There is something fundamentally Stalinist about the notion of a cultural boycott of Israel. The idea that even the free exchange of ideas and expression should be censored by the strictures of ideology is a total affront to all the usual virtues associated with the arts. And unlike the economic boycott of Israel, which can at least claim to have practical objectives—albeit completely indefensible ones—the cultural boycott appears to be aimed at doing nothing more than alienating and ostracizing Israelis by any means possible. So it’s deeply troubling that a group of British artists are now leading just such a new boycott initiative. And yet, there are also encouraging indications that mainstream British society will not stand for this.
Around a hundred allegedly prominent cultural figures have released a letter pledging not to travel to Israel on an official invitation, nor to accept funding from Israel or organizations that are associated with the Israeli government. In addition, this campaign claims to have the supporting signatures of a further 700 artists (almost all entirely unknowns). And naturally along with a few celebrities who are now notorious for their obsession with bashing Israel—such as Roger Waters—there are also several notable Jewish individuals who have been pushed to the forefront of the campaign.
Two Jewish directors who have evidently played a particularly leading role in promoting this boycott are Mike Leigh and Peter Kosminsky. Their involvement gives a pretty clear indication of precisely what kind of movement this is. When asked about Gaza, Leigh once dismissively retorted “I don’t want to know about rockets. What I am concerned with is humanity.” Humanity? Then in what category does Leigh place the people the rockets are aimed at? And then there’s Kosminsky, a remarkable figure to be boycotting Israel when much of his own acclaimed television drama The Promise was shot in Haifa. That by the way was a British TV mini-series that was not only viciously anti-Zionist but in which Jewish characters were without exception either overtly unlikable or ultimately untrustworthy. The non-Jewish characters, through whose eyes Israel’s story was told, were repeatedly let down, manipulated, or betrayed by every single Jew they came across.
These are the luminaries leading the cultural boycott against Israel.
The website of the campaign is also particularly revealing. Most bizarre is the section in which the campaigners insist that they will not be censored. What is boycotting Israeli arts if not censorship? Indeed, the activists pledge their solidarity with London’s Tricycle Theatre, which last year announced that as part of an Israel boycott it would no longer host the Jewish Film Festival. So the last thing that these people can claim is principled opposition to censorship.
Then there is the part of the website that advises artists on how they should implement their boycott in practice. Tellingly, artists are assured that they should not let the boycott prohibit them from collaborating with Palestinian artists and organizations. When it comes to Israelis, however, it seems that exceptions might only be considered for those who support the Palestinian cause. So once again we see the boycott working along ethnic lines. No investigation into the politics of Palestinian artists, but when it comes to Jewish Israelis, they must pledge allegiance to the cause before being redeemed of the crime of being born an Israeli Jew.
The one glimmer of hope in all of this is that there does seem to be an increasing recognition of just what a dangerous turn BDS represents. On the whole senior British politicians, including Prime Minister Cameron, have stressed their opposition to boycotts. But it was particularly noteworthy that the Times of London ran an editorial on the Copenhagen attacks and rising anti-Semitism that stated plainly, “The egregious campaigns for a cultural boycott of Israel are stoking ugly, atavistic movements in Europe. These need to be confronted by civilised opinion.” More remarkable still was that even the Guardian (a paper usually transfixed by the business of attacking Israel) printed a whole series of letters condemning the boycotts under the heading “Peace Not Promoted by an Israel Boycott.”
One senses that Britain’s liberal establishment is suddenly catching itself and pulling back at the last moment from the precipice. They have seen Paris, they have seen Copenhagen, they have seen anti-Semitism go off the chart from Brussels to Malmo. They have seen where all of this is leading and are now reconsidering their own responsibilities.
Of course the British establishment can only be expected to correctly identify boycotts as a form of racial discrimination if the Jewish community is unequivocal on the subject. And it must indeed be the Jewish community, and not the boycotters, who determine what is and what isn’t anti-Semitic. As it happens, a survey on anti-Semitism released in January found that 84 percent of British Jews consider boycotts to be a form of intimidation. Laura Marks of the Board of Deputies (Anglo-Jewry’s primary representative body) has also stressed that such a cultural boycott of Israel is racist.
The anti-Israel artists-turned-activists insist they won’t be silenced. Very well. But then the rest of us cannot afford to stay silent either about the racism inherent in what these people are doing.