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Gary Fields, “Kuzza, Gaza, 2014” (2014) (photograph used with permission of the artist)

As part of our continuing series on BDS and its impact on the art world, we received the following response to curator Manon Slome’s “A Response to the Call to Boycott Israel” by artist Doris Bittar.

Doris Bittar is an interdisciplinary artist, born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1959. Her family moved to Lebanon and eventually immigrated to the United States. She works with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and she is a core member of Gulf Labor, and co-founder of Gulf Labor West. Bittar teaches in the School of Arts at California State University, San Marcos. Doris Bittar’s art examine decorative motifs and how they intersect with historical and geopolitical legacies.

Bittar chose the images that accompany this article, and they are used with the artist’s permission.

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Dear Hyperallergic,

In light of the current uptick against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the conversation begun in Hyperallergic last summer and fall needs to be revisited. In part, this letter responds to the one published by Manon Slome against the call for BDS among artists at last summer’s Venice Biennale. It also wishes to acknowledge that, since that letter, an unusual but not surprising escalation against BDS’s peaceful actions and tactics is being repackaged through the pro-war rhetorical device of fashioning a “big lie.” Among the strategies is a chilling claim that BDS is a terrorist organization created by ISIS.

First, I respectfully disagree with Slome and want to suggest that BDS be viewed as a powerful shift toward a peaceful outcome of the Israel-Palestine crisis. Conversations between Israelis, Palestinians, American Jewish communities, and Arab American communities who disagree on paths to peace have been active for decades. It is in this spirit that I have engaged with Slome in the past, and that I do so now. My belief is that individuals who could speak and listen through the barriers will be able to provide a structure for meaningful and practical communication for others when it is time to build a peaceful and just society.

Announcement for “Understanding ISIS: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement” at the Agudat Achim Synagogue (click to enlarge)

Since the Hyperallergic exchange, an unbridled, vitriolic, and alarming campaign has been launched against BDS. Anti-BDS rhetoric came in the way of a commitment letter written to the Forward on November 4, 2015 by Hilary Clinton. She reinforces her commitment to work with Israel and against BDS because it threatens Israel’s existence. Several events have taken place at various synagogues, among them Agudat Achim in Schenectady, NY, where Dr. Asaf Romirowsky was invited to discus his book on November 15, 2015, in an event called “Understanding ISIS: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.” The most recent vitriolic and bizarre event took place at a the Jewish Academy in San Diego, where Black South Africans Jamie Mithi and Khanyisa Pinini were brought in to prove that the Occupation in the West Bank and Gaza do not amount to Apartheid. These events employ the “big lie” tactic. It is not new for supporters of Israel to create fiction. The justification and reasons trotted out over the last 70 years have all been part of this strategy. However, the new fiction shifts a bit, because it operates in the realm of dangerous fantasy against a peaceful movement that is comprised of a large number of Jews and Israelis.

The number of Israelis and Palestinians who agree is significantly on the rise because of a diverse and more integrated peace movement, much of it due to BDS. Slome’s letter about Israel being singled out is grounded in understandable anxieties and fears, but it is not based on what is actually happening. A solid understanding of the way BDS and other nonviolent movements work shows that they may be the most significant path to peace and justice in which a world citizenry can take a part. I also want to emphasize our additional responsibilities as citizens of the United States, the primary provider of military aid and political support to the Israeli government.

Doris Bittar, “Encoded Histories 3” (2015), hand-cut paper and map of Middle East / Mediterranean (used with artist’s permission)

For decades, the prevailing argument among those who stood for peace and supported Israel was: Why don’t Palestinians use nonviolent tactics and strategies, like those called for by Nelson Mandela in South Africa, or Gandhi in British India, or Martin Luther King in Alabama? This argument made sense. I often tried to envision how it might happen, because more bloodshed was not the answer. I envisioned marches back to the homeland like Gandhi’s march to the sea to mine salt in defiance of India’s colonial powers. I also discovered that some Palestinians had initiated such marches, but they never gained traction. Many of those who support Israel, and who want peace through nonviolent means, are now objecting to nonviolent tactics. Is it because a nonviolent movement could not be envisioned?

Slome uses the word “terrorism” in her letter, writing: “I don’t hear calls to boycott artistic ties with Iran — a major sponsor of world terrorism.” Frankly, you cannot use the word “terrorism” while also insisting that you stand for peace. Its pointed use regarding Israel reveals deep fissures in our ability to understand one another. When antiwar activists hear the word “terrorism” used in reference to the Islamic world, we tend to ignore it, because it has been rendered meaningless in its myopia, volatility, and duplicity. Rather than bristle, we move on to elaborate other points. But understanding its use gives us insight to which we must pay attention. I would suggest that the word “terrorism” is a veiling device to justify aggression and create an environment of silence. Interestingly, the State Department refuses to define it, and the United Nations has a meandering “political” definition that is satisfying to no one. Google defines “terrorism” as: “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” And here is how it’s defined in the US code (taken from Wikipedia): “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” Finally, here is what the UN has written about it:

Since 1994, the United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly condemned terrorist acts using the following political description of terrorism: Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.

The one-sided use of “terrorism” privileges countries such as the United States and Israel. It is used by war-machine nations to justify war. Recently, Russia and Iran used it in their rhetoric around becoming more entrenched in Syria, and Saudi Arabia used it against Yemen and its execution of political prisoners. The truth is that no one can use the word “terrorism” if they are serious about moving forward. It is a discussion-ender.

BDS, about a decade old, is a movement with its roots in Palestinian civil society (unions, workers, leagues, universities, etc.) that is having a measurable effect. It is nonviolent. It may hurt feelings and rile feathers, it may put pressure on the economy, and it may have an effect on the collective conscience of Israelis, but no bodies are being broken. By contrast, Palestinian society has been shredded and continues to suffer physical, economic, and cultural violence every day. Opposing BDS takes away the only effective nonviolent leverage that Palestinian society currently has. Now those who have been in the peace movement for the long haul are being told that the best way to understand ISIS is to understand BDS. Gulp!

Gary Fields, “Coping Amid the Ruins, Gaza” (2014) (photograph by Gary Fields and used with permission)

The allegation that the cultural boycott hurts Israeli artists who are opposed to the occupation is wrong-headed on several counts. It is contrary to BDS’s commitment to highlighting institutions instead of individuals. In fact, many anti-occupation Israeli artists’ works, projects, and installations have had wide exposure. Israeli artists in general are given many opportunities by the West, as compared to artists from other nations. At the same time, Palestinian artists, who are already working under extraordinarily harsh conditions, face the most severe de facto boycott and isolation. Israel is singled out, but for privilege in the arts and other more obvious arenas: billions of dollars in protection, cultural exceptionalism, and most-favored status by the military-industrial complex of the United States. It is this singling out for exceptional status that the peace movement argues against.

In fact, BDS should be thanked, because it is finally creating the conditions for Israel to be a normal state that is accountable for its actions. For most of us, it’s difficult to comprehend that Israel is privileged and exceptional, because its role as victim is readily accepted by Israelis and the country’s supporters. In part, this assumption has been drummed into their minds, and fear has been used to quash discussion.

Israelis who support BDS tend to do so anonymously and behind the scenes, due to the Israeli government’s policy of targeting and isolating BDS supporters inside the country. Of course, nationalistic myopia is not exclusive to Israel: The Gulf countries, under similar scrutiny, suffer from an assumption of privilege and entitlement too. Nor is Israel alone in being pressured by boycott. South Africa was boycotted during Apartheid even though artists who violated the boycott, like Elton John and Dionne Warwick, used the same arguments to justify opportunism.

Perhaps the most significant point is that those of us living in the United States have a unique responsibility to counter our government’s “special” relationship with Israel, a relationship unlike that between the United States and any other sovereign nation. This relationship prevents action through standard political channels, leaving only direct, grassroots, nonviolent efforts. BDS is such an effort, and possibly the only one that could motivate Israel to negotiate in earnest through the restoration and insurance of equal human rights to all who live in the land of Palestine.

BDS is the sole nonviolent strategy that is able to have an impact. It gives people other than elected leaders a chance to bring about a peaceful and just future. The movement is made up of all kinds of people, with all varieties of religious and political beliefs, including a significant number of Jews and Israeli. BDS’s broad base, diversity, and consistent approach to human rights principles is the only thing that can facilitate a future of justice and peace.

—Doris Bittar, February 2016

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

19 replies on “In Defense of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement”

  1. 1. Stop exploding innocents, and I’ll stop saying terrorist. 2. Without the U.S., Israel will experience another holocaust. 3. One more foreign national at the ACLU destroying this country from within.

  2. The author of this article leaves out and intentionally obscures the BDS platform. The BDS movement as explicitly stated by its leaders is NOT to create a peaceful two state solution– a jewish Israeli state and a palestinian state. Their goal is to dismantle israel. To israel and her supporters this is tantamount to political warfare and furtherance of the goal of Israels destruction. The supporters of BDS should focus their energies on building democracy in west bank/Gaza and promoting peaceful coexistence of the two peoples. As of now the majority of Palestinians support violence against Israelis to further their goals and reject her right to exist as a jewish state.

    1. How can the Palestinians build democracies when Israel does not recognize their human rights to even harvest their fields or administer their own wells? BDS is silent on what kind of states will exist there. A two or three or five state solution could work if Palestinians are treated as equals, first. When will Israel treat them with human dignity, and recognize their rights? When will Israel acknowledge what they have done to a people who accepted them into Palestine, not knowing that they would become stateless one day. Those are the issues. Everything else that you bring up are the words of war. Nothing more than road blocks to peace and justice.

      1. Doris I believe you are genuine in your champion of human rights. That is why I implore you to hold the Palestinians to equal standards of responsibility as well. The conflict is complex and two sided. Poor Palestinian leadership that has plundered the Palestinians of money and hope is as much to blame for their predicament. The rejection of the UN partition plan for Jewish and Arab states in 1948 and resorting to war and terrorism has not led the Palestinians to freedom or hope. Those who care about the Palestinians should also be pushing them to be accountable for their own choices and choose a better way–one of acceptance of Jewish rights in addition to their own and one where incitement to violence against Jews is fundamentally rejected. Rejection of Israels right to exist will not give Israelis the confidence to let go of control. The experience with leaving Gaza only to have Hamas take over and lob missiles at Israeli civilians has diminished the peace camp in Israel. Only Security and accommodation for all will lead to peace.

      2. DorisBittar: What did the Palestinians do to build a democracy between 1948 and 1967? This was before settlements even existed. What did the Palestinians do when Israel uprooted thousands of settlers from Gaza? Why did the Palestinians turn down peace offers that compromise over 90% of what they want? What happens to the billions of dollars in international aid the Palestinian leadership receives each year? Why do people like you not speak up when Hamas executes a former leader with no disclosed charges or the PA arrests a journalist for insulting Abbas?

        Second, BDS is far from non-violent and harmless and targets individuals all of the time. What just happened at the LGBT event in Chicago and you have Kings College in London for examples of violence. 21 people were just arrested in South Africa for breaking into a store and looting the Israeli products. Then for targeting individuals, you have Matisyahu who they tried to force to sign something saying he doesn’t support Israel just because he’s Jewish.

  3. What a disappointment to see this article in your magazine.
    You don’t live here, and your newsfeed is propaganda.
    Stay out of matters you can’t possibly understand – are you even aware that the BDS movement is hurting the Palestinians? Who do you think employs them?

      1. And why is an art site posting this topic? I like your site – but not if you threaten my country. You could discuss palestinian antiquities’ theft, if you want keep your brand focus, and comment on the middle east.

          1. ??? I wouldn’t know about right-wing talking points. I’m Israeli.
            What is the purpose of BDS unless to strangle an economy to push a foreign agenda? Hence ‘threat’. Please just stick to subjects you know and understand, and you will have a fine blog.

  4. All of these arguments are from the “The Big Lie Playbook.” Read what respected Israeli scholars are saying about what has transpired in the last 70 years. Get educated, then we can talk. I was a believer of the big lie as I was growing up in the New York Metropolis. It was a painful journey as an American to finally notice the blind link between the US and Israel. There is no accountability. I began to see what broken bodies look like on both sides. However, the Palestinian body count is about 10 times higher. The Palestinians do not have weapons of mass destruction like Israel. Israel uses missiles, gasses, prisons, and bulldozers (mostly from the US) to demolish homes and groves. Israel has the power to prevent children from returning to their parents’ funerals, and tortures indiscriminately all in their prisons, which include children. Your comments and perceived truths would be like blaming the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The ignorance, the lack of acknowledgement and hatred is stunningly shameful. Boycotting, Divesting and Sanctioning are the incentives to bring Israel to its senses and begin a real dialogue, followed by constructive action.

    1. As a jew to compare the children of the holocaust who were systematically targeted for eradication and the Palestinians is the very reason why israel still needs to fight for its existence. It’s abhorent to compare the two. Demonizing israel while assuming the Palestinians are helpless victims whose actions are justified at every turn is why the conflict will not end. Doris you have been posed with questions and your response is its a lie and “perceived truths”. One can say the same for the way you “perceive” the comflict. Im very well versed on mideastern politics and ivy educated so to suggest that I’m not educated bc I disagree with you is a way to not have to account for things you don’t “perceive” as part of your narrative of palestinian victimhood. It’s not a lie that the Arab world rejected Israels right to exist. It’s not a lie that they invaded. It’s not a lie that at same time a million Jews were kicked out of Syria Iraq Egypt etc and had all their money and land confiscated. Including my family from Syria. It’s not a lie that Israel offered the Palestinians a state on over 95% of the land they requested with additional Israeli land to cover th remaining 5%. It’s not a lie that the Palestinians lobbed missiles from Gaza into israel for the past ten years AFTER israel uprooted settlements there. I can go on. Until you are willing to recognize that there are two parties to a conflict where both sides have legitimate claims and not an “evil” Israel and a poor Palestinian side that has no role, then your words cannot lead to peace and reconciliation. Help Palestinians to reform their government. Help them to reject Islamic extremists like Hamas. Help them reject incitement against Jews in their media schools and mosques. Only then will the two societies be able to build trust and hope.

  5. Sometimes you have to go out of your tribe’s myopia to absorb bare and painful truths. As I came of age, I was shepherded in my social conscience by progressive New York Jews. I learned to distance myself from my family’s conservative truisms. I believed all of the principles of social justice especially the “never again” claim about the Holocaust. I thought it extended to all oppressed peoples. The Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 shattered my illusions. The familiar dialects on the radio justifying the assaults by the Phalange and Israel sickened me. It was justified as defensive. Killing people on mass who are defenseless was cold-blooded murder, period. Israel continues with the excuse of defense as they slaughter innocents and shred every institution, industry and farm that may help to anchor an independent Palestinian democracy. As young adults, my husband who is Jewish, and I began a journey that would upset our fantasies and distance us from our respective families. We became involved in the anti-weapons proliferation movement. We learned about the unfiltered history of the Middle East and Israel/Palestine. It took years to understand that history’s complexity, and even longer to understand the whitewashing used by Israel and the United States. Every day we continue to learn new facts, and ways of evaluating. Being open and learning to listen helps us to envision peaceful resolutions.

    Israel has to make the first move for reconciliation by ending the occupation. Israel has to beckon its strength, because it has that power. It is never too late for both sides to understand that the WW2 traumas Jews suffered were displaced onto Palestinians. Once the occupation truly ends the Palestinians will forgive Israel for scapegoating them. Together they will decide on one state, two states (don’t you think the Palestinians would like to have their own state without Israeli interference?!), three states, seven states… It does not matter how many. What matters now is that for decades there has been no incentive for Israel to truly stop its aggressive land appropriation policies and goals in the name of security and defense. Palestinians also have security issues to put it mildly. This and other violations seriously get in the way of a Palestinian democratic state to emerge. Boycotting, Divesting, and Sanctioning counters the imbalance. It creates a little more balance. It finally creates incentives. BDS’s emergence and its broad base of support will help end the era of the big lie, and usher in a long awaited for reconciliation based on acknowledgement and human dignity. I am an eternal optimist, because it will never be too late to turn this around.

  6. I understand that most of your comments come from a position of fear and anger. Not all, but many Palestinians understanding that complexity. Most in the peace movement understand it very well. Jews have been collectively persecuted. The trauma is carried from one generation to another. However, the use of that trauma may become a roadblock:

    1. How do Jews and Israelis introduce this historical collective trauma to their children and friends without further traumatizing them? This was a serious issue for us as we raised our two boys. How do you instill the principles of “never again” while justifying violence toward another people?

    2. How can your fears transform the conversation into something constructive? Why is it that I feel like your aim is to silence me, and those of us in the peace movement?

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