(all images provided by MTL Collective)

Brooklyn Bridge, 2014 (all images provided by MTL Collective)

Editor’s note: The following article, written by Amin Husain, Nicholas Mirzoeff, and Nitasha Dhillon as MTL Collective, is a response to the “Report on the Cultural Boycott of Israel,” which we published last week. This is the second in a continuing series exploring BDS and its connection to the art world. 

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We write today from a place of love, as well as hurt, for an art world to which we in part belong. We write for and with our community of friends, colleagues, and mentors — as a Palestinian artist and activist, a British-Jewish Asian professor, and an Indian artist and PhD student, who have been actively involved in two widely reported cultural boycotts.

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It feels to us as if we have traveled back in time to a moment before the most recent Gaza war and before #BlackLivesMatter. Here, serious people are again debating what side to take on the call to observe the cultural boycott of Israel (PACBI), which is a part of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). In truth, in a world where history is always written by the victors, remembrance always struggles against forgetting.

In this gloomy twilight, it feels as if we are marooned in a sea of hatred, killing, and sadness. In Gaza, the Israeli war in 2014 killed more than 2,000 Palestinians (mostly civilians), including over 500 children, as well as 73 Israeli soldiers in fifty days. It intentionally targeted homes and the infrastructure of living, such as factories and schools. In the West Bank, people’s daily living experiences reflect an unrelenting attack on human life and dignity. They face serious water and food shortages. They lack basic resources and utilities. They cannot find good employment. Education is poor and unaffordable. The quality of health care is beyond dismal. Dialysis treatment for Palestinians is only available at a governmental hospital that services 300,000 people because the Oslo Accords do not permit private Palestinian hospitals to have the requisite machines. In Jerusalem, Palestinians are not citizens but residents whose status can be revoked at any time. These conditions make life impossible; in the short run, people turn to international aid for support, and enter into debt as they piece together provisional livelihoods.

Manhattan Bridge, 2014

Meanwhile, illegal Israeli settlements abound, steadily swallowing the land. Precious olive groves and private property are destroyed. People are deprived not only of the use of their land to grow food, which would provide suitable living, but also their freedom to move through it. The Wall looms. IDs are confiscated. People are subject to military raids, arrest and imprisonment, which often leads to indefinite detention and solitary confinement. Many are killed, in their own neighborhoods, in scuffles at “checkpoints,” or later, in prison. Palestinian lives are not understood to matter. The whole damn system is guilty as hell.

A Palestinian worker is detained by Israeli soldiers near the Wall. Azzun Atma, Qalqilya in the West Bank, 2013

A country is divided — literally, a 16-meter-high wall runs across it. Where are you in this situation if you take no side? This is the myth of the neutral space for art, the so-called “white cube” projected onto a country. So often we come across folks in the “art world” who wonder whether one is pro-Palestine or pro-Israel, as if we are talking about a football match instead of justice, liberation, and freedom. When we are talking about Palestinian lives, there is no side to be on but that of life itself. The purported balance served by claiming not to take sides allows people to evade the need to speak about settler colonialism, apartheid, illegal occupation, racism, military experimentation on people, open-air prisons, out of concern that speaking about these issues would not be balanced. Where is the balance between an oppressed and an oppressor? There is none. So, then, how can a ‘balanced’ report on the matter be accurate or serve its journalistic function of advancing knowledge?

More precisely, we do not take sides when justice is the question. Either there is justice or there is not. For months now, we have been marching and chanting “No Justice, No Peace.” Let us reflect on what is actually being said. There was no justice for Mike Brown, Tamir Rice (aged 12), Eric Garner, Yvette Smith, Aiyana Stanley-Jones (aged 7), and many more at the hands of the police, so it is not a question of taking sides. If we see the absence of justice, we realize that we must continue to protest. If we are forced to argue that Palestine is different, that it is not so simple, that there is not a clear question of justice, then perhaps we need to reconsider how we are posing the question.

“To fight for a truly democratic, nonracist, humane, sustainable, economically viable, safe, and secure world for the people of Palestine/Israel is merely to demand what we have been struggling to achieve in this country for decades. As long as the lives of Salem Khaleel Shamaly and Eric Garner and countless others can be snuffed out by the state or vigilantes for merely being rendered a criminal threat, then none of us are really free.” —Robin Kelley

Millions March NYC, Smack Mellon Gallery’s Respond Exhibition, Brooklyn, Dumbo, Brooklyn, all 2014

The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that Israel’s Separation Wall was illegal, prompting Palestinian civil society to request a boycott of Israel when no changes had resulted from this verdict a year later. A court ruled. The loser in the case refuses to abide by that ruling. No justice.

The situation is one of settlement in which a colonial power believes itself to be the arbiter of last resort. Just as Britain did not heed residents of the Thirteen Colonies in North America (to say nothing of the Native American Indians) in 1776, believing them to have no standing, so too does Israel see the indigenous population of Palestine as people without legal presence, who are socially dead. This is the local result of the global resurgence of colonialism, sometimes as in Israel-Palestine as settlement, more often, as in Greece, a country being subject to external economic control. The situation is heading toward global crisis, as Oxfam have calculated that the top 1% worldwide will have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the entire world’s population in 2016. As governments cannot or will not respond, the frustrations caused are producing a rising extremism.

Palestinian workers wait to cross the Wall to work in Israel. Azzun Atma, Qalqilya in the West Bank, 2013

It certainly includes a revived anti-semitism, if by that we mean the hatred of Jews. So often this fear is used to explain why justice must be suspended or ignored in the case of Palestine. The mantra is “Never Again.” After the Rwandan genocide of 1994, President Paul Kagame observed that “never again became wherever again.” Under the terms of the United Nations Convention on Genocide, to kill one person because of ethnic hatred is genocide. The rule is simple. Never again for anyone. There are no sides in never again.

“My question is: why does policy not change? What does this situation teach us about the connection between intellectual radicalism, conscientious investigative journalism in an era of Internet explosion, and policy? I believe this situation, with its uneven balance of legitimized violence and extra-state organization of violence, is or should be a lesson for us to rethink how to intervene. What are the chances for democracy with the state gone and no global governance? We do not need such a teaching text. But Israel-Palestine has become that for us, rather than a call for a continuation of earlier techniques of what we think of as intervention in global policy.” —Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Neutrality is not a productive place. Boycott is less about withdrawing and remaining silent and more about creating a space for another set of social relations to emerge — ones that have justice, freedom and liberation at their heart. To be an artist, to make art, to curate exhibitions and to write about all of these things is not a neutral act. So the artist should be engaged not with the market but with the conditions for her social life, and that engagement asks: how are we living? In this age dominated by market values, what really matters? How is what we make and who we are being instrumentalized in this totalizing struggle? These are questions that are not about fear but love for life, and they allow for a new politics to emerge, one that builds affinity, embodies solidarity, crosses national boundaries and walls, visible. and invisible.

BDS is an ethical guideline and something one adheres to in solidarity. It is not a law, which if violated, brings punishment. It is a proposal, an advice, an opportunity to rethink. That is why words like “violation” are misleading. As artists we always have agency. We each act in affinity with the rule and to the best of our understanding.

Israeli military position near Ramallah in the West Bank, 2013

Determining whether a specific event is to be boycotted (or is boycottable) becomes a process of inquiry and dialogue. Before we were to present at the Creative Time Summit in 2012 on “Inequality,” Mosireen Collective and Rebel Diaz withdrew. They cited the cultural boycott of Israel. After that, we engaged with Creative Time to understand the situation. We sought guidance from PACBI. We had many conversations. When we were told no money was flowing from Israel to the Summit, we asked Creative Time to address the controversy publicly. When they did not, we scrapped our presentation and spoke about the call to boycott Israel and what was happening outside of the Summit walls. We struggled to do what we thought was the right thing.

But when we saw Creative Time clearly disregarding BDS two years later by exhibiting Living as Form at Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, we were forced to immediately spring back into action. We knew Creative Time was aware of the boycott. They had promised to facilitate conversations about BDS that did not happen. So we organized as artists, contacting Creative Time and reaching out to artists in the show to let them know what was happening. A week or so later we put out a call to withdraw from the show.

For us, the act of boycotting is not simply about measurable success and failure. We ask instead: how can we create spaces that counteract the multiple forms of oppression that structure our relationships? With Gulf Labor and G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction), we are participating in a boycott of the Guggenheim Museum that began in 2011. We are seeking to support workers in their struggle for better work and living conditions on Saadiyat Island in U.A.E. as well as decent pay and conditions in the art world here in New York. We try to create new bonds of solidarity between artists, students, and workers, as we all resist the 1% of global museums everywhere.

Illuminating the facade of the Guggenheim Museum, NYC, 2014

Boycott changes our own relationships and practices in the face of multiple and intersecting forms of oppression. Whether one claims to be against racism and white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, apartheid, or occupation matters little if we refuse to acknowledge our own complicity in the existence of the injustice. As artists, we should take action in our lives and in our practice to fight that injustice. The conversations we have, the learning and unlearning that ensues, and the bonds formed, those are all “wins.” That engagement is an act of love.

Let our art be training in the practice of freedom.

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This article is written by Amin Husain, Nicholas Mirzoeff, and Nitasha Dhillon as MTL Collective.

25 replies on “Against Amnesia: The Cultural Boycott of Israel Matters”

  1. Just as Britain did not heed residents of the Thirteen Colonies in North America… believing them to have no standing, so too does Israel see the indigenous population of Palestine as people without legal presence, who are socially dead.

    Unfortunately, the feeling is mutual, at least if we reverse the nominalization and consider the attitude of the Palestinian military apparatus towards the people of Israel. One of the reasons that no one should support BDS is because its rationale is full of rhetorical three-card Monte like this.

    Another was elucidated by James Panero in a piece in the Wall Street Journal today about cultural boycotts. “By blacklisting artists over not professing the right beliefs, the only guaranteed victim is the art itself. Moreover, such censorship is bad policy toward the causes we might hope to advance.” The authors of the above ought to consider it seriously.

      1. There’s another rhetorical maneuvre: Military, what military? Militaries require statehood and the PA in essence has heavily armed cops. So Hamas gets sliced out of the equation and with it Palestinian culpability for the sorry state of affairs in the region. This portrayal, to put it gently, is unrealistic.

        1. Rhetoric happens everywhere (Israel’s military, for instance, is called the Israeli Defense Forces, even though they invaded Lebanon numerous times, which were not “defense”), but there are facts, and the Palestinian Authority has no military, and they don’t control their own borders.

          1. Which is why Palestinian military ambitions are expressed through Hamas. The essay overhead makes it seem like Hamas doesn’t exist and Israel is inflicting all that woe on the Palestinians in the utter absence of Palestinian aggression. This seems to be the core assumption of BDS, and as such, it’s a nonstarter.

            (Israel must be the only nation on earth that is considered not to be acting defensively when its neighbor shells it for weeks on end and it replies with ground troops.)

    1. Your attempted symmetry doesn’t work – the attitude of one of the most powerful armies in the world against the Palestinian people who it dispossesses, persecutes and murders, and “the attitude of the Palestinian military apparatus towards the people of Israel” – when the only “Palestinian military apparatus” is actually the PA forced trained by the CIA and also directed against the Palestinian people. Otherwise, the Palestinians have no army, no navy, and no airforce. As long as the Israeli state exploits culture as a weapon in its armoury, then cultural boycott is both justified and imperative.

      1. Your attempt to destroy symmetry doesn’t work, because it relies on meaningless semantic distinctions about what constitutes Palestinian military aggression. BDS seems to presume that Hamas doesn’t exist. I don’t find that terribly convincing.

        1. You equate Hamas with “the Palestinians”. Admittedly almost a decade ago the Palestinians saw their vote for Hamas – in an election in which the USA had insisted Hamas be represented – quashed by the so-called “international community”. Since then Israel has imposed its illegal siege on Gaza, thus cutting it off from the rest of the OPT. Hamas’s military operations are an effect and not a cause of Israeli aggression, which is primary. Your attempt to presume that the occupation doesn’t exist – and will continue to generate resistance for as long as it exists – isn’t “terribly convincing”. BDS, on the other hand, is a non-violent option – another reason for its growing international support.

          1. You can try to argue that all military actions by Hamas are justified and defensive. (Good luck with that.) What you can’t do is elide them and pretend that Israel’s actions are coming out of nowhere, as in the above essay. Any viable solution to the problems is going to have to account for the fact that the Palestinians and their actual or vaunted advocates have been perpetrating violence against Israelis and pursuing the destruction of their state for quite some time now, and that this violence is partly an expression of the neighboring states’ antagonism for both Israel and one another. BDS does not account for them and is not a viable solution.

          2. This is going around in circles. I never argue that “Israel’s actions are coming out of nowhere” – they come out of the Zionist state’s intention to make life for Palestinians in the OPT so unbearable that they’ll give up and go away, thus leaving room for a racially pure Greater Israel. Whether specific acts of resistance are justified or not, they are an effect of this cause. To speak of “Palestinians… pursuing the destruction of their [the Zionists’] state” is an absurdity, or perhaps it’s not: perhaps it’s simply equivalent to South Africans pursuing the destruction of Apartheid, as was their right. BDS is not a “solution”, viable or otherwise, but a tactic in the struggle – as Nelson Mandela, whom you may have heard of, once stated.

          3. Whether specific acts of resistance are justified or not, they are an effect of this cause.

            And they in turn become causes of further effects. To refuse to recognize this is to refuse to recognize a basic feature of Middle Eastern political reality, and reality in general.

          4. Oh indeed, yes – but with this you have conceded the point: the primary cause is the Zionist project and the ensuing and interminable occupation plus the siege of Gaza. End the injustice and you end the resistance. BDS is a non-violent tactic to oppose the primary injustice.

          5. I concede nothing of the kind. A political problem that dates to the Bronze Age does not have a primary cause. BDS is a blinkered tactic to assign exclusive culpability to Israel for a network of problems that implicates myriad bad actors over a long time.

  2. Thank you, Hyperallergic, for setting the record straight and publishing this response to last week’s piece, “Report on the Cultural Boycott of Israel”!

  3. You are absolutly wrong. If you wanna be honest you need to boycott alot
    of sates and politics, not only Israeli, and tour own sate also. So, if
    you wanna be legitimate you can boycott a products from West Bank, but
    to boycott artist and so on it is nothing more but discrimination,
    sorry, your “beautyful” words don’t help.. I am not a fish anymore.

  4. You are absolutly wrong. If you wanna be honest you need to boycott alot
    of sates and politics, not only Israeli, and tour own sate also. So, if
    you wanna be legitimate you can boycott a products from West Bank, but
    to boycott artists and so on (only because are Israeli or have some conection with Israel and even to do researching for if they have or not conection?!) it is nothing more but discrimination,
    sorry, your “beautyfull” words don’t help.. If we only try to think critcall.

  5. When a discussion related to art and culture contains no trace of what art and culture are and are capable of, and the language of art and culture completely disappears and is completely exchanged by the languge of politics, the cause is already lost because the oppressor has succeeded in stripping our humanity away. Art is not binary, it can not take sides. Artists can, people can, art can not. A cultural boycott doesn’t insert art into activism; it obliterates it altogether. Please, if you like, read my text on this issue, hope this does not violate comment policy: https://www.academia.edu/9969648/Cultural_boycott_the_Ouroboros_syndrome

  6. Art and culture are completely removed from the statement.
    Rendered invisible and transparent. When artistic and cultural language
    capitualtes to the binary language of politics we’ve already lost, as we
    voluntarily stripped ourselves of what makes us human. It is a form of
    surrender so profound, it will remain part of us even after the
    political victory. To find out more about my position please turn to my essay on the subject, available on the website added to my profile. Thank you.

  7. I’m not saying Israel is not the bigger, the stronger and democratically empowered entity, but it’s so easy to side with the weaker trying to liberate itself! “Of course I’m siding with Palestine”, but can I ignore reality?!? Reality is much more complicated. The reality is – there are no sides to sign an agreement and the boycott movement will lead Palestine/Israel to anarchy and bloodshed.

    Palestinians and Israelis are all about peace and peaceful lives but have hardly any leaders to get them to the promise land. What they need is external pressure on both sides to finish the conflict, sit down and come to terms on borders, security, economics, refugees, acknowledgment of victims and especially stop this never ending TRAUMA!!!

    It’s unreasonable to believe that boycotting Israel plays a positive participation for perusing solution in any way.

    I prefer the below reading of this terrible story:
    I see a human drama that needs to be addressed and solved.
    I wish to stop colonialism and propaganda.
    There are no bad guys in this situation, only victims.
    I refuse to make anyone my enemy, including: China, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Russia, the greater Middle East and all the other galaxies.

    We have too much in common.

  8. This is a joke! Let’s say this is all true (and it’s not, unfortunatly some is) – not ONE word about Hamas?!?!? The terror organization shooting rockets daily on civilians? Obviously you don’t care about facts, and this is fine, but your propaganda has negative effects because by presenting a misleading picture, people in Israel see “the world” as antisemites, and it only makes them more defensive and less self-critical. Occupation must end immediately! 2 states solution must be achieved and Israel has a lot of responsibility for this not happening, and must take responsibility to make it happen. Still, you present yourself as doing something good for the world, and writing this – I’m not sure you’re fooling yourselves, but you are fooling many others, and nothing good is going to come out of this. It’s a shame because a lot must be done, and a lot can be done, and this is clearly not it…

  9. There are sentences in this creepy text that have more lies in them than words – this counting only lies of commission, for lies of omission are beyond counting. As a whole it is a revolting document of conceit, of vices paraded as virtues, of passing off one’s petty, unexamined political prejudices as universal desires, of abysmal ignorance of the part of the world in question, not to mention unbridled self-regard bordering on narcissism. It is grotesque, half-baked agit-prop exercise that the teachers of disinformation in the good old KGB would have dismissed out of hand. Shame on a art-related website to allow itself be soiled with this appalling creation.

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