Why cultural boycott is legitimate weapon in face of repression

What weapons for an occupied people? A population facing repression? Cultural, academic and economic boycotts are important tools and must be utilised. I argued this in a recent essay in Overland in relation to Sri Lanka and Palestine.

This post on Mondoweiss shows that the debate is global and opponents of boycotts have fewer arguments by the day. In Sri Lanka, Tamils face a Colombo regime that discriminate based on ethnic background. In Israel, Palestinians are second class citizens simply because they’re not Jewish. BDS now:

On the eve of the passing of the anti-boycott bill in the Israeli Knesset today by a majority of 47 to 38, a debate on cultural boycott was held at the London Literature Festival in the Southbank Centre, initiated by Naomi Foyle of British Writers in Support of Palestine (BWISP). The debate motion was: “Where basic freedoms are denied and democratic remedies blocked off, cultural boycott by world civil society is a viable and effective political strategy;… indeed a moral imperative.”

Supporting the motion, Omar Barghouti, founding member of PACBI, and… Seni Seneviratne, British-Sri Lankan poet and performer; opposing,… Jonathan Freedland, columnist for The Guardian and the Jewish Chronicle, and… Carol Gould, expatriate American author, film maker, and ‘a vocal critic of… what she sees as increasing anti-Americanism and antisemitism in Britain’.

Although the chair referred to the Palestinian call to boycott Israel as a ‘model boycott’, the debate was in theory not specific to I/P. Seneviratne, who is very knowledgeable about the South African experience,… opened with a poem of Brecht’s, “When evil-doing comes like falling rain”, and addressed… the history of cultural boycott, arguing that it is up to the oppressed people to decide what they can, and cannot, endure. She emphasised that the Israeli state strategy to co-opt culture showed it understood art was not beyond politics, the same way other countries have feared and murdered intellectuals and banned the work of cultural producers. Otherwise the debate was entirely focused on I/P.

As expected from those opposing the motion, there was much ‘whataboutery’: “look at Syria, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia”, as well as misrepresentation: “you will be shunning the dissenters, individual artists, writers, scholars”, and outright lies: “there was not a consensus in Palestinian society on BDS.” Perpetrating the myths of liberal Zionism was Freedland, who began smugly as the Voice of Cultural Sensitivity, Dialogue & Coexistence and ended up tetchy and defensive in the face of polite demands from the other side for moral consistency and the reminder that no state committing the crimes of Israel is “welcome in the Western club of democracies”.

Given that Freedland is still under the intentional illusion that this a conflict between two nations, rather than a case of settler colonialism, his empty rhetoric was not surprising. He might have wished for someone less morally compromising on his team, however. Carol Gould ‘judaized the debate’ as Barghouti put it, and to a repulsive degree. One particularly shocking statement of hers was that Israel’s industry ’emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust’. She concluded with an extraordinary defense of ‘dovish’ Israeli president Shimon Peres’s order to shell the UN compound in Qana, Lebanon in 1996, which resulted in the deaths of over 100 civilians.

Barghouti and Seneviratne made a strong team and while their approaches to the subject matter were different, the message was the same: ‘We will never convince the colonial masters to give up their privileges’, so boycott is a legitimate tactic.

Pro-boycotters were in the majority that night, and the motion passed easily.