Israeli blog
Friday, August 18, 2006 1:13 PM  

 

A letter concerning the boycotting of Israeli artists.

Dear Friends,

In the recent weeks of war between Israel and Hezbollah, an odious ritual in the art world is rearing its ugly head higher than before:  Israeli artists are being banned from international venues for performance and cinema.

There are many opinions about this war, the conflict in general, and where justice may or may not be found.  Whatever one's opinion is, however, among all artists and academics of the world, Israelis are singled out as responsible for any perceived injustice of their government, in spite of the fact that for the most part these boycotted artists and scholars are peace activists, collaborators with Arab artists, and are also active in documenting the conditions of the Palestinian people and the suffering caused by the conflict. Here are a few examples of such boycotted artists:Yoav Shamir, known for his movies critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians, was dissuaded form attending the Edinburgh Film Festival. Shane Danielsen, artistic director of the festival, wrote to him as follows (excerpt from the full letter): "...I do feel that it might be in your best interest not to attend the festival this year - for your own sake, rather than for ours. We would be more than happy to have you here, but I suspect that some of the audience for the film will not be there for the film (so to speak), but instead to make some kind of political point during the Q&A, and I am personally loath to put you in a position where you're made a public scapegoat for the actions of your government."One wonders why an artistic director of a festival would be afraid to stand by an Israeli artist, even one who shares his own political views?  Is it because we live in a time when radical Islam is perpetrating terror on a massive scale?  When artists who are critical of Islam are threatened with Fatwa's (see Salman Rushdie) or murdered (see Theo Van Gogh).  And besides, why should Mr. Shamir be "made a public scapegoat for the actions of his government?"  Who are the people who would do that to him?  Has the Edinburgh Film Festival been run over by a mob?

Whatever the answer might be, the line of thinking represented in this letter cannot but bring to mind once again the specter of a spineless Europe cowering in the face of dark, repressive, and anti-Semitic force.  It is difficult not to be reminded of Europe in the 1930s when reading this letter.

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Choreographer Noa Dar and her dance group participation in the FNB Dance Umbrella 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa has been cancelled due to Israel war in Lebanon.  Noa Dar believes that cultural boycott is legitimate.  She says (translated from Hebrew): "beyond the disappointment and anger I feel a certain understanding of the actions of the festival.  It's a legitimate tool for influence.  The moment that we perform abroad, we're first of all an Israeli group, and the only way the directors of art festivals to express their opposition to Israeli policies is with tools that are at their disposal.  With all the unpleasantness of being on the boycotted side, we must take responsibility.  We, the artists, are a part of this state [of Israel] and therefore a part of its policies, whether we like it or are opposed to it.   All we can do is take responsibility and do all that we can to change the policies.  Art is politics and politics is art, and politics is life.  There is no separation."

I admire Noa Dar for her art and her ethical bearing.  But her response is misguided and unfortunate on political and artistic as well as on ethical grounds.  Firstly, the only tool of expression that Ms. Dar has is her art (and her vote in the Israeli elections).  How can she "take responsibility" if her voice is silenced?  Secondly, what do the directors of art festivals know about Israeli policies? I assure you it cannot very much, otherwise they would appreciate the complexities of the issues.  Their expertise is art, not politics, and they should select or not select works on artistic merit.  Thirdly, stating that art and politics are one, is a notion which has entrenched itself as a prevailing viewpoint in large sections the art world.  It is a big issue, (see Marxism and Adorno and a fascinating Alex Ross article, and also Kyle Gann in the New Music Box), so I will leave out the philosophical debate.  But, briefly, lets assume that rather than an artist Noa Dar was a scientist, and that rather then choreography her gift to humanity was a cure for some illness.  Would not politics and science be separated in that case? Or would someone boycott her medicine?  Noa Dar's art certainly does not carry a message of oppression and injustice, why should it be forcibly mixed with a political message not her own?  Finally, why should this be perpetuated on an Israeli artist and no other nationalities?  Why not ban Lebanese artists because of the crimes of Hezbollah?  Or Chinese artists for the destruction of Tibet or the Tiananmen Square massacre?  How about Americans, or British artists for invading Iraq, or for holding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay without due process?  No, only Israeli artists must be "held responsible."

Read more about the dilemmas of the Israeli Left in here

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A Japanese festival cancelled the appearance of the multi-media show Aluminum.  The identity of the festival was not disclosed in the YNET article (no English version), but Ilan Azriel, the creator of the work, describes a reality where "approaching international festivals these days is almost hopeless because of the situation, and the feeling is terrible."

A Documentary Film Festival in Lussas, France, notified Israeli filmmakers that because of war in Lebanon the festival had changed its plan to hold a special program on Israeli documentary film, and decided to screen Lebanese, Palestinian films instead.  Read here, and here

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Finally, academics suffer from this bias as well.  There are many incidents of lecturers banned and 'uninvited' to speak.  The concentration of this letter in on art, but there are also many similar cases of prejudice within academia, and at least one must be mentioned: NATFAE's boycott of Israeli Academics. (there are many links about, this one is from "the Republic")  "The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) in Britain, the largest teachers' union in the country, yesterday voted to boycott Israeli academics and institutions of learning that don't disassociate themselves from the government's "apartheid" policy in the territories. The motion received 106 "ayes" to 71 "againsts," with 21 not voting. Not exactly an overwhelming victory for the stigmatizers. But it vividly conveys the biases suffusing English colleges and universities. Imagine how the boycotters might teach the intricate history of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs of Palestine and of the long and hazardous efforts made by the Israelis to settle it--including, in 2000, the far-reaching proposals of the Barak government, egged on a bit by the Clinton administration, for a Palestinian state on 96 percent of the territories captured in 1967."

A very important concept is mentioned here, the branding of Israel as an "apartheid" state.  Let there be no mistake.  Whatever one's grievances about the state of Israel may be, Israel DOEs not practice apartheid.  Apartheid is a systematic separation of the population according to race, a policy practiced in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. (Read more about it in here). 

The line between righteousness and self-righteousness has long been crossed in art and academic establishments in their criticism of Israel. Israel is by no means saintly, but it is not any worse than any other state on earth.  Some intellectuals, artistic directors, curators, and artists as well, appear to be looking for a place to channel their 'moral' energy, but what they really do is to scapegoat. Israel is an easy target because it is small, moral, and susceptible to criticism. Israel is also attacked because of all sorts of psychological reasons, including latent and blatant anti-Semitism, guilt over the past sins of colonialism, cowardice and frustration in the face of savage and hostile forces of radical Islam that they lack the language to understand, and plain ignorance.Boycotting Israeli artists and academics, the most moral and most vulnerable segment of Israeli society, is heinous bullying that serves no purpose besides augmenting the boycotter's sense of self-worth.

 

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Palestinian Suicide Terrorists Farewell

Wafa Sultan

Palestinian Children

Wednesday, August 16, 2006 4:36 PM  

 

The Dilemma of the Israeli Left

The Israeli artistic and scholarly crowd is, much like its European counterpart, a bastion of the Left.  In its more radical corners, the prevailing view in regards to Israel is Post Zionism.  Zionism is a movement that strives for a Jewish homeland in the historic land of the Jewish Nation.  Although plagued with wars, the state of Israel is largely a success story.  It has been able survive and strive in a hostile environment, and gradually make peace with neighbor states who at first rejected it and fought against its existence.  In some ways, however, Zionism is a victim of its own success.  In the early 1980's, Israel was a relatively strong state, and some citizens of Israel started to question Israel's militaristic stand against its neighbors.  The Peace Now movement was born after Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  This war, although it achieved its stated goals of uprooting the hostile PLO militias from Lebanon, exacted a heavy toll on both Israel and Lebanon.   Many Israelis, especially intellectuals and artists, began to feel that Israel was too militaristic, and a split began to form between those Israelis and the security establishment, which is an integral part of Israeli society, since everyone serves in the army.

At this point my personal story becomes enmeshed with the developments of Israeli thought.  In the mid 1980s, my turn to serve in the IDF came around. I was an art school student, and began to be exposed to ideas that created doubts in my mind as to the Zionist narrative I was raised on.  I saw around me a satiated Israeli society, in which Palestinian Arabs were performing most of the menial jobs.  I was also becoming aware of the magnificence of Arab and Muslim culture and certainly did not want to be an enemy of that. I informed my father, to his great dismay, that I did not want to be a "uniformed oppressor," and ended up serving only six months out the three years prescribed by law.  Shortly after that I moved to the USA.    I'm older and wiser now, and several developments have, since my youth, expanded my perspective about the predicament of my homeland.   These developments included genuine attempts by Israeli governments to make peace with the Palestinians.  The failure of the Oslo agreement especially, had sown grave misgivings in the minds of many Israelis (myself included) as to whether the Palestinian people have the national power and resolve to make compromises and build a future.  The attitude of Yasser Arafat suggested that the national aspirations of the Palestinians are secondary to the dreams of the great Arab Ummah that does not accept a Jewish state within it. The worst lesson for me, however, was the advent of the Suicide Bomber. We now witness the specter of a person dedicating him/herself to God by blowing him/herself up in a crowd of innocents, hoping to kill as many of them as possible.  At first, there was an inclination to view such events as acts of desperation committed by persons of unsound mind.  But by now we have had to recognize that these acts require a network of operators and educators, and also a societal mindset that approves of it.  The advent of Suicide Bombing also linked the local Israeli-Palestinian dispute with an international movement that perpetrates such horrors all over the world.  New York, London, Mumbai, Madrid, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and it is also a weapon choice between Sunni and Shiite fighters in Iraq.  Anyone who is considered to be an infidel is a target.  An evil on such a colossal scale, to my mind, cast a dark shadow on any thought of a benign Palestinian state that does not renounce it.  Like other historical monstrosities, this one too is the rotten fruit of wounded pride. Even if original grievances were in many cases justified, this kind of evil cannot be contained or appeased, it must be destroyed before a peace can be made with the people from which it has sprung up.

Post Zionism that began as a peace movement in the eighties, developed further in the past two decades that I have spent in New York. According to Post Zionism, the mission of Zionism has been accomplished and Israel should now be a state of all its citizens, and no longer first and foremost a haven for the Jews.  Its scholarly exponents, the New Historians, also developed new narratives challenging the orthodoxies of Zionism and the image of Israel as a state that seeks peace with its neighbors.

The European intellectual Left, however, rejects Zionism all together.  According to the narrative it purports, Israel is a Colonial outpost of the West, forcibly inserted within native population, which it oppresses.  Imposing this Arab/European narrative on the Israeli history is a big stretch of reality. It ignores the facts that more then half the Israeli population is not of European decent; that Jews did not immigrate to the Holy-Land to "colonize" it, but, rather, to save their lives; that Jews have continuously lived in the geographic areas of the current state of Israel for thousands of years; and that when living away from Israel, Jews were always considered, by themselves as well as by their host countries, as foreigners and stateless.  My ancestors, for example, where part of the Jewish community in Poland.  Throughout eight hundred years of history, the Jews of Poland where never granted the same rights as their fellow Polish citizens.  They were subject to periodical expulsions and pogroms, culminating in the holocaust, during which almost the entire population of three million people was murdered by the Nazis, I owe my existence to the fact that my grandmother, being a Zionist, immigrated to Israel (then, under British rule, called Palestine) before the war.  She was one of very few survivors of a very large and prosperous family.  The Polish Jews that survived the war reserve a special resentment to their Polish neighbors, who often willingly handed them over to be slaughtered by the Nazis.  The case in other European states was similar.  Nor did the Jews ever have equal rights in Arab states in which they resided.

 

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A particularly pernicious outgrowth of the anti-Zionist narrative is the attempts to stigmatize Israel withaccusations of the practice of Apartheid.  To my great dismay, this term has also been adopted by some of my best Israeli friends to describe Israeli policies.

Let there be no mistake.  Whatever one's grievances about Israel may be, Israel does not practice Apartheid. Apartheid was a policy created by the South African Government from 1948 to 1994 designed to perpetuate the separation of the population of South Africa according to race.  It included economic and geographical segregation, as well as laws against inter-marriages.    In Israel all citizens have identical legal rights.  Arab citizens of Israel share equal legal rights with Jewish Israelis.  The one exception to this rule is the Law of Return, which prescribes that Israel is a state not only of its citizens but also of the entire Jewish nation, so that Jew, and only Jews, who immigrate to Israel become a citizens almost automatically. 

Residents of the West Bank and Gaza, (the territories) are under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, which is in a state of war with Israel (its current government, the Hamas, does not recognize Israel's right to exist).  They do not have Israeli citizenship, and their situation is indeed tragic.  Faulting Israel for their condition, however, is a misrepresentation.  Although there is much to find at fault with Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, it has tried, and is trying, to resolve the issue in any way that will not endanger it's secure existence.  Palestinians are stateless not only in the "occupied territories" but also among Israel's Arab neighboring states, who hold them as a bargaining chip against the state of Israel. Palestinians are denied equal rights by their "brethren" Arabs, in the Arab countries within which they live.   For example, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) describes the condition of Palestinians refugees in Lebanon in these words:

Palestine refugees in Lebanon face specific problems. They do not have social and civil rights, and have very limited access to the government's public health or educational facilities and no access to public social services. The majority rely entirely on UNRWA as the sole provider of education, health and relief and social services. Considered as foreigners, Palestine refugees are prohibited by law from working in more than 70 trades and professions. This has led to a very high rate of unemployment amongst the refugee population

Egypt is not interested in governing the Gaza strip, and Jordan does not want to rule the West bank.  The Palestinians themselves, having rejected the original partition plan of the UN from 1948, never had a state, and have been unable or unwilling to self-rule under different agreements with Israel.  Their governments seem to perpetually deteriorate to gang rule.  Israel, which has ruled the Territories for almost fourty years, is not free of responsibility for this situation.  But the problem is complex and sincere attempts have been put forth by Israel to attempt to resolve it.  In short, it is a tragic situation, but it has nothing to do with apartheid.

The branding of Israel with Apartheid, therefore, has more to do with the need of the people who perceive themselves as fighting for justice, to scapegoat. They believe that the cultural boycott of South Africa in the nineteen eighties is what brought down the regime there, and look for a place to channel this "moral energy."  Israel is an easy target because it is small, moral, and susceptible to criticism.  It is also attacked because of all sorts of psychological reasons, including latent and blatant anti-Semitism; guilt over the past sins of colonialism; cowardice and frustration in the face of savage hostile forces of radical Islam that they don't have the language to understand; and just plain ignorance.

The use of this term has the following implications:  That the Jews, historical victims of racism, practice racism themselves; that the government of Israel should be turned over to the Arabs, just as the South African white Colonialist government ended up handing over power to the black Africans; that boycotting can succeed, since it succeeded against South Africa in the 1980's; and that therefore it is a good fight to pick.  Since Israel was conceived in sin, this line of thinking demands, the only proper solution to its predicament is assimilation in its Arab surroundings.

This is a big challenge to the Israeli, post-Zionist Left.   Their friends in the European Left are offering them to commit suicide as far as their Israeli identity is concerned.  Moderating the tone is no help either, since as we have seen, even Left-leaning Israelis are not spared the boycott.

 
Tuesday, August 15, 2006  

Arab secularist, Wafa Sultan on Al Jazeera.

Worth hearing.

Click here for hebrew subtitles