Critics of the Cultural Boycott of Israel Make Their Case

Link: Hyperallergic

by Hrag Vartanian on May 20, 2015

(image provided by )

(image provided by ‘Challenging Double Standard’)

Editor’s note:  The following interview, which was conducted over email, is the third in a continuing series exploring BDS and its connection to the art world. The group being interviewed are signees of “Challenging Double Standards. A Call Against the Boycott of Israeli Art and Society,” an online document that they say is about “making a different argument in current debates on strategies of boycott.” All the questions were submitted to the group over email, and they provided Hyperallergic with these completed responses.

*    *    *

Hrag Vartanian: Can you explain your position on the BDS movement?

Ruth Novaczek: While I accept that divestment and sanctions might work against settlements and the occupation, I am opposed to a cultural boycott that closes any dialogue, and demonizes Israel in a way I consider racist and dangerous.

Eduard Freudmann: In the BDS call of 2005 the movement declares that they expect Israel to recognize the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination by “ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.” It is not clear what that means: do they want Israel to pull out of the West Bank or do they want Israel to cease to exist? These are two very different goals and I think it is quite remarkable that a movement that has existed for 10 years has not been able to formulate that demand without ambiguity. I think that the supporters of BDS should urge their leaders to come out of the closet in that regard.

Nikola Radic Lucati: I believe that the BDS movement is committed to destroying the Israeli/Palestinian center/left, and is intent on destroying common social, economic, and cultural ties between Israelis and Palestinians. I see BDS as a counterpart to the settler movement. BDS, a largely foreign movement, aims to occupy the very conflict itself, inhabit it and radicalize it, perverting the very goals and methods of peaceful political struggle for independence and democracy of the Palestinian people.

Julia Edthofer: From my view BDS functions mostly as a symbolic political “playground” for activists and groups outside of Israel/Palestine. The “Boycott from Within” in Israel/Palestine is quite a tiny group — and it is by far not the only one representing inner-Israeli dissent and resistance. There are plenty of other Leftist groups and organizations such as Ta’ayush, Anarchists against the Wall, The Negev Coexistence Forum, Breaking the Silence, Zochrot, Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity, or the alternative information center B’tselem, just to name a few. The disproportional attention BDS gains internationally, points to its symbolic function and is an issue we are critically addressing in the CDS-letter.

Luisa Ziaja: Yes, and I might add that we decided to write our open letter as a reaction to the upswing of boycott petitions especially in the visual arts context (to which most of us are connected to in one way or the other) with the aim to counter and to challenge the BDS agenda.

HV: Can you clarify why “conflict in the Middle East” is used in your letter as synonymous with the Israel/Palestine issue? Considering more extensive wars in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere are taking place, I’m confused by that.

Doron Rabinovici: I think we were rather clear about that. We did not use the term as synonymous with the Israel/Palestine issue. To refer to the conflict between Israel and Palestine as “the conflict in the Middle East“ is wrong. Unfortunately, the conflict between Israel and Palestine has become the paradigm. This term makes us believe that this conflict is the real reason for all the problems in the Middle East. One could think that Israel is the one central evil of the world. But the mass murder of the Yazidis and the persecution of Kurds and Copts have nothing to do with Palestine. One should rather analyze the Israel/Palestine conflict in the context of the wider picture in the Middle East.

Till Gathmann: I do agree, Doron, but I’d like to add, that in 1948 Israel was attacked by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq on behalf of the Arab League, who rejected the UN partition plan. Up until 1967 the conflict was perceived as one between the Arab states and Israel. I think, this is important to remember, since this opposition is now covered with the reversed image of David and Goliath, David representing the Palestinians. Which also reflects a truth: the Palestinian population always served as a tool for the Arab states to fight the State of Israel, as a pawn in the game, subject of politics rather than political subjects.

HV: Your website states “Challenging Double Standards,” but who are you accusing of that double standard? PACBI? People supporting BDS? Palestinians?

Doron: I have never heard of a boycott of the British art world because of the war in Iraq. There was no effort to boycott any galleries, museums or research institutes that cooperated with the British Defense Ministry. There is no boycott of American universities that cooperate with the United States army. To single out Israel is to create a double standard. I also accuse the BDS movement of double standards, because BDS does not specify what it exactly means by occupied territories. BDS does not distinguish between 1967 and 1948. In fact BDS pretends to fight against the occupation but strives to delegitimize the whole state of Israel.

Julia: As mentioned in our letter we are addressing artists, art collectives, and curators who are currently initiating and/or signing boycott-calls. I think that we made it quite clear, that we are not addressing the Palestinian authorities or Palestinian people, but people outside Israel/Palestine. We criticize that the conflict serves as a projection screen and for this reason we highlight several “double standards” of the BDS rhetoric.

The first relates to the projectional dimension and thus to the fact that BDS is actually not a “boycott from within” as it is presented by the movement. In historical boycott movements such as the South-African anti-Apartheid movement, representatives of the struggle were received and supported in various other countries, whereas in the case of Israel (Jewish) leftist artists, scholars, and activists who do not happen to be part of the very tiny inner-Israeli “Boycott-from Within Movement,” are at risk of being boycotted themselves. Regarding your question if we would accuse “the Palestinians” of double standards, I also want to respond to your wording: of course we do not accuse “the Palestinians” of double standards; it is logical that grassroots organizations such as PACBI support the boycott, or that PFLP has antagonistic views on the conflict in Israel/Palestine as they advocate for a Palestinian state instead of and not besides an Israeli one. All this is part of political antagonisms, which shape societies in conflict like the one in Israel/Palestine. Both organizations, however, do not represent “the Palestinians” — if we argue politically on this level, far more important representative bodies than PACBI or PFLP would be Fatah or the Islamist Hamas. So again, BDS is just not as representative as it is presented and perceived in many artistic contexts. It is not embraced and supported by the majority of the Palestinian people, or by whom you call “the Palestinians,” who — to put it bluntly — have other problems, issues, parties, and forms of organizing.

The second problematic double standard of the BDS rhetoric regards the biased invocation of international law regarding a possible two state solution, as BDS’ maximalist demands imply a dissolution of the Israeli state by promoting a one-state vision that ignores the fact that Israel’s statehood is recognized by international law within its pre-67 borders.

HV: Have all or any of the signees visited Israel and/or Palestinian Territories? I’m curious if you think that has an impact on the perspective of the group.

Eduard Freudmann: These are very good questions. Since we were not able to answer them for the entire group, we set up a quantitative survey among the initial signees of the CDS call. Out of 20 initial signees 11 participated, which is 55%. The results are quite interesting:

Nikola: Yes, I have lived in Israel, next to Palestine, for over a decade. I visited first in the 1980s, lived there in the early 90s, and throughout the 2000s. I have met many on the Israeli, as well as the Palestinian left. I have visited Palestinian Gaza as well. I have witnessed the growth of the settlements, the atrocities of the second intifada, and the withdrawal of empathy, which led to the construction of the wall. I do think my personal experience of common work and life with neighbors and friends of both nations has defined what I aspire to, and wish to contribute — the freedom, independence, and equality of peace for all.

Ruth: Yes, having spent time there and having friends and family in Israel who are on the left, and critical, and against the occupation, I don’t see it in the abstract. I myself have shown art there and do not consider that a cultural boycott will end the occupation. I think it is important to have visited for two reasons a first-hand account can cut through the media which generally portrays the situation from a for or against perspective and often only in terms of militarization and not culture, Israeli or Palestinian. Secondly if we know people and have relationships with the place then questions of allegiance are more personal and informed by empathy. It would seem that many supporters of BDS do so from a perspective that entertains simple narratives that paint Israel as a racist colonial state, and that what’s missing from this view is the range of grey that dialogue requires.

Suzana Milevska: I can only confirm just for the sake of statistics that I did visit Israel long time ago, in the midst of the Lebanon War back in 1982, but I don’t think that this question, whether we all visited Israel, is so relevant. At least in my case, although my visit did provide me with more insights on the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East (coming from at that time very peaceful Yugoslavia, where I’ve learnt the politics of war and the meaning of the English word ‘ceasefire’), more important for signing CDS was the influence of BDS on intellectual and artistic circles in Europe and the rise of anti-Semitism across the world.

Julia: I am currently in Israel/Palestine for several months and of course my visit influences my perspective. Just a few days ago I went to the Southern hills of Hebron with Ta’ayush, a left-wing organization that is absolutely to be supported as it does important work on the ground by providing legal counseling against land grabbing for Palestinian farmers and by supporting them in their daily struggle against harassment by right-wing settlers. Important in this respect, though, is also the level on which this work is done: namely “on the ground” in Israel/Palestine. In our letter we are criticizing a completely different level: we are addressing the projective dimension of the Middle East conflict. I think it is important not to play off against each other the criticism(s) of different dimensions of such a loaded and complicated issue like the conflict in Israel/Palestine; furthermore I think that morally charged either-or perspectives ultimately contribute to the anti-political narrative we are challenging in our letter.

HV: Why do you all seek to speak together and not individually?

Doron: I signed the CDS-Call to be part of a group of artists and cultural people who speak out against the cultural boycott of Israel. I do speak individually very often, but this issue is not an individual one. It is a political act. To defend the cultural dialogue against the ideology of one-sidedness must be a collective task.

Suzana: We all signed the CDS letter individually, with our names and surnames so there is no issue of anonymity here. It’s more about reflecting on the different nuances in our opinions, which could be easily lost if addressed separately and individually. We wanted to keep track of such differences in our opinions and enable an easier comparison when speaking of such complex issues. Namely, that the general aim of the group letter doesn’t overwrite the individual opinions and that we still continue discussing different aspects and problems — that the discussion is not decided in advance and signed but it’s an ongoing deliberation in a group.

HV: I’m curious what you think the alternative to BDS is? Do you think the situation in Israel/Palestine is ideal or do you hope it changes? If so, in what way? 

Julia: As mentioned in our letter, we of course do not think that the situation in Israel/Palestine is an ideal one — I personally think that the solution could only be a two-state one and thus strongly support every grassroots-organization or party that truly advocates such a solution as a more realistic alternative to BDS’ maximalist positions. And a counter-question: Do you really think that BDS can contribute to a conflict-solution? Is it that influential? And is it actually aiming at a solution? I would strongly doubt both.

Nikola: The alternatives to BDS/Settlers or Hamas/Likud lie in strengthening political cooperation of Palestinian and Israeli citizens, creating cooperation based on common values and the common desire for life in peace. Both states will need to fully accept their neighbors as well as their own minorities. Their borders should be as porous as their soil, and just as easy to cross. Choices where people live should be dictated by the fulfillment of their personal needs, not by anyone’s population/expansion policy. Both peoples are bound by common future, and they need international support to build it together. Is the situation ideal? It is murderous, and designed by criminals profiting on war, on both sides, to squelch any chance at peace. I am entitled to my ideals, and seeing Israelis and Palestinians as mature and capable of talking with each other while living up to their own, is one of them.

Ruth: We have stated what we think as a group. As for myself I hope the situation changes, I want a two-state solution and the end of settlement building.

Benjy Fox-Rosen: Firstly, the CDS group is specifically addressing BDS in the cultural and academic spheres. Economic boycott is a different strategy that is not part of the present conversation. The alternative to cultural and academic boycott is specifically to engage with artists and thinkers who represent a wide range of voices, especially those voices, which are suppressed. I think that the situation in Israel/Palestine is far from ideal. I should hope that the discourse that the CDS signees have been engaging in makes it very clear that we are not content with the current situation.

HV: Clearly this is a highly charged topic for Germans, since the Holocaust was perpetrated by a former German government and Israel received more widespread international support for independence after the Holocaust. How do you see your role as Germans in this matter?

Doron: I am not a German. Anti-Semitism is not only a German issue. The majority of the initial signees of the CDS-Call are not German. Moreover, it is not necessary to be German in order to realize the anti-Semitic dangers in contemporary Europe. The Austrian right-wing party is islamophobic. But you don’t need to live in Austria to be against anti-Muslim racism, I suppose.

Till: As one of the few people from Germany of the individuals who wrote the letter, I guess I am left to answer this question. I can’t really see where the topic is not charged (at least in the parts of the world shaped by monotheism). If you are suggesting that people from Germany feel a certain inhibition to condemn a people their grand- and great-grandparents murdered, you are probably right, and this is for good reasons. Indeed a lot of feelings revolve around guilt, though not necessarily resulting in a pro-Israel stance.

Psychologically spoken, identification with Palestinians can help Germans get rid of feelings of guilt by projecting crimes their relatives committed onto, for example, Israelis, gaining satisfaction in the notorious equation of Israeli military actions with Nazi war crimes, in order to depict the former victims as perpetrators. Some experience their inhibition to raise anti-Zionist views as a taboo — though criticism against Israel is common and for free ± which occasionally can culminate in anti-Semitic fantasies about “the Jews” controlling the media. The common way to deal with feelings of guilt is to develop a carefully balanced and quite artificial jargon to avoid controversy. It can be learned from politicians and newspapers, particularly in the wake of anniversaries and memorial days.

After the German re-unification, and the increase of nationalism, neo-Nazism, and xenophobic violence, parts of the German left re-shaped it’s analysis of National Socialism, the role of the German population, and memory politics, and started to further the analysis of modern anti-Semitism as a reactionary “critique” of the capitalist mode of production. It supports the Zionist endeavor as a consequence of failed containment of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Do people from Germany suffer a guilt-triggered malfunction of understanding the conflict? Yes — other than people, say, from the UK or the US, who seem to be perfectly objective, due to their minor role in world history, which, I assume, does not charge the topic.

Eduard: I am not German but I want to cite a German poet: “Caesar beat the Gauls. Did he not have even a cook with him?” The Holocaust was not perpetrated by a government but by people, not all of them were Germans.

HV: Do you see Israel and the Palestinian Authorities as equal partners in this dialogue? I bring this up because many people point out the different power dynamics that make any real dialogue difficult, if not impossible.

Nikola: The speech that comes from the a priori position of impossibility of dialogue is the speech of warmongering excuses for violence and terror. Both sides are very much the equal partners in the dialogue, regardless of the different ways they project their power. They both own the war and its legacy. Dialogue is necessary, it is what changes the “power dynamics” and “facts on the ground.” Dialogue is also, a humanist obligation, it is that belief in our ability to invite people to a common discussion on the common future, what gives us a stake in Israel/Palestine future, not our tribal ancestry.

Eduard: The dialogue on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has more participants than Israel and the PA. If two parties have contradicting interests there are two options to settle the resulting conflict: either fight each other until one of them stops existing or reach an agreement through negotiation. I can’t remember any diplomatic dialogue among equal partners, I don’t think that such a thing exists. Maybe at the peak of the Cold War the Soviet Union and the USA were closest to such an equality. If equality was the precondition to dialogue, the world would be silent.

HV: You mention no other country is boycotted, but isn’t Iran, among other nations, still the subject of a far more severe and sustained boycott? How do you see this as different?

Doron: Israel has been boycotted by some countries since 1948. Israelis are even not allowed to visit some countries. But boycotts in the world of culture and the intellect must not be mixed up with other forms of boycott. Cultural boycott is dangerous because it aims against the very part of civil society, which stands for dialogue and understanding. There is no cultural, academic or intellectual boycott against Iran.

Ruth: The sentiments behind the BDS movement demonize Israel to an alarming degree, BDS calls for a shunning of Israel that blocks all possibility of cultural and academic exchange between those who seek justice globally, and this is dangerous, especially at a time when anti-Semitic violence is increasing because of this demonization.

Julia and Till: As mentioned by Doron, the first big difference between the boycott addressed in our letter and the sanctions against Iran is the simple fact that the former is a cultural, academic and intellectual boycott organized and promoted by people considering themselves as part of the left. The latter are sanctions by various states, mainly based on UN-resolutions. So the first regards symbolic leftist politics, the second geopolitical inter-state tensions. We want to intervene in the first field and attempted to do so with our letter.

Regarding Iran, you are pointing to an example of states targeted by “the West” and singled out as a threat, in order to sanction, boycott or even attack them for geopolitical and/or economic reasons. This targeting is, without question, an issue to challenge. However, in such a challenge one should not confuse narratives with political analysis, as it is not Iran’s nuclear program for civil usage, which is targeted — rather the sanctions were imposed after an IAEO-report (2003) revealed that the program is part of the production of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, it is not only a “Western” view that the program is a threat: Opinion polls show that Iran is perceived as menace by most of its neighboring countries. Israel is a special case here: Since 1979 every Iranian president and the two supreme leaders publicly called for the destruction of Israel. This conflict thus does not fit into the scheme “evil West” against subaltern “Rest,” as you seem to suggest. In not taking into account the perspectives of the people actually living in the region, your narrative thus adds to a Western/euro-centric view. The same holds true, by the way, for “Western” leftist (non-)perceptions of the precarious situation of minorities within Iran, such as Baha’i, Jews, Kurds, Yazidis, LGBTQI people, as well as political protagonists, such as unionists, feminists, secular left-wing activists, or for the broader Iranian population who confronted the regime in the aftermath of the elections in 2009. Such a lack of solidarity is directly connected to the view of Iran as a “subaltern nation” resisting imperialism; a view that leaves out its role as an important regional power with an imperialist past and ambitions. We would urge for further reflection of such “Saidian” narratives as they tend to overlook the facts on the ground and perpetuate a somehow patronizing “Western” (pseudo)anti-colonialist leftist attitude.

Nikola: I do not remember Iranian culture being under international boycott.

HV: I was confused by the issue that was raised in the letter about the request by the BDS Arts Coalition to artists to withdraw from the traveling art exhibition “Living as Form (The Nomadic Version).” We’ve covered this issue on Hyperallergic extensively and the issue was the promise by Creative Time to ask artists before exhibiting in Israel, which they never did. Do you think artists shouldn’t have been asked or if they should not be allowed to withdraw their work? What do you see as the issue?

Nikola: I am still confused by the artists supporting BDS entering their works into internationally curated traveling shows, only to withdraw them from the Arab-Jewish city and campus. Who did they think lives and studies in Haifa? Jews only, producing only weapons like in some weird 007 apartheid-projection? It is not the first time BDS self-righteous posture has managed to show total disregard for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Eduard: Some people told us that our letter was too long, too extensive. If our criticism still did not come across we must have done something fundamentally wrong. We criticized the BDS Arts Coalition for applying double standards to Israel and for simplifying a complex situation. We criticized the BDS movement for de-legitimizing Israel as a state. I am an artist and I think that we should always be consulted before our works are shown. I was not involved in the respective Creative Time show but as far as I understood there was no agreement of prior consultation. The artists complied on having their works shown in a traveling exhibition without being consulted before each and every show. Basically they issued a carte blanche. Your question suggests that there was an exceptional agreement for shows taking place in Israel, that artists would have to comply additionally to having their work shown in that country I did not know about that. Is this really true? If yes, did such exceptional agreements also exist for other countries? If no, could we consider it double standard?

HV: Why are you drawing parallels with anti-Semitism taking place in other countries with the Israel/Palestine issue? 

Till and Julia: We don’t think we are drawing parallels. Parallels never meet. We are pointing out that the critique of policies of the State of Israel can morph into anti-Semitic rhetoric. Some protagonists are openly anti-Semitic. For many activists supporting BDS within western societies, however, anti-Semitism appears as a taboo, because of the moral framework set by the experience of WWII. However, anti-Semitism remains present in this context. After the Holocaust the Jewish State became one of its targets: It is, for example, depicted as a war-monger, who threatens a world which appears as peaceful and natural, whereas Israel is seen as artificial, as a “colonialist construct”. While in other conflicts victims are called “civilian casualties”, media language about Israel slips into the imagery of “murdered elderly, women, children, and babies”, often implicating they are purposefully killed. Such imagery roots in medieval allegations of blood libel, the ritual murder of Jews killing Christian babies. This plays into age old stereotypes depicting Jews as demonic and greedy, conspiratorial and treacherous, acting out of an ancient drive for revenge.

Anti-Semitism gains its momentum from psychic motives turned into pseudo-political arguments. It serves as a redemptive world explanation, an irrational image trying to make sense of an irrationally organized world. It aims at a dichotomy, which splits the world into innocent and guilty, betrayer and betrayed, just and arbitrary, natural and artificial. In this process the anti-Semite sees him/herself as the example of morality, who is protecting against the evil projected onto the rhetorical “Jew.” As a result anti-Semites always feel persecuted and argue that they act out of self-defense.

This in mind, anti-Semitism can hardly be located only in right-wing contexts. The left, which has historically been involved in anti-Semitism, is reticent to analyze or reflect on this. Many socialist critics of the capitalist mode of production perceived Jews as responsible for an unjust society, conflating them with the image of the capitalist. Anti-capitalism is not necessarily an emancipatory idea. Also the Nazi movement understood itself as anti-capitalist and socialist, as resisting Western imperialism.

Moreover, there is a tendency within the left and Western public opinion, which belittles – and thus tolerates – anti-Semitism in Arab countries (or Muslim communities in Europe) as a justified reaction to “the behavior of Israel.” It underestimates conspiracy theories, which spread as a result of the lack of free press in authoritarian countries, and are used as an ideological strategy of regimes to suppress internal conflicts. The diversity of political thought and activity within Arab societies is ignored, and especially in the case of Palestine, this contributes to the precarious position of the individuals accused of being traitors and “agents of the Zionist regime.” Such a culturalist perspective does not acknowledge the citizens of these states as individuals, living in a society shaped by economical crisis and political struggles.

As a result, the left is rather unable to trace back political movements in these countries. This is, for example, the case with Hamas, which is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928. The brotherhood incorporated fascist, anti-Semitic, anti-colonial, and religious strands and laid the ideological ground for reactionary mass movements with devastating effects for present conflicts in the Middle East. Its ideology can also be traced in the Hamas Charter. By ignoring political struggles within Palestinian society, BDS mystifies the population and breaks the complexity of the conflict down to a black-and-white narrative. This is in sharp contrast to leftist perceptions of recent developments in Egypt and Syria, where only secular and democratic forces are supported.

Suzana: Last summer showed an increase of assaults on Jewish people and Jewish facilities all over Europe as a (pseudo-)reaction to Israeli politics. This is exactly how anti-Semitism functions in our view, unable to distinguish between the actions of Israel and of Jews worldwide. As for the Israeli state politics, I consider this as a completely different topic not be confused with the views of the signees that are clearly stated in the CDS letter. However, boycotting Israeli industry also was recently reported as inefficient because it may indirectly harm the weaker Palestinian economy, but this may be contested and I am not an economy expert. Yet, perhaps boycotting the states that sell weapons and support the Israel/Palestine conflict in different ways could make much more sense than attacking Jews who live either in Israel or abroad and who, most probably, haven’t supported and voted for this Israeli government (we’ve seen elsewhere the absurd results of such conflation of arguments, aims and means).

HV: Do you make the same comparisons between the increase of anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian or Islamophobic activities with the Israel/Palestine issue?

Luisa: As Till and Julia argue above, our letter does not make comparisons or draw parallels. In my view our letter is specifically about not making false comparisons, pitting one situation against the other. We have to acknowledge that biased perspectives easily lead to dead-ends. How can we connect the fight against anti-semitism with the fight against anti-muslim resentment? Certainly not by boycotting cultural workers from Israel.

Nikola: To me, mob-mentality and its violence is always unacceptable, wherever it rears its head. Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Europe, US, ISIS, Russia … Mob mentality is the cornerstone of the gas chamber, the bedrock of Nazism. It is the method that produces dictatorships, wars and failed states. BDS is doing Palestinians a great disservice by employing the methodologies of Kristallnacht in their name.

Eduard: Lefties and Jihadists who oppose the existence of the state of Israel have been physically attacking Jewish institutions, groups and individuals around the globe. These institutions are perceived, falsely, as representing the state of Israel. These kinds of proxy attacks are increasing lately; new anti-Semitism is on the rise. Anti-Muslim racism is on the rise as well but I did not hear about any cases where Muslims around the globe are being attacked by Israel-supporters because they consider them responsible for the deeds of Hamas or Fatah. I agree with Luisa, and most probably all of the signees agree that we have to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism alike.

HV: How would you respond to Palestinian civil society, which initially advocated for people around the world to support BDS?

Doron: The cultural boycott is also criticized within Palestinian society. I sympathize with factions in Palestinian and Israeli civil society, which try to overcome a one-sided approach and evade warmongering. I therefore promote dialogue and oppose the BDS movement.

Nikola: The Albaghrouti cousin’s ever-shifting list of NGOs is not synonymous with Palestinian civil society, not in Ramallah, and not in Gaza. But it gets lots of good, international left PR for a set of rightist unacceptable-to-mainstream political positions, centered on pressuring the Palestinian authority into a negationist, hardline stance.

Luisa: In our CDS statement we have called all friends and colleagues who signed the BDS Arts Coalition letter and similar resolutions to look into the history and presence of the BDS movement, to analyze its aims and strategies, to take into account these criticisms and to reconsider whether they want to support such a position.

HV: Am I correct to understand from the letter that you are all in support of Israel remaining a Jewish state? If so, how do you respond to those Israelis and Palestinians who believe that is exclusionary to those who are not Jewish? 

Till: I don’t know how other signees think of this topic. As I argued above, and this is reflected in Israeli law, Israel is a political consequence of anti-Semitic persecution, and grants citizenship to Jews worldwide, specifically to protect against anti-Semitism. Jewish identity is both a positive and a negative, shaped by tradition and “traditional” persecution, by assimilation and rejection (for further reading I recommend the essays of Isaac Deutscher). This contradiction is deeply embedded in the State of Israel and can’t be resolved, because, to paraphrase Sartre, the “Jewish question” is actually the “anti-Semite question.” This is the materialist argument for the only seemingly religious character of the Jewish State. Of course, and this is hotly debated within Israeli society and includes the question of how (not if!) non-Jewish fellow citizens can live within this legal definition without being discriminated. But this is merely a question raised in all democratic countries, shaped by a certain identity.

Eduard: We wanna abolish national states? Great! Let’s start with those whose nationalism led to the necessity of the existence of Israel. And no, I don’t speak about Germany only, Zionism is older than the Holocaust and anti-Semitism is not restricted to Europe. After we have abolished all the nations that committed crimes against Jews, that did not protect its Jewish citizens from pogroms, that expelled or killed Jews because they were Jewish, we can go ahead and deconstruct the Jewish national state — if we are sure that its existence became obsolete.

HV: Why do you think there is growing support for BDS in the art and other cultural worlds?

Till: Because artists are always ahead of their time.

Suzana: I was really surprised by the support for BDS by so many leftist artists and intellectuals whom I know personally and by the rise of certain conspiracy theories among them. I don’t think that the BDS initiative is exclusively to blame for this, but it is definitely a leading cause amongst art and cultural workers. I see the danger of BDS because during the last few years the ‘boycott’ and ‘petition letters’ as strategies became very popular among artists and have been used for many different causes. I personally think that a certain inertia has been created in which people sign many letters without distinguishing between different contents, aims and eventual outcomes: e.g. it’s not the same to sign a letter in support of a fired colleague — e.g. Director of a Museum for his exhibition presenting LGBT art and to sign a boycott letter that may and does induce so many unforeseen consequences.

Nikola: Not enough has been said about the power dynamics of mob violence in safe “cultural” environments, which are immune to external consequences. Suddenly having the power of stifling dialogue, censoring narratives, imposing ultimatums, closing shops, performances, exhibitions, blackmailing and extortion is intoxicating and justifiable under the umbrella of a lofty national/religious goal of a nation deadlocked in a double conflict: Israeli settler occupation of parts of the West Bank, and Hamas occupation and Israeli blockade of Gaza. Even though the Palestinian Authority and civil society are trying to find a peaceful way out of both, without tearing the nation in two, the “support for the struggle” from BDS, radicalizes and escalates the conflict. There is also a not-insignificant fact, that in the visual arts, BDS is still a very much Israeli-curated startup, not a Palestinian one.

Luisa: I’d shy away from identifying the BDS Art Coalition and similar initiatives in the visual arts as being mainly Israeli-curated startups. Recent cases of cultural boycott (that we pointed to in our letter) emerged from various contexts outside of Israel. While in light of these cases it is evident that the discourse around BDS (pro and con) gained momentum in the art field, one has to assess that in the so-called leftist politicized art spheres the Israel/Palestine conflict has been very present through critical artworks and projects for many years. Don’t get me wrong, this is not about silencing critique of Israeli policies and there are, of course, many important art works on the topic and certainly many not particularly memorable ones, sometimes even outrageously problematic ones — but, my point is: Compared to other political conflicts we can observe a notable over-representation of the Israel/Palestine conflict especially in the context of large-scale perennial group exhibitions claiming emancipatory agendas (like documenta, biennales, etc.) that in my view has to be connected to the aforementioned projection of Israel as the colonial evil in parts of the anti-capitalist leftist movement. Particularly in the case of documenta this projection takes an even more problematic historico-political turn as Oliver Marchart has shown with reference to documenta 12 and its “normalization” of the German past (Schroeder’s Return: documenta 12 as a German Summer Camp of Reconciliation).

So the boycott initiatives do fall on quite fertile ground in certain spheres of the visual arts where taking a stand against Israel seems to be the — often unquestioned — thing to do. To be honest, I am sick of hearing time and again of the pressure being put on artists and other colleagues not to present their work in Israel or to sign just another boycott petition against an Israeli institution, funding, or a Jewish Film Festival for that matter, and I am sick of the self-righteous simplifying discourse escalating in social media and elsewhere connected to this. In the end that’s what our CDS open letter is all about: addressing the double standards of the BDS movement, questioning the motivations and effects of a cultural boycott, pointing to its contradictions and complexities, and not least acknowledging that there is no easy, right, and safe taking sides.