On the eve of the Knesset’s new law penalising calls for boycott, London’s arts centre at the South Bank hosted a prestige debate on “Why Boycott Culture?”.
Organised by English PEN, it asked whether the free speech that PEN defends internationally might rightly be curtailed by a cultural boycott called to support a struggle for justice and free speech.
It was staged as part of the London Literature Festival. But those wondering what might be the thinking person’s argument against the Cultural and Academic boycott of Israel must have been very disappointed.
Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland presented a case re-hashed from the opponents of the original anti-apartheid boycott such as Margaret Thatcher: that it would only harm the oppressed to deprive them of our cultural input, that it would entrench the right’s paranoia and that it would end “dialogue”.
Omar Barghouti, leader and instigator of the academic and cultural boycott, easily dismissed this: did Freedland think he knew what was good for Palestinians better than the massed ranks of Palestinian trade unions, women’s organisations, grass-roots campaigns, NGOs and all political parties that had together called for the boycott? Wasn’t it precisely the boycott that had created the dialogue? And if the Israeli establishment was set to benefit, why was it passing laws to penalise boycott supporters in Israel?
Had the debate taken place one day later, after Israel’s vote to silence the boycott’s supporters, the argument would have been ten times stronger: an imperative to support those facing penalties for defying the boycott censorship. “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty”.
Freedland’s presentation was well-worn, woolly and fraying at the edges, but most strikingly, it was ignorant: he thought that apartheid was defined as rule by a small minority, so “Israel was not apartheid”. Barghouti had to inform him of the UN definition of apartheid that frames international law, and which very much applies to Israel. And after hearing the aims of BDS spelled out, Freedland declared that it was a shocking revelation to discover they didn’t stop at restoration of the Green Line but actually, amazingly, seemed to be demanding right of return for refugees to their 1948 homes all over Israel, and equal rights for all (i.e. regime change) within Israel.
Freedland had seen himself as on the side of good and right, supporting the struggle against the Occupation but merely questioning whether a cultural boycott was the most effective tactic. A typical Two-State true believer, he clearly thought the death of Rabin and of Oslo were historic tragedies, that Shimon Peres is a dove and that if only the settlers were removed, justice will have been done. But as the penny dropped and he seemed to recognise that he was in fact sitting firmly on the fence, a great swell of congratulation seemed to rise from the audience who were audibly egging him on to complete his moment of self-discovery.
Freedland’s seconder was Carol Gould. She stuck to point-scoring, familiar Zionist hasbara, insults, distortion and lies. Yet she also was genuinely surprised that no-one took her seriously, and kept asking us “what have I said wrong? Why are you laughing?”.
Was Freedland worried that this woman had said that she and he were basically political bed-fellows?
Several Jews in the large audience contributed some killer points for the motion. The star of the evening was the pro-Boycott proposer — poet and performer Seni Seneviratne — who was a joy to listen to, each word hitting home and moving on every level: of logic, fact, ethics, emotion. I especially liked her expressive account of how in South Africa the white middle ground started to feel the world’s disgust and decided they didn’t like the moral and political place they were in, leaving the loud and apparently invincible ultra-right as a dwindling and isolated force: another reason to insist, as did all the boycotters, that this was about Zionism, not about Jews.
By an overwhelming vote the boycott proposition was carried by an audience that was knowing of the issues and their implications, and had no desire to see apartheid Zionism continue to rule in any part of Palestine.
If this was anything to go by, Two State fence-sitters will soon be an endangered species in the Palestine solidarity community.
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