!’?” (“Israeli ties: a chance to do the right thing,” The Times, 26 September 2010).
If you remain unconvinced because of claims that a cultural boycott of Israel may infringe on freedom of expression and cultural exchange, then we recall for you the judicious words of Enuga S. Reddy, director of the United Nations Center against Apartheid, who in 1984 responded to a similar criticism voiced against the cultural boycott of South Africa by 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” (see 12 Positions on Cultural Sanctions,” Theatre Communications Group).
We understand that your director, Angelo Gobbato, continued to defy the anti-apartheid boycotts, believing that there was another way. But you know now the effectiveness of your own boycott movements and the need for international solidarity. It is your solidarity with the Palestinian people against Israel’s repression that we ask for now. We hope you will grant us that.