On the eve of the passing of the anti-boycott bill in the Israeli Knesset today by a majority of 47 to 38, a debate on cultural boycott was held at the London Literature Festival in the Southbank Centre, initiated by Naomi Foyle of British Writers in Support of Palestine (BWISP). The debate motion was: "Where basic freedoms are denied and democratic remedies blocked off, cultural boycott by world civil society is a viable and effective political strategy; indeed a moral imperative."
Supporting the motion, Omar Barghouti, founding member of PACBI, and Seni Seneviratne, British-Sri Lankan poet and performer; opposing, Jonathan Freedland, columnist for The Guardian and the Jewish Chronicle, and Carol Gould, expatriate American author, film maker, and 'a vocal critic of what she sees as increasing anti-Americanism and antisemitism in Britain'.
Although the chair referred to the Palestinian call to boycott Israel as a 'model boycott', the debate was in theory not specific to I/P. Seneviratne, who is very knowledgeable about the South African experience, opened with a poem of Brecht's, "When evil-doing comes like falling rain", and addressed the history of cultural boycott, arguing that it is up to the oppressed people to decide what they can, and cannot, endure. She emphasised that the Israeli state strategy to co-opt culture showed it understood art was not beyond politics, the same way other countries have feared and murdered intellectuals and banned the work of cultural producers. Otherwise the debate was entirely focused on I/P.
As expected from those opposing the motion, there was much 'whataboutery': "look at Syria, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia", as well as misrepresentation: "you will be shunning the dissenters, individual artists, writers, scholars", and outright lies: "there was not a consensus in Palestinian society on BDS." Perpetrating the myths of liberal Zionism was Freedland, who began smugly as the Voice of Cultural Sensitivity, Dialogue & Coexistence and ended up tetchy and defensive in the face of polite demands from the other side for moral consistency and the reminder that no state committing the crimes of Israel is "welcome in the Western club of democracies".
Given that Freedland is still under the intentional illusion that this a conflict between two nations, rather than a case of settler colonialism, his empty rhetoric was not surprising. He might have wished for someone less morally compromising on his team, however. Carol Gould 'judaized the debate' as Barghouti put it, and to a repulsive degree. One particularly shocking statement of hers was that Israel's industry 'emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust'. She concluded with an extraordinary defense of 'dovish' Israeli president Shimon Peres's order to shell the UN compound in Qana, Lebanon in 1996, which resulted in the deaths of over 100 civilians.
Barghouti and Seneviratne made a strong team and while their approaches to the subject matter were different, the message was the same: 'We will never convince the colonial masters to give up their privileges', so boycott is a legitimate tactic.
Pro-boycotters were in the majority that night, and the motion passed easily.
In the audience was Tony Greenstein, and over at his blog there is a good summary of the debate: Debate At South Bank – For or Against the Cultural Boycott of Israel. He spoke directly to Gould's insistence that 'boycott is a poisonous word in Jewish history', and the bizarre spin on her clearly belligerent position that she 'held no grudges' against her perceived enemies, unlike boycott advocates. Greenstein elaborates on Jewish history and boycotts here:
the only Boycott in the Nazi era was the boycott of German goods organised by the Jewish unions and the international labour movement. The so-called boycott of Jewish shops on April 1st 1933 by the SA [Sturm Abteilung Nazi stormtroopers] was nothing of the kind – it was an armed siege, just as Gaza today experiences an armed siege. But even more pertinent, the SA intended the ‘boycott’ to last indefinitely. Hitler called it off after one day after Goring and the German capitalists panicked at the effects of the Jewish Trade Union Boycott of German goods. In late March Goring called the German Jewish leaders to see him and they said they had no influence. But also invited, after lobbying, was the German Zionist Federation which openly stated that it opposed the Boycott as an ‘unZionist’ way to do things. Unsurprisingly because the Zionist movement was intent on laying their hands on German Jewish wealth (this was openly stated). They therefore concluded Ha’varah, The Transfer Agreement between Nazi Germany and Jewish Palestine (Yishuv)! 60% of capital investment in the Yishuv between 1933-39 came from Nazi Germany! But what benefitted Zionism did not benefit Jews. The Jews able to take advantage of Ha’avarah were wealthy German Jews who could have got out anyway. What it did was seal the fate of ordinary and poor German Jews for whom no other weapon was available. For those interested, read Edwin Black’s book ‘The Transfer Agreement’.