Cultural Boycotts – BDS Redux III

BDS III: Cultural Boycotts


Howard Adelman

The French novelist of Lebanese origin, Amin Maalouf, wrote a book called In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (2001) recently discussed in an article in Tablet. The book is a penetrating study of identity politics applicable to France and the countries of the Middle East, including Israel. It is an incisive attack on communitarians. As much as I may sympathize with his criticisms and disagree with his overall thesis, my goal here is not to counter-attack but to depict how Amin has been treated by BDS supporters.

BDS set up Maalouf as a primary target. As Tablet reported, when Maalouf proposed cultural exchanges between Lebanon and Israel, he was criticized for attempting to “normalize” relations with Israel. One must not only boycott Israeli events, projects, publications and academics, but attack and vilify anyone who disagrees. Suddenly, for BDS, the defence of the right to free speech and expression of one’s views crashes through a glass window and splinters on the sidewalk thirty floors below. All talk of reconciliation and overcoming barriers must be attacked while chastising Israel’s creation of a wall and fence for security purposes. Creating walls between groups of intellectuals and artists eager to exchange with one another is legitimate, but building a wall and fence to deter those who would commit violence against oneself is considered illegitimate.

It is not my purpose here either to defend or criticize Israel for constructing its security wall and fence. I merely want to draw a parallel between efforts to construct cultural and intellectual walls between people and security walls. Security walls may or may not be appropriate depending on the context. Efforts at constructing intellectual and artistic walls are not relevant to criteria of appropriateness or efficacy for they are used both in defiance of appropriateness while trying to stand under a universal umbrella – of human rights in this case. The aim is to define a group and the grounds for inclusion and exclusion.

All economic boycotts are not wrong. It is arguable whether boycotts against economic products of settlements in the West Bank that often employ Palestinians is a correct and useful policy. But those who advocate this position end up being tarred with the same brush as BDS, equating them with the more universal BDS anti-Israel boycott position. At the same time, it has to be recognized how easily boycotts against West Bank Jewish-produced goods and services slip into the boycott of specific Israeli products, first in Palestine, such as when Palestinian factions decided to ban the goods of six specific Israeli companies and products in the West Bank (Tnuva now owned by a Chinese firm, Strauss, Osem, Elite, Prigat and Jafora), allegedly in response to Israel’s punitive measures when the PA pursued full membership in the UN – including delays in the transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority and land appropriation. So very modest boycotts are used as recruitment tools inviting an innocent passer-by to become an initiate.

The slippery slope easily slides into boycotts of all Israeli products. Boycotts of specific products are viewed by advocates as “the first among several steps … to boycott all Israeli goods that reach the Palestinian market.” The next stage of the slide is then the boycott of firms doing business with Israel, then of Jewish firms and individuals who support Israel and then of anyone who gives any credence to and support of the Zionist project. The boycott of Israeli artists and intellectuals then is positioned at the extreme end of this spectrum. Given that the banner of BDS has been built most around this extreme boycott position, and that BDS has established its brand worldwide as by far the leading anti-Israel boycott organization, anyone joining the anti-Israel boycott movement as a fellow traveler risks, indeed virtually invites, being identified as a BDSer and is labeled as one by BDS in its catholic embrace of all anti-Israel boycott positions.

Which brings me back to the Lebanese-French writer, Amin Maalouf. He was targeted by BDS. What was his “crime”? He gave an interview to an Israeli television journalist. Further, he advocated the normalization of relations between Arab countries and Israel, beginning with cultural and intellectual exchanges, as the best route to overcoming barriers. BDS adamantly opposes “normalization.”

PACBI (the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) “urges international cultural workers…to boycott and/or work towards the cancellation of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israel, its lobby groups or its cultural institutions, or that otherwise promote the normalization of Israel in the global cultural sphere (my italics), whitewash Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights, or violate the BDS guidelines.” ( Further, if an “international cultural worker” fails to heed the call for a boycott and crosses “the BDS picket line,” even in the form of “fig-leafing,” such persons will themselves be subject to ostracism by BDS and not just “Israeli academic and cultural institutions.”

The rationale? These “institutions are complicit in the Israeli system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights guaranteed by international law, or has hampered their exercise of these rights, including freedom of movement and freedom of expression” for, “Cultural institutions are part and parcel of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid against the Palestinian people.” This is a method of undermining “the hegemonic Zionist establishment in Israel.” “A cultural product’s content or artistic merit is not relevant in determining whether or not it is boycottable.”

Though PACBI claims that cultural products not attached with political strings are not subject to boycott per se, though Palestinian cultural products which receive Israeli funding directly or indirectly are, normalization projects (which are very broad and inclusive), such as the efforts of Amin Maalouf, certainly are subject to boycott.

Normalization Projects are boycotable. Cultural activities, projects, events and products involving Palestinians and/or other Arabs on one side and Israelis on the other (whether bi- or multi- lateral) that are based on the false premise of symmetry/parity between the oppressors and the oppressed or that assume that both colonizers and colonized are equally responsible for the “conflict” are intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible forms of normalization that ought to be boycotted.

These include “events, projects, publications, films, or exhibitions that are designed to bring together Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis so they can present their respective narratives or perspectives, or to work toward reconciliation, ‘overcoming barriers’; they are only exempted if they challenge the Zionist hegemonic agenda the “common struggle against oppression,” and join in the campaign of co-resistance rather than co-existence. Further, although PACBI does not advocate even much broader “common sense” boycotts by “conscientious citizens,” PACBI understands and sympathizes with such efforts. These common sense boycotts presumably include efforts of individuals to harass and not just boycott any individual even perceived to be supportive of Israel.

In my next blog I will depict the process leading to the decision of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) as one the very few academic associations to join and support the BDS boycott, I want to explore a broader understanding of boycotts and efforts at exclusion that have been mined by cultural anthropologists themselves, the hardcore of anthropologists who support the boycott. Mary Douglas, one of the most famous cultural anthropologists, in her 1966 classic, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, attempts to explore actions intended to preserve the purity of a group or a movement and the function of such efforts. Engagement in pilpul or the counting of angels at the end of a pin, such as refining in great detail when and where boycotts of Israel and its supporters as well as non-detractors comply, are ostensibly just efforts to define which boycotts in general and which academic boycotts specifically meet the test of being kosher. They had to be efforts at co-resistance and not foster cooperation or reconciliation.

Mary Douglas initially viewed kosher food laws as part of such an effort rather than being driven by concerns for health or tests of commitment to God. They were efforts at solidarity maintenance. In 2002, she revised the specific thesis with respect to kosher laws to define them as efforts to protect animals that were not herdable in contrast to the effort of Hindus to protect cattle who were. Laws, policies and practices in the context of boycotts are intended to both define the proponents and supporters of the Palestinian cause in an effort to define the in-group. Calling them human rights supporters and protectors of Palestinians is merely a rhetorical gesture to occupy the high ground of freedom of expression.

The function of boycotts is not really to weaken Israel – and they have clearly not accomplished that task – but to consolidate the supporters of the Palestinian cause, not just to acquire self-determination for Palestinians, but to eliminate the alleged oppressor state, whether all at once or by degrees. Those excluded support different degrees of cooperation with Israel as the historic oppressors of Palestinians. They are undeserving of protection of their rights of free expression and association since by definition they are guilty of herd-thinking.

In sum, boycotts as a mechanism for forging and maintain group solidarity behind the Palestinian cause and defining the Jewish effort at self-determination as inherently oppressive and illegitimate, just as the effort of organizations such as B’nai Brith and others like it to brand BDS anti-Zionists as anti-Semitic and even Holocaust deniers are attempts to consolidate group loyalty and brand BDSers as treif, as non-kosher. The conflict between the BDSers and their vocal Zionist opponents is a fight between rival brands. BDSers insist that support and/or cooperation with Israel and Zionism is not kosher and boycotts are ritual methods of expressing both this attitude and forging group solidarity. Institutional opponents of BDS seek to brand boycotters as treif because they are anti-Semites and even deniers of the Holocaust.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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