Reading the commentary in the Irish media following Dervish’s cancellation of their concerts in Israel, one is struck by the contortions journalists go through to condemn the cultural boycott of the apartheid state. (Some of the mistruths and smears are covered here.)
Two aspects of the narrative really jar with me. The first is the obvious, how come these pundits are so concerned with the perceived collective punishment of Israelis not being able to see artists yet are unmoved about the real and brutal collective punishment that Israel subjects the Palestinians to?
Where is their condemnation when Palestinians are murdered, when their houses are demolished, when their rights are trampled on, when they are subjected to apartheid and occupation? Where is their denunciation of Israel’s war crimes and breaches of international law? Where were their columns when over 2,000 Palestinian prisoners recently went on hunger strike to protest against the barbaric conditions they are held in, many of them without charge?
As Israelis marched through Jerusalem on Sunday chanting “Death to all Arabs”, were they busy writing articles damning such racism? Were there handwringing pieces about this from any of the Sunday Independent ‘columnists’? The answer to these questions is, of course, no. The agenda is so firmly skewed towards the oppressor as to almost completely obscure the oppressed and those who are in solidarity with them.
The other point is that the commentary, very strangely, elevates art and artists to a level whereby they are apparently more sensitive than the average human being and are somehow exempt from the same moral code as the rest of us. The erroneous and lazy claim that Dervish, among other artists, were ‘bullied’ into cancelling deprives them of agency and free thought, and in fact is insulting to them.
Is it credible to suggest that raising awareness of the plight of the Palestinian people and one of their chosen tactics in their struggle against apartheid constitutes bullying? Is the premise that presenting this case and asking artists to make a principled decision is intimidation to be taken seriously? Hardly.
I wonder about many of these columnists, did they support the boycott of South Africa? Do they disagree with Mandela and Tutu? There have been many articles and opinion pieces since Dervish cancelled and they have all come from this same angle.
Fintan O’Toole, a respected Irish Times columnist, last week derided the cultural boycott as “a blunt and backward instrument” and wrongly conflates this form of opposition to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians with anti-Semitism, writing: “Boycotts will always be interpreted as an expression of anti-Semitism and as a prelude to worse attacks.” Really? They will always be interpreted as an expression of anti-Semitism? By whom? Millions of people all over the world who boycott Israeli apartheid in some manner are in no way motivated by such base racism, the very claim is a gross insult to the Palestinian BNC which has called for BDS and to all of those who have signed on to support it.
In the previous line O’Toole says: “In the case of South Africa, the idea was that boycotts might induce shame in white South Africans, causing them to question their support for the system. In the case of Israel, Jewish history means that this effect is impossible.” Are we to understand by this that the history of the Jewish people precludes Israelis from holding up a mirror to their state’s behaviour? That a boycott campaign will be less effective than it was against South African apartheid because of history? Are Israelis, like artists, deprived of agency in this bizarre narrative where boycotts are characterised as weapons and real weapons are ignored? And what of the Israelis who work for BDS, those who stand with their Palestinian sisters and brothers in their struggle? Are they ahistorical?
In Ireland, the anti-apartheid struggle is generally held up as a positive and worthy struggle for rights yet this BDS campaign is currently being vilified in the media here. Indeed, O’Toole opens his column by saying that he supported the cultural boycott of South Africa and goes on to state that boycotts can be problematic, but any engagement with the Palestinian BDS call would demonstrate that it is a tactic to be used strategically and flexibly, he makes no reference to it.
In his tribute to anti-apartheid activist Kader Asmal in 2011, O’Toole wrote: “The anti-apartheid cause to which he devoted his life was one of the great moral crusades of the second half of the 20th century. It was concerned with the obscenity of biologically-based power, of the idea that a few tiny genetic quirks entitled one group of people to rule and condemned others to be subservient.” I agree wholeheartedly with this, as I do with Asmal’s words in the Phoenix magazine supplement “War Crimes in Apartheid Israel” of May 2010: “To have law on our side was to legitimise our struggle in South Africa and begin the long push to delegitimise the apartheid regime. We succeeded and, with Israel, we shall succeed if we have the same determination and pertinacity…It is time to delegitimise this entity that perpetrates nightmarish control over other people.” I believe that anyone honouring Kader Asmal and the anti-apartheid activists should also take the Palestinian BDS campaign seriously.
I cannot understand the cognitive dissonance of supporting the boycott of South African apartheid but railing against the boycott of Israeli apartheid, it is hypocrisy and laziness of thought.
The findings of the Cape Town Session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine are never mentioned, I’m sure most who dismiss the connection between the two apartheid states have neither heard of nor read them.
Why do these commentators never listen to Palestinian voices which are mostly absent even from articles prescribing how they should behave? What would they have Palestinians do to resist apartheid? They condemn physical struggle, they ignore non-violent struggle such as the hunger strikes and demonstrations against the wall, they condemn the cultural boycott.
It seems that all of those who ignore the Palestinians except to censure their modes of resistance ultimately want them to shut up and accept everything Israel throws at them while waiting for the utterly pointless peace process to get them precisely nowhere. They won’t and the BDS campaign, among other strands of struggle, will play a part in ending Israeli apartheid and winning justice for the Palestinian people. None of these journalists will be able to say they contributed when that happens.
I’ll end with a quote I read the other day from Frederick Douglass, the anti-slavery activist, that is relevant to all struggle, not least this one. “Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reforms. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of struggle….If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will….”
BDS apartheid until it ends.