Prior to an Israeli Knesset conference this month concerning the delegitimization of Israel, MK Michael Oren called for a “legal and hasbara Iron dome.”
The way to counter the boycott, divestment and sanctions effort against Israel (BDS), Oren said in a Jerusalem Post report, is “to go on the offensive, and bring the battle to BDS.” The key, according to Oren, is explaining where BDS gets its funding from, and telling the world about its means of operation and goals.
Mr. Oren’s words should be heeded. If we allow BDS proponents to frame the argument, we surrender the debate.
It is time to lift the veil on the objectives, strategy, and methods of the cultural boycott effort against Israel, and point the finger of shame where it belongs — on those who seek to hold art hostage to politics.
Proponents of the cultural boycott want to prevent international audiences from experiencing Israeli art, and want to cut the flow of world art going into Israel. To see this solely as an Israeli problem, however, is to look into the wrong end of the binoculars.
The cultural boycott eviscerates the role of artists to create change and build bridges; and it undermines the ideal that it is the individual, not a politically motivated third party, who should decide what he or she wishes to experience. It is a direct assault on one of the free world’s most valued treasures: freedom of artistic expression.
The risk posed goes far beyond Israel’s borders, and the more that fair-minded individuals understand this, the more likely they are to stand against the boycott.
BDS proponents claim their goal is promoting human rights and Palestinian self-determination, but their rhetoric points more clearly to political ideology, and their modus operandi points to thought control. The strategy and tactics of the cultural BDS movement, including censorship, blacklists, intimidation and discrimination, are repugnant to people across the political spectrum. Conspicuously absent in BDS messaging is a call for peace and coexistence.
Censorship of artistic expression is essential for totalitarian regimes to thrive. If you control content and consumption, you control thought. Typically, when open, liberal societies place restraints on artistic expression, they focus on the appropriate limits of content to prevent abuse such as slander, fraud, and incitement to violence, or to protect an unwilling audience.
However, when festivals refuse to exhibit Israeli films unless they are critical of that nation’s treatment of the Palestinian people (as in the case of the Israeli film by Roy Zafrani, The Other Dreamers, which is about disabled children pursuing their dreams), you are controlling content based on politics and undermining the ability of the populace to form an independent view of the country.
If an invitation to an artist to perform is rescinded because he or she refuses to sign a political statement critical of Israel, as was initially the case with reggae artist Matisyahu and a music festival in Spain, that is restricting consumption — not to mention a blacklist. If artists succumb to pressure to cancel a performance for their Israeli fans, they have lost the opportunity to learn about the country for themselves.
Cultural boycott proponents routinely seek to intimidate artists, audiences, and venues. When an international artist announces an Israeli trip or tour, cultural BDS proponents often launch a multimedia campaign intended to derail the performance. They strive to impugn the artist’s reputation by implying that he or she is giving a “stamp of approval” to false claims of Israeli colonialism, apartheid, oppression, and ethnic cleansing. They threaten to impact music sales and concert events, and they hound representatives.
The cynical BDS strategy is to use the power of artists and pop culture icons to influence public opinion worldwide in support of their political agenda while simultaneously throwing the artists under the bus.
Artists who happen to be Israeli face recurring discrimination based on nationality regardless of the content of their work. This cannot be acceptable to open, liberal societies across the globe that raise their voices and institute laws against discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and sexual preferences.
When Israeli artists book international events, BDS proponents will pressure venues to cancel, and they will interrupt performances, charge the stage, and physically intimidate participants. Audiences are forced to navigate a gauntlet of vitriolic chants. A clear statement by the vilified artists or venues saying that they do not wish to cancel the engagement is rarely accepted, and the onslaught of condemnation continues until the curtain goes up or, at times, even after it comes down.
The cultural boycott against Israel politicizes art and eviscerates the role of artists as peace ambassadors and agents of change. The fight to counter its efforts is a battle to #LiberateArt.
The proximate target of the boycott effort is Israel, but freedom of artistic expression, fundamental to our humanity, is its ultimate victim.