The BDS Cultural Boycott and Integrity
31 May 2012
Last week I went to see an excellent play at the National Theatre called The Collaborators by John Hodge. The play explored Josef Stalin’s unlikely admiration for dissident playwright Mikhail Bulgakov and the complex bond between art and ‘the State’. The play was a reminder that historically, even when culture has been puppeteered by an authority, unapproved and unintended meanings have a way of leaking out. Had the horror of Stalin’s Holodomor been contemporaneous today, we may well have been called upon to boycott the works of Bulgakov. This would do a great disservice, not only to the cannon of great literature, but also to the counter-revolutionary spirit evoked by Bulgakov’s work. I don’t claim that all art originating from criminal or repressive states, is loaded with subversive messages, but that art has the capacity to transcend the binary world of ‘placard politics’ (‘for’ this or ‘against’ that) and deliver the transforming might of pathos, spirit, sadness and beauty.
Reflecting on this reinforced my reluctant opposition to the cultural and academic boycott of Israel and, in particular to the call by the BDS to sabotage or ban any mode of expression delivered by state-enforced Israeli artists, musicians and thinkers. While the motives of many activists speaking out against Israeli artists and intellectuals are well intended and heart-felt, any action that seeks to abolish freedom of expression or thought is not winning any prizes for tolerance. Jews had their books burnt by Nazis & Israelis continue this dubious tradition by banning writer Gunter Grass, composer Daniel Barenboim and academic Norman Finkelstein. Surely, if we are ‘humanists’ we cannot be lured into suppressing or vandalizing art or ideas. If we do, we enter the supremacist domain of those we claim to oppose.
Furthermore, while the BDS sanctioning of goods is a logical, pragmatic tactic that I whole-heartedly support, I fail to understand the rationality of banning certain Zionist artists and not others. Supporters of the cultural boycott state that they don’t boycott individual Israelis if those individuals are anti-Zionist (like academic Shlomo Sands). This is very kind of them. However, if it is a person’s political persuasion, not the arbitrary lottery of their Nationality, that determines whether they are spared prohibition, why is it only Israeli-born Zionists get banned? Why not picket the lectures of Zionist ‘University of London’ professor David Hirsh? Why interrupt a work of a genius like William Shakespeare (not commonly known to have been a massive Netanyahu supporter) while in cinemas across London, Sasha Baron Cohen’s Zionist propaganda film, The Dictator is delivered on a loop? I really don’t get it.
Interfering with freedom of thought and expression, academic exchange and artistic liberty is a sensitive Issue. Tolerance and pluralism are core and precious values within western discourse. We should boycott Israeli products, not art, spirit and ideas.