The Importance of Cultural Boycott

Last Revised: 

August 05, 2013

The impact of BDS on Israel is undeniable and quite evident in the Israeli government’s extreme response to BDS. In 2011 Israel passed the “Boycott Law” wherein anyone calling for a boycott of Israel could be sued or penalized, including the withdrawal of tax benefits, contracts, even scholarships for study, effectively criminalizing BDS inside Israel. Similarly, attempts to criminalize BDS activism are taking place in France and the United States. In June, 2015, American billionaire financier of Israeli apartheid, Sheldon Adelson organized an emergency BDS summit in Las Vegas at which he raised more than $20 million to combat BDS on US campuses. During the same weekend, Netanyahu pledged an additional NIS 100 million (about $25 million) to the Strategic Affairs and Information MInistry, most of which will go to fighting BDS, including ten new employee positions. There is no doubt that much of this response by Israel is due to the economic impact of BDS on Israel.

However, though difficult to quantify, there is no doubt that cultural boycotts have also made an impact on Israel. Calls for cultural boycott shift the discourse around Israel and the need to hold it accountable for its violations of international law. Extensive international and Israeli media coverage of cultural boycott actions provides a strong indication of the impact of cultural boycott. Whether in support of the cultural boycott or in opposition to it, numerous articles have been published about the subject promoting discussion and debate about Israeli violations of international law and human rights and the most effective response to these violations.

Further, cultural boycott calls elicit strong responses within Israeli society because send a message that as long as Israel continues to violate international law and Palestinian rights, it will be isolated from the international community. After a number of cultural groups canceled their performances in Israel in response to Israel’s attack on the Gaza Flotilla ship, the Mavi Marmara, in 2010, Israeli boycott activist Yonatan Shapira stated: “Most Israelis are desensitized to images of dead Palestinian children and burnt homes, but the refusal of the Pixies to play Tel Aviv has an impact, this gets them asking questions.”

Israeli attempts to counter cultural boycott initiatives are also a telling sign of the significance of cultural boycott. Creative Community for Peace (CCFP) was established to counter artists’ boycott of Israel and “stop the rash of big name cancellations.” CCFP is actually a front for StandWithUs, the notorious right-wing pro-settler organization that works closely with the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Similarly in the UK, a British organization called Culture for Coexistence was established to end the cultural boycott of Israel by proposing “open dialogue” and “cultural engagement." What these organizations refuse to acknowledge is that “cultural interaction with Israel had not only failed to promote an equitable peace, but in fact camouflaged the policies of a nation-state that practices ethnic cleansing and other destructive policies against non-Jews.” Cultural boycott initiatives simultaneously expose these illegal Israeli practices while holding Israeli cultural institutions accountable for their complicity.

Despite these attempts to stop the cultural boycott, it continues to grow around the world. Ben White writes, “In May 2014, New York-based, Israeli writer Reuven Namdar wrote of how ‘the international slowly solidifying around Israel’s cultural life’. [In 2015], curators held a meeting in Tel Aviv on “The Cultural Boycott of Israel and What It Means for Israeli Contemporary Art.” According to a report on the gathering, the boycott “is practiced overtly as well as covertly, officially and unofficially, and by a variety of groups within the art world.”

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