The Cultural Boycott of Israel Isn’t Solidarity, It’s Condescension

JJ Charlesworth is getting tired of knee-jerk activism.

Tags and graffiti on the Israel West Bank security barrier. Photo by Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

Whose side am I on? That’s the question I find myself asking after reading the statement drawn up by Artists for Palestine, and signed by over 700 British artists and self-styled “cultural workers,” announcing their cultural boycott of Israel last week (see Jeremy Deller, Ed Atkins, and Hundreds of UK Artists Support Cultural Boycott of Israel). Declaring their solidarity with the Palestinian cause, artists including musicians Brian Eno and Roger Waters, writers China Miéville and Hari Kunzru, pledged to refuse to “accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government,” in order to challenge what the boycott calls the propaganda of “Brand Israel,” which seeks to normalise the profile of a state involved in what the boycott describes as the occupation, colonization, and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.

It’s easy to respond to an emotive issue in swift, black-and-white, morally unambiguous terms. Who wouldn’t be on the side of the Palestinians, after all? And who could possibly defend the actions of the Israeli state? But being bounced into making such whose-side-are-you-on decision is fast becoming the key problem of the Israeli cultural boycott campaign, in which the narrow focus on this single conflict is destroying any serious critical debate about how people involved in culture should align themselves politically. And what’s even worse about that, as it turns out, is that it’s starting to turn artists into mouthpieces for a political outlook which, rather than being radical and freedom-loving, is in fact deeply conformist and censorious, and not really about anyone’s freedom, neither Palestinian nor Israeli.

On many, too, too obvious levels, it’s possible to take issue with the cultural boycott of Israel for its muddled thinking and double standards. After all, if UK artists should refuse invitations to take Israel’s cultural funding “blood money,” then, I really have to ask myself, what’s different between this an accepting state support from, say, the UK Film Council (stand up Mike Leigh and Ken Loach), or the Arts Council? For some reason, these artists are so sophisticated in their political thinking that they can take money from the government that has spent the last two decades bombing Serbs, Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, and Syrians, and make no moral connection between one and the other, while turning their noses up at Israeli cultural funding. How doesn’t the actions of one’s own government not connect with you when having to make the tricky decision to accept or decline funding for your latest art exhibition/theatre production/film project?

While it’s easy to poke holes in the justifications for the boycott, it’s harder to make sense of what motivates so many smart, thoughtful, and serious artists to focus their ire on Israel. Personally, I don’t buy the usual accusations of anti-Semitism, as most of these artists will hotly contend. While a hatred for Israel among some extremists may translate into anti-Semitism, the boycott’s target is not Jews, but the actions of the state of Israel (although AFP is oddly silent on whether it believes Israel has a right to exist as a state at all). No, I think a better explanation is that for many of these artists, taking a stand against Israel is the only way they can think of making principled moral gesture to show that they are on the side of the oppressed, against the power of the colonizer and the oppressor.

To claim to be acting in solidarity with the Palestinians against their oppressors sounds grandly left-wing, but this is where, in my mind, the politics of Artists for Palestine get muddled. AFP declares that Israel has never faced “sanction, or any threat of sanction, from Western governments.” What does that statement imply? AFP seems to be saying that Israel should be punished by the West, with economic isolation, with sanctions, maybe even with military intervention (who knows where it would draw the line?) if Israel doesn’t conform to the standards of behavior acceptable to liberal and left-leaning Western artists.

What AFP is really saying is that it treats Israel as no more than any other pariah state that needs to be dealt with sternly by the well-meaning, paternalistic Western powers, in just the same way that they deal with all those other misbehaving rogue states out there. AFP writes approvingly of the “many countries around the world that face retribution by some or all of the ‘international community’ for breaching international norms.” And while that term “international community” is put in weirdly embarrassed scare-quotes, AFP seems happy for the international community (meaning, I guess, the big Western powers) to get stuck in, only disappointed that it has not done so in Israel. “We” bomb and sanction Syria, Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe etc., etc., so the logic goes, why not Israel too?

AFP’s position, then, while sounding like an old-fashioned left-wing declaration of solidarity with those oppressed by the puppet states of Western powers, turns out to be something more like a chorus of liberal cheerleading in favour of yet more Western intervention. As if that hadn’t already caused enough chaos and bloodshed in the world. AFP would like Israel to bow down to the “international community’s” own proper regard for those other convenient constructs of Western power, “human rights” and “international law”─principles which never seem to apply to our governments when they intervene in the affairs of other, less morally pure states (and always for “humanitarian” reasons, of course).

This isn’t really solidarity with the Palestinians, it’s moral condescension by the self-righteous and self-regarding over a foreign state they have decided they have the right to pass judgement on. But the tragedy is that the relationship of subservience to Western interests that AFP seeks to impose with regards to Israel, is the same one that will eventually be applied to Palestinians. Any settlement based on bringing Israel “to heel” won’t mean the liberation and self-determination of the Palestinian people; it’ll mean forcing them, and Israelis, to accept whatever arrangement Western governments will decide is best for them. Whatever AFP may think, the cultural boycott of Israel is an instrument, unwitting or otherwise, for the moral vilification of Israel whose consequence can only be greater interference by Western governments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Solidarity is not expressed from behind the keyboard of your MacBook. By all means raise money, send weapons, go fight even, if you care so strongly about the cause of the Palestinians. That would be a test of your “solidarity.” But to mount grandiose displays of your own moral rectitude, while refusing to think through what power relationship you are actually lending support to, is not something the rest of us should feel obliged to support. Luckily, another group of artists and art world people have mounted their own criticism of the UK boycott, gathering hundreds of signatories to their more critical questioning of the logic of the cultural boycott.

In the past, western artists often campaigned against the oppressive meddling of Western governments both at home and abroad: Carl Andre and many other American artists railed against the Vietnam War; John Berger (one of the signatories of the AFP boycott) once pledged his Booker Prize money to the radical US Black Panthers movement. British artists in the 1970s and 80s campaigned against US-sponsored military coups in Latin America, against the British government’s own war in Northern Ireland, and against US nuclear weapons bases in the UK. But today, Western artists seem happier to wag their fingers at those badly behaved countries abroad rather than take their own governments to task. UK artists should look to see if their own house is in order first, and ask themselves if they really want to turn art into the agent of their muddle-headed, moral colonialism.

Update: Following the publication of this article, Artists For Palestine informed artnet News that Jeremy Deller had withdrawn his name from the list of signatories. It was removed from AFP’s website on February 19, or two days after the publication of artnet News’s first article (Jeremy Deller, Ed Atkins, and Hundreds of UK Artists Support Cultural Boycott of Israel). This piece has thus been amended to reflect the change.

JJ Charlesworth is a freelance critic and associate editor at ArtReview magazine. Follow @jjcharlesworth on Twitter. His essay The Ego-Centric Art World is Killing Art was published in December 2014.

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