Provoked by the recent announcement of the inauguration of a cultural center in Ariel, the fourth largest Jewish colony in the occupied Palestinian territory, 150 prominent Israeli academics, writers and cultural figures have declared that they “will not take part in any kind of cultural activity beyond the Green Line, take part in discussions and seminars, or lecture in any kind of academic setting in these settlements” (“150 academics, artists back actors’ boycott of settlement arts center,” Haaretz, 31 August 2010). A few protestors went as far as reiterating the fact that all Israeli colonies built on occupied Palestinian land are in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and thus constitute a war crime.
This position by tens of Israeli academics and artists has generated a great deal of controversy within the Israeli public sphere, attracting rebuke from across the political spectrum and especially from the academic and cultural establishment. All major theaters were quick to declare their refusal to boycott Ariel under the pretense of serving “all Israelis;” university administrations echoed this position or resorted to silence, continuing business as usual with Ariel and other settlements. The terms of the discourse, however, raise a number of issues for supporters of Palestinian rights. While we welcome acts of protest against any manifestation of Israel’s regime of colonialism and apartheid, we believe that these acts must be both morally consistent and anchored in international law and universal human rights.
First, we believe that the exclusive focus on settlement institutions ignores and obscures the complicity of all Israeli academic and cultural institutions in upholding the system of colonial control and apartheid under which Palestinians suffer. PACBI believes there is firm evidence of the collusion of the Israeli academic and cultural establishment with the major oppressive organs of the Israeli state. Focusing solely on obviously complicit institutions, such as cultural centers in a West Bank colony, serves to shield mainstream Israeli institutions from opprobrium or, ultimately, from the growing global boycott movement that consistently targets all complicit institutions.
Furthermore, the cherry-picking approach behind targeting a notorious colonial settlement in the heart of the occupied West Bank diverts attention from other institutions built on occupied land. Supporters of this peculiarly selective boycott must be asked: is lecturing or performing at the Hebrew University, whose Mount Scopus campus sits on occupied Palestinian land in East Jerusalem, acceptable?
If opposition to Israel’s military occupation is driving this movement, then why has the deplorable stifling of cultural institutions in occupied Jerusalem, for example, been ignored? In 2009, the Arab League with support from UNESCO declared Jerusalem the Arab Cultural Capital for that year. Celebrations that were to be held across the city throughout the year highlighting the historical and cultural role of Jerusalem in Palestinian society and beyond were shut down and at times physically attacked by Israeli security forces in their ongoing attempt to stifle expressions of Palestinian identity in the occupied city. In scenes worthy of Kafka’s novels, organized activities throughout East Jerusalem were summarily cancelled as Palestinian artists, writers and cultural figures resorted to underground techniques to celebrate their city’s cultural and popular heritage.
If the artists’ and intellectuals’ role as voices of moral reason is behind this most recent call to boycott Ariel, where were these voices when academic and cultural institutions were wantonly destroyed in Israel’s war of aggression on Gaza in 2008-2009?
It has not gone without notice in Israel that boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is gaining momentum internationally as an effective means of resisting Israeli colonial oppression. Given this context, one may be excused to assert that these recent efforts to narrow the focus of the boycott against Israel may be deliberately missing the forest for the trees. It is important to reiterate the morally consistent rationale and principles of the Palestinian boycott campaign against Israel.
The BDS movement derives its principles from both the demands of the Palestinian BDS Call, signed by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations in July 2005, and, in the academic and cultural fields, from the Palestinian Call for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, issued a year earlier in July 2004. Together, the BDS and PACBI Calls represent the most authoritative and widely-supported strategic statements to have emerged from Palestine in decades; all political factions, labor, student and women’s organizations, and refugee groups across the Arab world have supported and endorsed these calls. Both calls underline the prevailing Palestinian belief that the most effective form of international solidarity with the Palestinian people is direct action and persistent pressure aimed at bringing an end to Israel’s colonial and apartheid regime, just as the apartheid regime in South Africa was abolished, by isolating Israel internationally through boycotts and sanctions, forcing it to comply with international law and respect Palestinian rights.
Those who claim to care about the coherent application of international law and the primacy of human rights are urged to recognize the “forest” of academic and cultural complicity beyond the “trees” of Ariel and act accordingly and consistently.
This essay from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was first published in the September 2010 issue of the British Committee for Universities for Palestine (BRICUP) newsletter.