Against Amnesia: The Cultural Boycott of Israel Matters

(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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