Artists for Palestine UK Respond to CDS (Challenging Double Standards)
On 13th February, Artists for Palestine UK launched the Artists’ Pledge for Palestine (http://artistsforpalestine.org.uk), which now has more than 1,000 signatories. In its first week, the website received over 160,000 hits; it seems fair to say that its launch has opened another phase in the debate about the response that cultural workers can make to the struggle of Palestinians against oppression.
Another contribution to these arguments – strongly opposed to ours – has been made by a group of cultural workers based mainly in Germany. Published in ArtLeaks a few days before we launched the Artists’ Pledge for Palestine, it comprises a call against boycott, made under the heading ‘Challenging Double Standards.’ In the interests of debate, we offer a summary of what we take to be the authors’ main propositions, followed by a defence of our own approach and a critique of theirs.
The authors begin with a warning: the situation in Palestine/Israel is ‘complex’. Artists should be wary, therefore, of thinking about it in ‘binary, reductive’ terms, which make ‘dialogue’ between Israelis and Palestinians ‘impossible’. Boycott campaigns, they continue, are definitely an obstacle to dialogue because they ‘simplify’ history, by presenting Israel as a ‘paradigmatic colonial power;’ they ‘single out’ Israel from other states with an equally blemished record and thus fuel a revival of antisemitism.
The boycott movement, moreover, is in their view an ‘outside’ movement that lacks ‘on-site knowledge’ of Israeli society and the situation of Palestinians. Because of this, we are told, it is inclined to see conflicts between Israel and Palestinians in simplified moralistic terms, as ‘part of an eternal non-specific battle’ between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It wishes to end ‘evil’ by ‘destroying Israel as a Jewish and democratic state’. [We note, in passing and with some surprise, that the authors apparently endorse the idea that a state can be ‘democratic’ while also being defined by ethnicity – an idea criticised by many Israelis, most recently by Shlomo Sand.] In place of these ‘simplifying narratives’, and ‘biased demands’, their Call seeks to promote ‘nuanced dialogue’. It asks ‘spaces of art and cultural production’ to make room for work that ‘deals actively with contradictions’ and rejects ‘demonising’ and ‘simplifying’ narratives.
We don’t find the Call convincing. It is odd that a text which insists on the need to reject generalisation and respect ‘specificity’, is itself so unspecific. There are some quite basic ‘specifics’ that don’t get mentioned at all: occupation, ethnic cleansing, settlements. Others are presented only in the form of euphemisms – the Israeli attacks on Gaza become ‘the Gaza War’. The document accepts without any doubt or questioning a very familiar story: not just that there are two sides, but that these sides are equivalent in the suffering they endure and the violence they inflict. It does not test this assumption against experience, least of all the experience of Palestinians. In fact it demonstrates a shocking lack of interest in what is happening to them, and in the multiple ways in which they have resisted it.
Misrepresenting the boycott movement
Unengaged with Palestinians – their debates, their politics – it is not surprising that the document misrepresents the boycott movement. It sees it as something that has developed outside Palestinian society, among the universities and the cultural spaces of the West – hence the comment about a lack of ‘on-site knowledge.’ In fact the movement exists because Palestinian organisations – like the South African ANC before them – have made a call for it: it is one of the forms of their resistance, for which they have won a global hearing.
Challenging Double Standards doesn’t attempt to understand what the movement is calling for. The BDS campaign is quite specific in its objectives: end the occupation; achieve equality for Palestinians within Israel; abide by United Nations resolutions. Again, such ‘real specificity’ is too much for the writers of the Call. They don’t mention these objectives, still less debate them. They prefer another kind of narrative, depicting the movement, for all its limited objectives, as a force working for the destruction of Israel.
Building on this assumption, the document suggests that boycott campaigns are targeting ‘an entire country and its citizens.’ This is not the truth – as the authors would quickly find if they looked in any detail at an initiative like the Artists’ Pledge for Palestine. Those who have put their names to the pledge have collectively refused ‘professional invitations to Israel, and funding, from any institutions linked to its government.’ No more, no less. Other kinds of invitation, other ways of working, outside the frame of the Israeli government’s cultural policy, are not at issue. In addition to their collective statement, many artists have written statements of their own. We invite the authors of Challenging Double Standards to read these statements (http://artistsforpalestine.org.uk/a-pledge/signatories-statements/). They are as nuanced and multi-voiced as any cultural theorist would want – yet at the same time they come together in protest against a singular injustice.
We don’t think the authors of Challenging Double Standards have been attentive enough to the situation they offer to analyse, or the movement they want to critique. There’s a long and undistinguished history of texts that invoke grand humanist principles as they go about their business of making injustice invisible. The Call belongs in this tradition; its talk is of peace and dialogue. But the other stuff, the enduring intolerable misery, is something it doesn’t want to see.
Artists for Palestine UK
Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from within (Israeli citizens for BDS)