In Defense of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement

Kuzza, Gaza, 2014 (photograph by Gary Fields)
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 Mid East/ Mediterranean
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!

Coping Amid the Ruins, Gaza (2014) (photograph by Gary Fields)
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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