PACBI Statement

Hiding Behind Governments: Artists Undermining the Boycott of Israel

May 31, 2011

Even while many artists, musicians and cultural workers refuse to entertain apartheid Israel, there continues to be those who try to find currency to circumvent the boycott, divestment and sanctions (B

Even while many artists, musicians and cultural workers refuse to entertain apartheid Israel, there continues to be those who try to find currency to circumvent the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.  Most recently, the Swedish pop music duo, Roxette, rejected PACBI’s appeal to cancel a scheduled performance in Israel by hiding behind their government’s lack of a position on the boycott, rather than challenging it.


We thought that Roxette’s reason for breaking the Palestinian and international picket line was relatively instructive, as the group provides a twist on common excuses for not heeding the call to boycott Israel.  Roxette have claimed that they usually choose “venues taking into account any sanctions or embargos from the United Nations or the Swedish government.”  Since no such sanctions exist, they feel they can perform in Israel, and have no obligation to respond to the Palestinian people’s calls for boycott as a non-violent means to redress Israel’s grave violations of human rights and international law.


PACBI believes that at its root, this reasoning negates the historic relationship between people and their states.  People have always tended to be ahead of their governments when struggling for their freedom and rights or when standing in solidarity with oppressed communities elsewhere. Swedish civil society, especially trade unions and cultural figures, launched effective boycott campaigns in support of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa well ahead of their government and, in fact, played a key role in crystallizing the official position, that came later, in support of sanctions against the racist regime.


The fact is that the UN and world governments have failed to act to bring about an end to the Israeli occupation, to hold Israel accountable for denying Palestinian refugees their UN-sanctioned right to return to their lands from which they were ethnically cleansed, or to ensure Palestinian citizens of Israel equal rights.  Neither the UN nor most governments feel compelled to change their policies without pressure from grassroots movements and people of conscience around the world.


In such moments, artists and cultural workers are asked to play a role in standing with people’s movements and lend their social capital – their prestige, name, and position in society – to speak to power rather than take orders from it.  Many have done exactly that.  Most recently, Roger Waters endorsed BDS saying:


Where governments refuse to act people must, with whatever peaceful means are at their disposal. For me this means declaring an intention to stand in solidarity, not only with the people of Palestine but also with the many thousands of Israelis who disagree with their government‘s policies, by joining the campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel. [1]


Indeed, if artists are to wait for UN policies to be formed rather than play a role in shaping them, then they forfeit their social responsibility and relegate their role to obeying government top-down decisions, rather than speaking truth to power.


When the BDS movement calls on artists and cultural workers to take a position so that this might pressure governments and the UN, the movement is essentially asking people to take a lead so that governments may follow.  Imagine if artists and musicians had waited for their governments before taking a stand in other situations of entrenched oppression; where would South African freedom be today?  During the South African apartheid-era boycotts, world governments -- and to a lesser extent the UN -- were considerably slower in declaring apartheid to be a crime, and to institute comprehensive boycotts.  It was only decades after a grassroots movement had been formed, whereby many artists refused to perform for the apartheid regime, that world bodies joined the boycott call.


Rather than take their lead from governments or the UN, musicians such as Roxette should be listening to moral leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu who has been consistent on why a boycott of Israel is necessary [2].  Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian Territories occupied since 1967, had this to recommend during a presentation to the UN General Assembly in October 2010:


The other recommendation that seems responsive to recent developments is to encourage UN support for both efforts to send humanitarian assistance direct to the people of Gaza in defiance of the persistence of the unlawful blockade and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign that seeks to respond to the failure of Israel to uphold its obligations under international law with respect to the Palestinian people. The BDS campaign represents a recognition that neither governments nor the United Nations are prepared or able to uphold Palestinian rights. In this respect, it should be recalled that the anti-apartheid campaign of the late 1980s was strongly endorsed by the United Nations. [3]


In heeding the call of the BDS movement, the principle should be whether one considers this movement to be a progressive, peaceful people’s effort to achieve freedom, justice and human rights and not whether an act conforms to UN policy, which in this case has yet to be formulated.  A lack of a UN sanctioned call for the boycott of Israel does not, after all, mean that such a policy will not be passed.  As in South Africa, when governments and world bodies such as the UN fail to uphold the rights of people, it is for the people to make these institutions act in the interest of justice and universal human rights.






May 31, 2011


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