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The Morally Void Cultural Boycott of Israel

Jonathan Tobin and I have written of the appalling decision, by organizers of a European music festival, to ban an American Jewish performer, merely because he refused to issue a public statement in favor of Palestinian statehood. (Update: the festival has backed down, admitting that it “made a mistake, due to the boycott and the campaign of pressure, coercion, and threats employed by the BDS País Valencià.”) Now comes news, from the New York Times (though Ynet was on it last week), of another allegedly unintended but utterly predictable consequence of the cultural boycott of Israel. Roy Zafrani’s film, The Other Dreamers, about disabled children in Israel, has been rejected from Oslo’s Human Rights, Human Wrongs festival because Zafrani is Israeli. As Ketil Magnussen, founder of the Oslo Documentary Cinema explained, “we support the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.” For that reason, the festival will not show films by Israelis that do not deal directly with illegal discrimination against Palestinians.

As I noted earlier in the week, the guidelines for the cultural boycott of Israel, for the most part, target artists funded or sponsored by the Israeli government. But Magnussen’s letter says nothing about such sponsorship or funding, perhaps because Zafrani used his own money and volunteer labor to make his short documentary. Nor does Zafrani, as far as I know, have any involvement in Israeli politics.

The Times interviewed Omar Barghouti, a founder and leader of the BDS movement for the article. He stopped well short of condemning the festival’s discriminatory actions, claiming that he “wasn’t familiar with Mr. Magnussen’s reasoning.” But he did say that the boycott guidelines unambiguously state that “mere affiliation of Israeli cultural workers to an Israeli cultural institution is… not grounds for applying the boycott.” That’s disingenuous, though. Ketil Magnussen’s actions are fully in the spirit of the BDS campaign against “normalization.”

Consider this part of the guidelines: “Cultural events and projects involving Palestinians and/or Arabs and Israelis that promote “balance” between the “two sides” in presenting their respective narratives, as if on par, or are otherwise based on the false premise that the colonizers and the colonized, the oppressors and the oppressed, are equally responsible for the “conflict,” are intentionally deceptive, intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible.  Such events and projects, often seeking to encourage dialogue or “reconciliation between the two sides” without addressing the requirements of justice, promote the normalization of oppression and injustice.”

That is to say, projects may be subject to boycott if they seek to foster cooperation and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, unless that cooperation and understanding is founded on the premise that Israel is an apartheid state.

Now, Zafrani’s documentary isn’t about Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, but the logic of “anti-normalization” points directly to rejecting it. If failing to denounce Israel as an apartheid state makes one complicit in Israel’s effort to pass for anything other than a monster, then the claim that Zafrani is apolitical, far from being a defense, is evidence against him. An Israeli artist who devotes himself to anything other than denouncing Israel is guilty and deserves to be shunned.

Indeed, until recently, the American academic boycott campaign explicitly encouraged, though it did not require, the boycott of individual Israeli academics on the grounds that “all academic exchanges with Israeli academics do have the effect of normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid.” This advice disappeared from the site of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel just last year.

One would like to think that the organization decided to stop encouraging its supporters to shut our Israeli academics because, on reflection, its members decided its position was reprehensible. It seems more likely, however, that it occurred to them not only that it made the boycott vulnerable from a public relations perspective but also that insisting that Israeli and only Israeli academics publicly denounce their country as a condition of acceptance constitutes discrimination on the basis of national origin.

In Oslo, that happens to be illegal.

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