UNESCO should join cultural boycott

Israel attacked UN schools and other educational institutions throughout the Gaza Strip during its recent invasion there. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

When schools under the United Nations flag are targeted, when children are targeted, when a whole population is systematically deprived of food and water, sanitation and electricity, the various UN agencies affected should not be content with protest alone — they should live up to their responsibility by taking action.

Israel is turning the Gaza Strip into the largest concentration camp in the world. Conditions grow steadily more insufferable for the 1.5 million Palestinians who live there; half of them are refugees of one of the biggest crimes of the 20th century.

In 1947-48, the Zionist paramilitary terror organizations that would later become the Israeli army carried out a premeditated ethnic cleansing of Palestine during and after the British Mandate, they ethnically cleansed more than 400 villages and 13 cities, forcing out almost 800,000 indigenous Palestinians, systematically committing tens of massacres. That ethnic cleansing, referred to by Palestinians as the Nakba, is the reason Gaza is one of the most populated areas in the world, as it is populated by many of those refugees and their descendants. Israel, the US and most of the Western world would like to expunge that 1948 crime from the record. The resistance today in Gaza is the revolt of a people that refuses to be erased.

The ethnic cleansing of 1948 is an ongoing reality that has been unfolding for over 60 years, until today: ongoing theft of the remaining Palestinian land and water, demolition of thousands of homes, the making of the Gaza Strip and Palestinian cities into concentration camps surrounded by an eight-meter-high cement wall and electrical fences, inside which reign unemployment, poverty, hunger and despair, in addition to the mass incarceration of three generations of Palestinians (currently the population of Palestinians in Israeli prisons is more than 12,000). On the flip side of the steady decimation of the indigenous Palestinian people, Israel, with US and European support, imported to Palestine one million immigrants, mostly Europeans, during the 1990s. Land theft and colonization were carried out under a fake discourse of peace, promoted by a fake Israeli peace movement and non-governmental organizations financed by the US and EU, using the Oslo agreement of the mid-1990s as tools for the complete elimination of Palestine from the map.

Cancel Israel’s membership to UNESCO

In November 1974, the UN cultural organization UNESCO terminated assistance to Israel and excluded it from UNESCO’s activities and regional groups. By doing so, UNESCO recognized that Israel’s destruction and vandalism of the indigenous Palestinian civilization and culture, was the very opposite of UNESCO’s mission.

Beginning in 1947, during the ethnic cleansing, and continuing into the ’50s, the destruction decimated an entire Palestinian cultural environment: the looting of artifacts, books, ancient manuscripts and the destruction of architecture, including dozens of churches, hundreds of mosques and graveyards. The ethnic cleansing of 1967, during which approximately 200,000 Palestinians were displaced, allowed Israel to conduct another massive round of cultural destruction of an additional 170 villages and towns in the Syrian Golan Heights and 19 villages in the newly occupied Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some of the destroyed villages were turned by Israel into national parks after a massive forestation, a method used systematically to erase the traces of Palestinian villages. Also in 1967, Israel demolished a whole neighborhood in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Moroccan Quarter, and broke international law by undertaking massive archeological excavations in the territories it just occupied.

Israel continues with its destructive assault on Palestinian culture, looting the Palestinian libraries and film archive during its invasion of Lebanon, vandalizing the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah during its 2002 invasion of the West Bank, carrying out illegal archeological excavations while vandalizing Muslim and Arab findings, and recently excavating under the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and thus endangering its foundation.

During the latest massacres in Gaza, Israel badly damaged the largest university in the Strip, as well as UN schools, in which civilians were taking shelter. Altogether, Israel bombed and destroyed 64 schools and 41 mosques in a matter of days (statistics according to the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights and the Palestinian Authority Minister of Awqaf, respectively, via Palestine Information Center). The destruction of mosques follows the pattern already established in 1948, during which hundreds of mosques were destroyed. This is the direct result of an ideology that targets Arab and Muslim culture, including the Arab-Jewish civilizations and cultures, in the name of “secularism and progress” as a justification for extermination of the civilization of the Other.

UNESCO, as an organization committed to promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, human rights and fundamental freedoms, should take immediate action to protest Israel’s systematic violence and assault on Palestinian culture by expelling Israel from its membership.

Cultural and academic boycott of Israel are of particular importance. The Israeli academy is one of the most important bases of racist Zionist thinking, which is white Ashkenazi-Jewish, Euro-centric and colonial. All Israeli universities have departments devoted to the Orientalist research of the Middle East as a tool for colonial control. Other departments completely ignore non-Western, Arab and Islamic cultures, language and thought, literature, music, history and philosophy, reflecting Israel’s attitude towards Arabs and Muslims as uncivilized and uncultured. This intellectual work done by the Israeli academia is instrumental in the dehumanization of Palestinians within Israeli public discourse, a necessary condition for the continuation of the genocide. Academic boycott addresses the fact that university departments develop weapons that are used in Israel’s crimes. The silence of Israeli academia in the face of the bombing of the largest university in Gaza is another reason for an academic boycott.

Israeli fine arts and dance steal Palestinian heritage and present it all over the world as “an ancient Jewish heritage,” in line with the appropriation of Palestinian food (e.g. falafel) and clothing (e.g. the traditional checkered kuffiyeh scarf), in order to present their European colonialism as a continuation of an ancient Jewish ownership of the land, and erase the existence of a Palestinian people who created this heritage.

Israeli cultural agents are conscripted into the normalization of Israel’s ongoing crimes and apartheid by representing Israeli occupation and oppression as a two-sided conflict inside a hollow peace discourse, without history, and into the erasure and normalization of the 1948 crime: the elimination of Palestine by an apartheid Jewish state called “Israel.” Israeli cultural workers are highly appreciated all over the world as peace seekers instead of being rejected as active participants in a mechanism of the oppression of the indigenous people of Palestine.

Today, after decades of denial, when the Palestinian Nakba is finally recognized, it is void of a legal component that demands rights for the victim. Today one can write about the Nakba in Israeli academia, and gain a degree, honor and credit for being a moral researcher by repeating facts that Palestinians have written about for years, although no one was willing to listen. This helps paint Israel as a progressive state while being one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. Israeli academics can thereby appropriate the Palestinian voice. Such claims about appropriation were at the center of the recent controversy surrounding Israeli art historian Gannit Ankori, who threatened to sue for defamation publications which published reviews of her work that questioned whether she gave due credit for her theories to a Palestinian artist and writer. An Israeli academy that appropriates Palestinian voices for personal academic gain and as a way of whitewashing individuals’ Zionist stances should be subject to boycott.

Israel enjoys the unlimited support of the US, Europe and most of the Western world. The Nobel committee awarded the Peace Prize to Yitzhak Rabin, who was an active participant in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, and the second ethnic cleansing in 1967. He was also directly responsible for a few large massacres, one of them a massacre of more than 150 civilians taking shelter in the Dahamsh mosque in al-Lid. Another Nobel Peace Prize went to Shimon Peres, who is responsible for introducing nuclear weapons to the Middle East. What is more amazing is that the alternative Nobel Peace Prize was given to Uri Avnery, who participated in the 1948 ethnic cleansing, as well as in the persecution of the Palestinian refugees’ right to return after it. He remains a Zionist to this day and accepts the 1948 crime as legitimate.

Meanwhile, Western governments and institutions broadly support the isolation of the Palestinian resistance. They refuse to deal with those Palestinians who resist attempts to bury Palestine and who do not accept the inhuman living conditions imposed by Israel. They refuse to deal with Hamas, which won the Palestinian democratic elections, and as a result Israel imprisoned the resistance party’s parliament members. Hamas is universally acknowledged for its probity, yet Western countries insist on dealing only with the secular Fatah, adopting the racialized colonialist identification between secularism and progress that served Zionism as an excuse for the destruction of Arab and Muslim cultures. Hamas cannot be excluded; attempts to exclude it are manifestations of Western colonialism and racism.

International institutions such as UNESCO have the moral and political obligation to challenge such destructive and illegal policies. The public and official discourse must be changed. The world must break its silence over Israel’s crimes. It must start using the word “apartheid” to describe Israel’s political, economic and social structure, and adopt the same strategies that were effective in ending the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

Zionist colonization is a racist project that is deadly for both Palestinians and Israelis. Cultural boycott is essential to the well-being of everyone in the region.

Rahela Mizrahi signed the Palestinian call for the cultural boycott of Israel in 2006. She has a degree in fine arts from the Betzalel Academy in Jerusalem and is currently completing her second degree, writing on the “Patterns of Expropriation, Conversion, and Appropriation of Palestinian Heritage through Israeli Art” at Tel Aviv University. This essay is a adapted from an appeal originally published by the International anti-Zionist Network (http://www.ijsn.net/308/) and in Arabic by Al-Adab (http://www.adabmag.com/node/178).

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