Until very recently, the cultural boycott of Israel has often been dismissed as ineffective at influencing policy. Even those such as Noam Chomsky, who are generally uncompromising in their criticism of Israel and the Zionist ideology, have considered boycott a misguided step. The two most prevalent arguments against the support of cultural boycott are; firstly that the notion that culture and politics are entirely unrelated entities, and secondly, that because the underlying aim of boycott is the delegitimisation of the state of Israel, it should be avoided.
The first argument often equates to the question, ‘What do Arts and Entertainment have to do with politics?’ “Everything.” I would suggest is the answer. Freedom and the arts seem to be synonymous, and the inability to express is seen as contrary to the definition of culture itself. This sense and rhetoric of ‘freedom’ through the arts however is easily put to ill use, and we must not be so blinkered by political rhetoric as to not realise this fact. To see my musical heroes such as Stevie Wonder* considering ignoring this negative use of his art is heart-breaking.
Historically, culture has often been used as a tool through which to proliferate propaganda and boost public image in world politics, particularly in wartime. Israel is not the first and will certainly not be the last state in the world to use this technique. Culture and the Arts are often seen as a liberation or antidote to political problems, but I believe it would be a grave mistake to overlook their importance or be deluded about their impact on politics and society as a whole. Therefore, answering ‘Everything’ to the question of the relationship between politics and culture is not an overstated interpretation, but is visible as an integral and functional part of the mission statement of the Israeli state itself. The Hasbara Project, or ‘Brand Israel’, was set up with the express purpose of creating a positive image of Israel. The much-contested Batsheva dance company is associated with this initiative, and is a prime example of how culture is often used as a political tool. Alon Pinkas, during his role as Consul General for Israel in New York, and who, ironically, is now also a current Foreign Affairs analyst for Fox Television stated, “We are currently in a conflict with the Palestinians…engaging in a successful PR campaign is part of winning the conflict.” The role of Zionism is therefore not solely military but aims to achieve its goal by creating an image of itself that encourages its legitimacy as a state. This vision of ‘self’, created by the Hasbara PR Project, aims to convince the world that the Zionist ideology is a peaceful, diplomatic, combatant of anti-Semitism, among many other falsely positive images. In his film Reel Bad Arabs, Dr Jack Shaheen noted that, ‘Policy enforces mythical images, mythical images help implement policy.’ Therefore, when culture clearly plays such a political role in defining images and shaping ideologies, can associations with Israel and its culture, or exporting culture to Israel, ever really be impartial?
I would suggest that while these mythical images of ‘self ‘ (Israel) and ‘Others’ (the Arab World) are still being offered up to us as truth for consumption through the medium of culture, and are used as a means to a political ends, the international community should refuse to accept them. Luckily however, the huge discrepancy between positive public images of Israel and her political actions is fast becoming general knowledge.
The second concern of those against cultural boycott is that it is being used as a tool to support the deligimistation of the state of Israel. The subtle but considerable impact of boycott on policy has only recently been felt. The most obvious manifestation appeared recently in statements in the British political arena. Last month David Cameron made his non-alignment with the boycott movement very clear. “And to those in Britain’s universities and trade unions who want to boycott Israel and consign it to an international ghetto…but I also say this: we know what you are doing – trying to delegitimise the State of Israel – and we will not have it.” In this speech made at the Annual Dinner of United Jewish Israel Appeal, Mr Cameron made it very clear that he associates boycott as a direct attempt to delegitimise the state. It’s worth noting that political rhetoric is generally representative of the ideology or the actual sentiment evoked by those in power. If this is the rule, then David Cameron’s recent statement was not the exception. It demonstrated a clear iteration of his own personal or political sentiments with regards to Zionism and his support for the state of Israel.
Mr Cameron went on to add that economic and cultural relations between Britain and Israel are, “60 years worth of vibrant exchange and partnership that does so much to make both our countries stronger.” If culture reflects ideology, and subsequently influences power and policy-making, then by making this statement it appears that Mr. Cameron has no qualms identifying the British economy and culture with Israel’s. Perhaps witnessing the usually lightweight nature of culture turning into a political force is the proverbial last straw. As the international community shifts the boycott of culture from ‘entertainment purposes only’ into the political realm and subsequently influencing policy, governments across the globe are starting to sit up and take notice. Mr. Cameron’s response to this suggests either he is suffering from overexposure to ‘Brand Israel’ PR, or he is revealing his genuine considerations on Britain’s position towards the state of Israel. In either case, his comments demonstrate the success of cultural boycott as a political tool, and as such give a clear indication of why, in my opinion, it must be continued.
*Please sign this petition now to stop Stevie Wonder performing for the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) whose job it is to kill, torture, and harass Palestinian people on a daily basis.