The Israeli academic and cultural establishment has always been keen on securing a place for Israel in the global academic and cultural arena as part of its untiring efforts to make Israel appear as a normal state and society. The Israeli establishment has developed a “tradition” of honoring international academics and cultural figures through prizes, such as the Wolf Prize, the Dan David Prize, and the Jerusalem Prize, which are awarded every year. In such events, the Israeli branding machine goes into full gear, bestowing international scholars, artists and writers the dubious honor of receiving prizes from the head of state, honorary doctorates from Israeli universities, or the spotlight of keynote addresses at professional conferences.
It is rare to find scholars and cultural figures who can see through this crude Israeli ritual and the way their names are used cynically to further the Israeli propaganda agenda. It is indeed a testament to the success of this agenda that a belligerent colonial and apartheid state’s arrogant claim to value scholarship and creativity goes unquestioned, and instead, is further validated. It is also a reflection of the strength of Israeli exceptionalism that this state can get away with violations of international law and the denial of human rights of Palestinians, whereas at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa it was inconceivable for conscientious scholars or artists to accept honors from the South African head of state or from the state’s various complicit institutions, such as universities.
The responses of international figures to Palestinian and international appeals to shun Israeli prizes and other honors have invariably focused on the tired argument that they do not want to punish Israeli academics or cultural workers by refusing such opportunities. Another related argument is that by their presence in Israel, they will be strengthening those Israelis who fight their establishment—on the assumption that the academy and the cultural arena are where Israeli dissent flourishes. Rarely is the fact that Palestinians are appealing to them a relevant consideration. It seems the only voice such people hear is the Israeli voice.
Take, for example, the Spanish writer, Antonio Muñoz Molina, who this month is expected to travel to Jerusalem to receive an award at the hands of Israel’s President Shimon Peres. It seems here that we face the tragic and astounding case of a writer who does not read. Molina has responded to appeals to him by both international and Palestinian civil society saying that he chooses to be with Israelis who are against their government rather than “to boycott a whole people,” and that boycott actions do not distinguish between people and their states . Supposing for a moment that boycotts are politically naïve, as Molina seems to suggest, it behooves him to see how the acceptance of an award handed out by the head of the state would clearly be legitimizing that very state. More importantly, Molina has spoken against the appeals to him, while clearly having not read those very appeals, or, in all likelihood, not having attempted to understand their message, in which case he should have spared himself the embarrassment and stayed silent. No one has asked Molina to cut off all ties to individual Israelis; however, PACBI and other groups have called on him not to participate in functions involving complicit Israeli institutions, or in government sponsored events.
Had Molina read our appeal to him carefully , he would have learned that the Palestinian call for cultural boycott does not target individuals. This point cannot be stressed more. It is a call to boycott complicit Israeli institutions and events sponsored by the government and designed to promote Israel’s image as a bastion of culture. As such, communication with Israelis is not in question. There are many forms in which an engagement with Israeli academics can take place outside the framework of complicit institutions. What is in question is legitimizing Israel as a center of academic and cultural life by giving lectures, accepting awards, and taking part in Israeli events, thereby granting recognition to its complicit institutions.
Our strong commitment to values of free speech and the right of individuals, within the context of the right to collective resistance, is such that we go to great lengths to explain and elucidate the various forms of complicity of Israeli institutions, and the role international artists play in whitewashing Israel’s crimes. In our appeal to Molina, as with all our appeals, we explained the role of the Jerusalem Municipality in the continued dispossession of the Palestinian people, documented Israel’s image-branding campaign that exploits the participation of foreign artists, and elaborated on the role of the Jerusalem Prize in maintaining Israel’s system of oppression.
Such an appeal for boycott, and indeed the entire academic and cultural boycott campaign, is hardly a form of collective punishment, then, as some critics have suggested. These critics argue that there should not be a boycott by the international community because there are Israelis who are fighting their establishment, and who might be weakened by such an act. First, even the softest critic of the Israeli establishment, assuming they are sincere, would recognize that accepting a state prize does not help their critical or dissident cause. Second, and more importantly, many of those Israeli critics who are held up to the Palestinians by internationals like Molina as reason for not resisting (a bizarre colonial act in itself), are in fact in support of BDS, if they truly believe in self-determination for Palestinians (end of occupation, return of refugees, and equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel). These Israelis are few and far between, but nevertheless, their position is commendable and we work with them.
Finally, if by collective punishment we mean to collectively target complicit Israeli institutions, then the movement is guilty of this, for this is the logic of boycott, whether this was in South Africa, India, or the US, where we take part of our inspiration. These institutions are part and parcel of the system that oppresses Palestinians. It would, no doubt, be a twisted logic to say that this can be equated to Israel‘s bombing of Gaza in November, or Israel‘s system of checkpoints placed to restrict the movements of an occupied people. For this parity is surely what is implied when claims of collective punishment are brought to charge. If our statements are read, with even a cursory eye, one will see clearly that boycotts are here being enforced against a powerful, privileged and oppressive regime as a form of civil resistance; a far cry from the military might of a state bombing a civilian population, enforcing a calorie intake limit on it , and erecting a wall around its cities, villages and refugee camps.
We call upon international academics and cultural figures to read our statements and our guidelines within the framework of resisting colonization through strategies of pressure rather than the ‘handle colonizers with care’ approach. We appeal to them once more, as the indigenous oppressed people, to respect our strategy of resistance in the form of boycotts and moral pressure and not to accept the dishonor of Israeli honors.