PACBI: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra violates boycott

A recent article criticizing the Palestinian Campaign For the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s (PACBI) position on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) (Mariam Said, “Barenboim-Said Foundation does not promote normalization,” 17 March 2010) is based on false premises, misunderstanding and/or misrepresentation of the PACBI boycott criteria, and a misconception of the recent history of civil resistance in Palestine. Since the article insinuates that PACBI’s position on WEDO is inconsistent with its own principles, the record needs to be set straight.

We also wish to counter any attempt to present the Palestinian civil society boycott call as an antithesis to the rich thought and humanist heritage of our late cultural giant, Edward Said. PACBI, like the great majority of Palestinians, particularly cultural workers, thinks Edward Said’s legacy belongs to humanity at large and the Palestinian people in particular. Immune to reductionism of any sort, Said’s wide-ranging scholarship highlights the importance of critical thought, ethical principles and rejection of dogmatic discourse. The Palestinian cause, Said argued, is based on justice and a moral quest for freedom and equality, above everything else. The tools of our struggle, it follows, must at all times maintain the moral high ground. Said’s writings on anti-colonial discourse alerts us as well to the importance of learning from own mistakes and those of other resistance movements around the world, past and present. It is in this spirit that PACBI and the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement at large have launched our boycott campaigns against Israel’s occupation, colonization and apartheid, basing them on an unambiguous commitment to international law and universal principles of human rights, as well as an unwavering rejection of racism in all its forms. While the most recent source of inspiration and ongoing tactical influence on the Palestinian BDS movement have come from the South African anti-apartheid struggle, the BDS movement’s principles have evolved out of a learning experience from the deeply rooted Palestinian experience in civil resistance and the historical mistakes and challenges associated with it. We take to heart Said’s counsel to be critical and repudiate complacency.

Towards the end of January 2010, PACBI criticized the government of Qatar for inviting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO), led by the famous Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim, to perform at the celebration of Doha as the Arab Cultural Capital for 2010, expressly because inviting an institution that goes against the boycott guidelines cannot but be seen as an act that contributes, even if inadvertently, to whitewashing Israel’s violations of international law. This was particularly so in light of the fact that the performance coincided with the first anniversary of Israel’s massacre in Gaza, December 2008-January 2009, condemned by the UN Fact Finding Mission, headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, as constituting war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Israel’s grave violations of Palestinian rights also include its ongoing medieval siege of Gaza; its decades-old military occupation and colonization of Palestinian and other Arab lands; its denial of Palestinian refugee rights, including their UN-sanctioned right to return to their homes of origin; and its intensifying system of apartheid against its own “non-Jewish” citizens, the indigenous Palestinians.

Earlier, in 2009, PACBI, along with the General Union of Palestinian Writers, the Union of Palestinian Expressive Artists, the House of Poetry, among other cultural organizations and associations, opposed the Divan’s performance in Ramallah on the same grounds (PACBI release, 14 July 2009).

But how and why did PACBI reach the conclusion that WEDO was in violation of the Palestinian cultural boycott?

It is important to state up front that PACBI consistently determines whether or not any cultural project violates the criteria of the Palestinian boycott according to the widely adopted and carefully crafted Guidelines for the International Cultural Boycott of Israel. Taking a principled stance in support of the Palestinian civil society’s BDS campaign necessarily calls for respecting and applying the boycott criteria set by the movement. Before issuing its opinion on WEDO or any other project’s infringement of the boycott criteria, PACBI thoroughly examines and deliberates over all the publicly available information pertaining to the project in a nuanced, rational and methodical manner that focuses on principles rather than personal opinions, institutional complicity more than individual culpability. Based on this systematic process of evaluation, PACBI views the West Eastern Divan Orchestra as indeed in conflict with the Palestinian cultural boycott criteria.

WEDO identifies itself as seeking “to enable [an] intercultural dialogue and to promote the experience of collaborating on a matter of common interest.” Combining”musical study and development with the sharing of knowledge and comprehension between people from cultures that traditionally have been rivals,” WEDO “is not only a musical project, but also a forum for dialogue and reflection on the Palestinian-Israeli problem.” Boasting an “equal number of Israeli and Arab musicians,” WEDO aspires, in its own conductor’s words, to “have an important role in overcoming political and cultural differences between the countries represented in the workshop. In this model, an orchestra serves as a good example of democracy and civilized living” (“West-Eastern Divan Orchestra website, accessed 24 March 2010, all emphases added).

Furthermore, the WEDO website states that, “The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has proved time and again that music can break down barriers previously considered insurmountable…. Through its work and existence the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra demonstrates that bridges can be built to encourage people to listen to one another.”

In other words, the orchestra’s self-definition turns occupation and colonial oppression into a mere “problem” or “barrier” to be discussed between “traditional rivals” who hope to settle their “differences” and build “bridges” of understanding through music and dialogue to encourage “listening to one another” and to set “a good example of democracy and civilized living.”

By promoting this false symmetry or balance between the “two sides,” WEDO is indeed promoting normalization. The Divan refuses to even recognize, let alone oppose, Israel’s ethnic cleansing, occupation and system of racial discrimination as the root causes of the Arab-Israeli colonial conflict, sanitizing the very real oppressive reality on the ground with benign terms that are intended to project symmetry between oppressor and oppressed and moral parity between colonizer and colonized. This conforms to the definition of normalization, a term used across the Arab World, especially in Palestine, to describe joint Arab-Israeli projects that ignore or bypass the reality of oppression altogether, and/or fail to contribute to the struggle to end it, hence presenting to the world a deceptive image of “civilized” coexistence despite Israel’s patently uncivilized colonization and apartheid system.

WEDO is not unique, though, in its dialogue-based approach. Projects based on notions of “dialogue” or “constructive engagement” have existed since the early ’80s and flourished after the signing of the Oslo accords. The underlying assumption of such projects, as echoed in the WEDO website, is that bringing Palestinians and Israelis face to face and engaging them in common “apolitical” activities will address the injustice and somehow further the possibility of achieving peace. This line of thinking subscribes to the “deserving native” model, which suggests that when the privileged/colonizer is brought to work together with the oppressed/colonized, the colonizer will become more willing to “grant” the oppressed their rights, or at least some subset of them. This model was tried in the South African case in the early ’80s, when British Prime Minister Thatcher advised the black and white South Africans to “constructively engage” as a strategy to end the apartheid regime. Needless to say, the anti-apartheid movement’s leadership flatly rejected this model, opting for diverse forms of resistance instead, which eventually led to the collapse of apartheid in South Africa.

Under conditions of colonial oppression, be it South Africa yesterday or Palestine today, joint projects claiming to be “apolitical” or aimed at promoting music, science, environmental protection, etc. as domains that are “above politics” are misleading and injurious to the struggle against injustice. By overlooking the oppressive reality of Israel’s atrocities and gradual ethnic cleansing, these projects in effect legitimize and contribute to perpetuating and normalizing oppression. In addition, they have often played into the hands of persistent Israeli official propaganda, especially its well-oiled, but so-far futile, “Brand Israel” campaign, which markets Israel not only as a “normal” nation, but also as a “democracy” that excels in the arts, academic research and hi-tech.

It is also important to emphasize that, in almost all cases, what may appear as “neutral” or “non-political” collaboration between Palestinians and Israelis is anything but. Presenting enmity between Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis as if it were primarily a result of lack of understanding of the “other side” or some other psycho-cultural factor unrelated to the reality of occupation and apartheid is a political stance par excellence.

PACBI realizes that projects that go against the boycott cannot all be put into one basket or regarded as being equally objectionable. Given the limitations of the boycott movement’s human capacity, prioritizing boycott targets becomes crucial. Such prioritization is a factor of multiple, evolving considerations, moral and pragmatic, that take into account, among other things, the degree of complicity of each project and its expected harm to the overall struggle for Palestinian rights and against Israel’s impunity. While clearly in violation of the boycott, WEDO is not regarded, comparatively speaking, as among the most objectionable projects.

More than 20 years of such projects in Palestine, mostly under the rubric of “constructive engagement,” have led to nothing but further entrenching Israel’s colonization and progressive denial of Palestinian rights, while exonerating Israel on the international scene as a civilized entity trying to bridge gaps with the native Palestinians. This important historical experience has taught the Palestinians, as it did South Africans, crucial lessons: false symmetry between the oppressor and oppressed only results in further empowering the oppressor, hence prolonging the bloodshed and injustice. The Palestinian civil society has learnt from this experience and devised a different model of civil resistance, the BDS movement. The very few projects that remain from that past doomed era are not just useless, but represent a model proven to have detrimental repercussions for the struggle of the Palestinian people for self-determination, justice and freedom.

Its musical mission notwithstanding, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, as a politically-motivated forum with political objectives that advocates “dialogue” without justice, is in contradiction with the overwhelmingly endorsed cultural boycott criteria adhered to by Palestinians and supported by wide sectors of the international solidarity movement in support of BDS. Any morally consistent advocate of Palestinian rights, justice, freedom and sustainable peace cannot ignore this fact.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel was launched in Ramallah in April 2004 by a group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals to join the growing international boycott movement.