Critical thinking on cultural boycott

Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production edited by Kareem Estefan, Carin Kuoni and Laura Raicovich, OR Books (2017)

Assuming Boycott is a collection of essays derived from papers and seminars by a number of writers, scholars and artists who advocate using cultural boycotts as a tool for change. All the authors have either partaken in or lived through such boycotts.

The book is divided into four chapters. The first contains essays that critically analyze the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa. This is followed by a chapter on the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

The third chapter questions the power dynamics behind boycott movements by positing whether inequalities in the movements determine who speaks for whom. The final chapter examines boycotts through distance – “geographical, political, cultural, even temporal distance.”

Altogether, Assuming Boycott covers the steps that were taken to initiate boycotts, the reasons behind them and their effects, good and bad.

As the title of the book suggests, the collection begins with the assumption, as per the introduction by one of the book’s editors, Kareem Estefan, that “art does not transcend the political conditions under which it is exhibited, and that artists are increasingly assuming the agency to demand that their art be shown and circulated in accordance with their ethics and solidarities.”

The book aims to lay out the positives and negatives of boycott movements, but the editors, judging by the introduction, are decidedly for using cultural boycotts as a tool for change. Estefan argues that “acts of boycott are often beginnings and not ends, that they frequently generate challenging and productive discussions rather than shutting down dialogue.”

Remembering apartheid

Beginning the book with South Africa is an effective primer on boycott movements as – ostensibly – the country is post-apartheid. Yet according to the introduction to this section, “There is a danger that the boycott of South Africa may become historically sealed, remembered only as a foregone conclusion.”

The essays here analyze multiple aspects of the cultural resistance to apartheid, including through visual arts, music and sports (with a note that BDS has so far not taken advantage of a sports boycott).

Sean Jacobs, an associate professor of international affairs at The New School in New York City, argues in “The Legacy of the Cultural Boycott Against South Africa” that the boycott primarily succeeded – with American and European artists refusing to travel to South Africa to perform – because of eventual international sanctions that forced white South Africans to stop considering themselves an “outpost of Western civilization.”

Associate professor and researcher at Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Hlonipha Mokoena addresses the boycott within the music industry in “Kwaito: The Revolution Was Not Televised; It Announced Itself In Song.” She notes: “There was often confusion about who or what was being boycotted.”

Mokoena argues that there was no singular idea of what the boycott exactly was and that some South African artists – even though they were against apartheid – were barred from performing overseas.

The knowledge of what did and did not work in South Africa forms the backdrop for the following chapter on the BDS movement. Joshua Simon, curator of the Museums of Bat Yam, located in Israel, describes BDS as an effective means to protest neoliberalism on an international scale.

Simon suggests, in “Neoliberal Politics, Protective Edge, and BDS,” that shaming existing and potential investors could “cause external debt to increase, downgrading Israel’s credit ratings and making the interest it pays for its debt skyrocket.” He adds that such “sanctions touch neoliberal sovereignty where it really hurts.”


Ariella Azoulay – professor of media studies, curator and documentary filmmaker – argues in her essay, “‘We,’ Palestinians and Jewish Israelis: The Right Not to Be a Perpetrator,” that the call for a boycott of Israel is beneficial to Israeli Jews as it gives them the right to not be “citizen-perpetrators,” something they have been deprived of by virtue of living on Palestinian land.

Azoulay maintains that even if Israelis refuse to serve in the military and are given jail time as a result, they will nevertheless filter back into the everyday oppression of Palestinians once they are released.

Artist Yazan Khalili also comes to this conclusion in “The Utopian Conflict”: “Instead of boycotting Israel in support of the Palestinians alone, what if we boycott in support of the emancipation of Jewish subjects from the Israeli state as well?”

BDS – writes assistant professor of legal studies and human rights attorney Noura Erakat in “The Case for BDS and the Path to Co-Resistance” – cannot be based on collaboration between Palestinians and Israelis, but must be founded on resistance against Israel, because “Israelis are not neighbors, or even occupiers, but colonial masters and beneficiaries of ongoing Palestinian deprivation.”

While much of the book focuses on cultural boycotts, some of the essays focus instead on academic boycotts. Emphasis is placed, for example, on the idea that universities that adhere to the principles of BDS should “become sites of co-resistance and not, as often contended, sites of separation.”

This is articulated in a conversation entitled “Extending Co-Resistance” between Eyal Weizman, the director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the book’s co-editor Kareem Estefan.

Weizman points out here that the fact the United States and a number of European countries have denounced BDS (and in some cases outlawed it) is a signal these countries have given up on the idea of resolving the conflict.

After all, he argues, the tenets of the BDS movement should be uncontroversial. In the eyes of many currently right-leaning Western governments, however, Israel looks “like a pioneer in the management of unwanted refugees, the poor and the dispossessed” in its treatment of Palestinians, making the human rights-based BDS movement seem antithetical to these governments’ interests.

Sound advice

Tania Bruguera, an artist who witnessed the stifling of Cuban freedom of expression, describes the lessons she learned at the time in “The Shifting Grounds of Censorship and Freedom of Expression.” These include her motivation to create public art, as “Cuban artists … are not trained to see the public sphere as an option.” Artists, she argues, should bear the responsibility of going “to the frontlines of a struggle and tell stories to counterbalance official propaganda and fight the status quo.”

Artist Naeem Mohaiemen chimes in with his experience protesting the migrant labor conditions during the Guggenheim’s construction on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. Defiance staged as an art installation is widely accepted, he argues in “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Campaign.” But when artists actually negotiate with and protest to administrators it can be regarded as an act of rebellion.

The collection of essays provides a guideline on how to maintain a cultural boycott and, through its words of caution, offers sound advice on current and possible challenges that threaten to deter boycott movements.

Artists might find the book particularly insightful since several artists here share their personal anecdotes and advice for engaging with a cultural boycott.

However, possibly because of the large number of writers and diverse viewpoints, the collection feels disjointed. This is especially evident in the last chapter, where the essays are not cohesive.

Nevertheless, Assuming Boycott earnestly compiles accounts of boycott at a time when Western governments are penalizing people for exercising their right to resistance. For those wishing to learn more about boycott movements, it is a very useful read.

Marguerite Dabaie is a Palestinian-American illustrator and cartoonist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work can be found at




Good to have a sensible and far-ranging discussion of boycotts, which are not simple. In Toronto, for instance, a boycott of the bookstore chain Chapters/Indigo was mounted because its owners are avid and active Zionists. But the chain sold books critical of Zionism, and some activists found that bookstores did not resonate well as targets.

A few notes on the article:

* "BDS has so far not taken advantage of a sports boycott" -- I don't know of a sports boycott to take advantage of. More accurately, perhaps, BDS has so far not undertaken a sports boycott.

* Sean Jacobs argues "that the [cultural] boycott primarily succeeded ... because of eventual international sanctions that forced white South Africans to stop considering themselves an 'outpost of Western civilization.'” -- Cart before the horse? At least as arguable, IMO, is that international sanctions were imposed because of the success of the grassroots cultural and associated boycotts.

* Ariella Azoulay "maintains that even if Israelis refuse to serve in the military and are given jail time as a result, they will nevertheless filter back into the everyday oppression of Palestinians once they are released." -- True enough, in the sense that all of us who use electricity are complicit in environmental destruction. But surely the (admittedly few) actively anti-Zionist Israeli Jews are not to be condemned.

* Yazan Khalili writes “Instead of boycotting Israel in support of the Palestinians alone, what if we boycott in support of the emancipation of Jewish subjects from the Israeli state as well?” -- Does that mean they are equal victims of Zionism? Thankfully, Noura Erakat says no. There's also the need to target a boycott narrowly enough to be effective.
In my view, if BDS succeeds, Israeli Jews would have the possibility of living in a democratic state, which they do not now. But that's a secondary benefit after the liberation of the much more oppressed group, Palestinians.