Cecilie Surasky | AlterNet
1 September 2009
Few global-justice campaigns are more polarizing, even explosive, than the effort to use international boycotts, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel to end its 42-year occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Just ask Neve Gordon.
Recently, Gordon, head of the political science department at Ben-Gurion University and a longtime peace activist, published a wrenching op-ed in the Los Angeles Times endorsing the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
After initially opposing the tactic, he became convinced, he wrote, that outside pressure “is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself.”
He was braced for a backlash, but nothing like what he has faced over the past few weeks — members of the Israeli Knesset from a range of political parties called for his immediate sacking, the education minister called his article “repugnant,” and his university president threw him under the bus saying, “Academic personalities who feel this way are invited to look for an academic and personal home elsewhere.” She then hinted that his statement might have been an act of treason.
Clearly, BDS, part of the so-called South Africa strategy, crosses a line in the sand for many who believe that putting economic pressure on Israel is necessarily anti-Jewish.
But for proponents, BDS is a proven, nonviolent tactic that can pressure Israel to abide by international law, making an impact where various government efforts have failed and failed miserably.
Although Palestinian Civil Society made the BDS call in 2005, it gained momentum after Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza this past December and January.
Now it is undeniably growing, particularly in the arts world. Respected writers such as John Berger, Eduardo Galeano and Adrienne Rich have all endorsed it; and Israeli film festivals have faced a string of boycotts.
Most recently, the Toronto International Film Festival’s announcement of a special “city-to-city” celebration of Tel Aviv is threatening to turn the second most important film festival in the world (after Cannes) into a site of angry protests.
One of the most high-profile figures to endorse the call for BDS is Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, who typically enjoys overflow crowds, extensive media coverage and brisk book sales when she goes on international book tours.
When it came to publishing her latest best-seller, The Shock Doctrine, in Hebrew and Arabic, Klein decided the political situation in Israel and Palestine called for an entirely different approach.
In opposition to Israel’s occupation, she chose not to sign a traditional book deal with advances and royalties. Instead, she donated the book to Andalus, a publishing house that works actively against the occupation. It is the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew, something its founder Yael Lerer describes as “publishing as an act of resistance.”
Klein and Lerer also set out to craft a book tour that would honor the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of Israel while also showing that boycotts need not cut off much-needed communication and dialogue.
With this in mind, Klein and Lerer, used the tour to draw attention to the boycott and the Palestinian struggle and to spark an internal Israeli dialogue about boycott as a way to pressure Israel to live up to international law.
Last month in Tel Aviv, I sat down with Klein and Lerer to ask about the goals, meaning and nuts and bolts of implementing a cultural boycott, and also why Lerer, a Jewish Israeli, is telling the world, “Please, boycott me.”
Here are some excerpts from that interview. — Cecilie Surasky
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Cecilie Surasky: What is the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions? Why are you supporting it?
Naomi Klein: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: It’s a tactic with a very clear goal, to force Israel to comply with international law.
The call [for BDS] was made in 2005 by an extraordinarily broad range of Palestinian civil society groups, political parties, and trade unions. But it didn’t really start to gain an international profile until the Israeli attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006.
In the midst of the war, the writer John Berger sent out a letter, signed by many prominent artists, mostly European, declaring their support for the boycott strategy. When that letter surfaced, I was in the middle of writing The Shock Doctrine, and I made a personal decision at the time that when the book came out, I wouldn’t do what I had done with the Hebrew translations of my previous two books, which was to publish with a fairly traditional commercial publisher.
Instead, I planned to do what John Berger was calling for, which was to find a way to publish in Hebrew that directly supports groups that are working to end the occupation. So that’s how I met Yael, who is anything but a traditional Israeli publisher, and who has been outspoken in her support of BDS, at genuine professional cost.
Surasky: You must have grappled with this idea of a cultural boycott. Many critics would say that it shuts down communication rather than opening it up. What brought you to take this step?
Klein: Well, it has to do with the fact that the Israeli government openly uses culture as a military tool. Though Israeli officials believe they are winning the actual war for land, they also feel that the country suffers because most of what the world hears about the region on the news is about the conflict: militarization, lawlessness, the occupation and Gaza.
So the foreign ministry launched a campaign called “Israel Beyond the Conflict,” which involves using culture, film, books, the arts, tourism and academia to create all kinds of alliances between Western countries and the state of Israel, and to promote the image of a normal, happy country, rather than an aggressive occupying power. That’s why we are always hearing about film festivals and book fairs with a special “Israel spotlight.”
And so, even though in general I would totally agree that culture is positive — books are positive and film is positive and communication is wonderful — we have to understand that we are dealing with a state strategy to co-opt all of that to make a brutal occupation more palatable.
There are other things that also fall into that category: the state of Israel has an open strategy of enlisting gay and lesbian rights and feminism into the conflict, pitting Hamas’s fundamentalism against Israel’s supposed enlightened liberalism as another justification for collective punishment of Palestinians (never mind the ever-growing power and intolerance of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews). It’s a very sophisticated strategy.
That means we have to come up with equally sophisticated strategies that defend culture and human rights on the one hand, but that, on the other, reject all attempts to use our work and our values to whitewash the ugly reality of occupation and segregation.
Surasky: You’ve done a book tour unlike any other book tour. Yael Lerer, your company, Andalus, published the book in Hebrew. On the face of it, there’s an inherent contradiction in coming to Israel-Palestine and doing a book tour while supporting a boycott. Yet you’ve managed to make that work. Can you explain?
Yael Lerer: Andalus has been dealing with this contradiction from the very beginning. We publish Arab writers that oppose “normalization” of the occupation — like we do. And we always try to find ways to deal with these contradictions.
Actually, this is the first time we have had a book tour, because our normal way of dealing with these contradictions is to translate the books but not hold any celebrations. Our writers never come here. So here we had this challenge for the first time.
We made the big launch of the Hebrew edition not in Tel Aviv but in Haifa, at an Arab theater, where our hosts were not Israeli official institutions, but Palestinian minority institutions. (As you know, there is a minority of 20 percent Palestinian within Israel.)
But this event was not aimed only at this community — we invited Israeli Jews to come as well. One could read everywhere in Hebrew, “Naomi Klein is coming to Haifa, come and hear her.”
At the same time, it was important to have the first book events in East Jerusalem and Ramallah, with the Arabic edition, and that before all the book events, Naomi participated in a demonstration in Bi’lin against the separation wall.
So we spoke to the Israeli public at the events and through the Israeli media. The book is available in Hebrew. But, at the same time, we expressed a strong anti-normalization position. We were not doing it like everything is normal.
Klein: And that’s the point. This is not a boycott of Israelis. It’s a boycott of pretending that everything is normal in Israel, because that’s what cultural producers are usually invited to do.
There has been a huge amount of misrepresentation about the boycott campaign, claiming that it is a boycott of Israelis, or Jews, or that it’s anti-Semitic. We are trying to address those misconceptions with this tour. There are some clear rules: We’re not going to work with a state-sponsored book fair, for instance. I have refused invitations to come to Israel, to speak at state-sponsored film festivals and things like that.
But If I were boycotting Israelis, I wouldn’t be in Israel engaging with Israelis. I would have stayed home.
One of the things we are trying to draw out with this tour is that for foreigners like me, however you choose to come to Israel, you are making choices, and you are taking a side. It’s possible to pretend that you are not, but that’s only because of Israel’s success in making the conflict invisible inside a carefully constructed bubble.
In my book there is a long chapter about Israel and the construction of the homeland security state. It looks closely at the companies that build the high-tech walls and fences and checkpoints and that keep Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in a state of constant surveillance.
It is because of the effectiveness of the homeland security sector that it’s possible to come to cities like Tel Aviv and be almost completely oblivious to what is happening in Ramallah, in Gaza. This state is like a giant gated community. It has perfected the art of constructing a security bubble, and that is, in a sense, its brand.
It’s a brand that is sold to Diaspora Jews like me. It says: “We can keep you safe, we can create, in a sea of enemies, a bubble of safety for you to enjoy, to have a wonderful beach holiday, to go to film festivals and book festivals — even as we bomb Gaza, even as we turn the West Bank into a chain of mini-Bantustans, surrounded by walls and expanding settlements, and roads Palestinians don’t have access to.”
These are two sides of the same coin: the bubble of normalcy, the brutality of enclosure. So it is not a politically neutral act to partake of that bubble.
This is a very important dialogue to have, and that’s why it was so important for us to publish the book in Hebrew — both to get the information out there, and to challenge people who are misrepresenting this tactic as being a boycott of Jews or a boycott of Israelis. We’re not doing that at all.
I donated the royalties to Andalus so that I’m not personally profiting from this, and I chose to work with Andalus because it is an activist publisher with a clear anti-occupation stand.
If the book does well, then it helps them to continue their work. The boycott campaign doesn’t ask people not to come to Israel or the Occupied Territories to share ideas and art — it asks that we do so in clear opposition to occupation and discrimination.
Surasky: And how has the Israeli media responded to the first pro-boycott book tour?
Klein: Not well. One of the contradictions we’re facing is that we really wanted to spark a debate in Israel, because while BDS is being debated in Europe and Canada, it’s almost invisible inside Israel; there’s real censorship around this issue.
Virtually the only perspective you hear is, “Oh, they’re just a bunch of anti-Semites, they hate Israelis, they hate Jews” — very, very distorted.
So our idea was to make it harder to distort by putting some facts on the ground and saying: “Look, we’ve translated this book, I’m here in Israel. Let’s have some of that dialogue and communication Israel is supposedly so intent on defending.”
What we’re finding is a lot of interest from Israelis but a huge amount of resistance from the Israeli media to just having the debate — both about the role of the security sector in lobbying against peace and the possible role of a boycott movement in creating new lobbies for peace.
Once I made my boycott position clear in Ha’aretz, a lot of media canceled on us, which doesn’t say much for the spectrum of debate, but it’s not all that surprising either!
Surasky: What is the objective of this campaign? What would you like to see coming out of this?
Klein: It’s modeled on the South Africa strategy that the anti-apartheid struggle used against South Africa very successfully in the 1980s. It had academic boycotts, cultural boycotts, consumer boycotts.
But the really big key economic lever was universities and municipalities divesting from companies that were doing business in apartheid South Africa. The campaign started to be too costly for both South African firms and for Western multinationals with major investments in South Africa.
There was also a situation a little bit similar with Israel where you had a white minority in South Africa that very much saw itself as being part of Europe, of being part of the West. And suddenly they weren’t getting the American and European concerts they wanted, they weren’t getting the book fairs they wanted, and they didn’t like that.
So they put pressure on their government to make it stop, even though white South Africans felt self-righteous and enormously enraged by the boycotts and sanctions.
The hope is that these sorts of dynamics can work in Israel, because it is so important to the Israeli self-image that the country be seen as an honorary member of the E.U. or an adjunct to the United States.
When writers and artists stop participating in the Israeli government’s strategy to use culture to hide what’s on the other side of the concrete walls, Israelis may eventually decide that those walls are a liability and decide to take them down
Lerer: I completely agree. As an Israeli citizen, I need boycotts for two reasons.
First, I want Israelis to feel more strongly that everything is not normal. It means nothing for many self-identified left-wing Israelis to say, “It’s awful, what’s going on in Gaza and in Hebron,” while continuing their daily lives like everything is fine.
They go to the shows and they go to the concerts. These people are the elites in this country. These are the journalists that work at the newspapers. I want to move them. I want to shake these people up and make them understand they cannot continue their normal life when Palestinians in Qalqiliya [a West Bank city completely surrounded by the separation barrier] — only 15 minutes away from Tel Aviv — are in prison.
The second reason I need the boycott is because I lost the hope of creating change from within, which was what I tried to do as an activist for many years.
Twenty years ago, I could never have imagined this semi-apartheid situation. I care about the future in this place. I care about my fellow Israelis. I have a huge family here and many, many friends.
I know many people who don’t have any other passports and who don’t have any other options. I think that the solution for this place, the only possible future, is living together. Unfortunately, at this stage, I don’t see how this future can be achieved without international pressure.
And I think that boycott is a nonviolent tool that has already shown us that it can work. So I’m asking: Please boycott me.
Klein: I also think we need to be very clear: This is an extraordinarily asymmetrical conflict where the Israeli state is the biggest boycotter of all. The economy in Gaza and the West Bank has been utterly destroyed by closures.
Beyond shutting down the borders so producers in Gaza couldn’t get fruits and vegetables out, you had [over 200] factories in Gaza hit during the attack in late December and January. It was a systematic destruction of that economy to try to “teach Gaza a lesson” for having voted for Hamas. So, boycotts are happening.
The way I see BDS is that this is a tactic that we are resorting to because of Israeli impunity. There is an absolute unwillingness to apply international law to the Israeli state. Hamas has committed war crimes, but there is absolutely an international response to those crimes. [There is no response to Israeli war crimes, which are on an exponentially larger scale.]
We were just in Gaza. The thing that really struck me was the sense of shock among so many people that, even after the December/January attacks, even after hundreds of children were killed, there have been no actions taken by the international community to hold Israel accountable.
I mean, this was a display of utter impunity and disdain for international law, for the laws of war — which, by the way, were created in direct response to the Nazi atrocities of the second World War. And yet, not only are there no consequences for those crimes, but the illegal siege of Gaza is still on.
What BDS is saying is our governments have failed. The United Nations has failed. The so-called international community is a joke. We have to fill the vacuum.
I also believe this movement could be a game-changer in the United States. Let’s remember that a huge part of the success of the anti-apartheid struggle in the ’80s was due to popular education.
Once you said, “Our school or town should divest from apartheid South Africa,” you immediately had to have a big teach-in where you had to explain what apartheid was, and you had to make your case persuasively. And people were persuaded.
The Palestinian BDS call could play that kind of movement-building role today, giving people something concrete they can organize around in their schools and communities.
Whether he recognizes it or not, [President Barack] Obama needs the Palestinian struggle to be a popular, grassroots issue like the South African struggle was. He has taken very small steps to forge a new kind of deal with Israel, but he’s facing enormous push-back from the right. There has to be a counterpressure on Obama saying, “Actually, you’re not going far enough. Excuse me, no new settlements? How about no settlements, period?”
So the only hope of not just having him hold to this tentative position, but actually improving this position, is if there’s a popular movement that is very clear in its demands for Israel to abide by international law on all fronts, and that’s exactly what BDS is.
Surasky: How are Israelis on the left responding to the idea of a boycott?
Lerer: Something happened in the last war in Gaza in January. Five hundred and forty Israelis — including prominent academics, actors and filmmakers — signed a petition asking for international pressure on Israel.
One paragraph in this petition said that only boycott helped in the South Africa case. It was not yet a direct call for boycott, but it was a very important step. Now we are forming a new group of Israeli citizens who support the Palestinian call for boycott — Boycott From Within (BFW).
In 2005, we tried to arrange a group of artists to support the Palestinian call for academic and cultural boycott, and we failed. People told us, “How can we boycott ourselves? It is too difficult, it is too radical.” Many of these people have now signed the Gaza petition, and they are joining our new BFW group.
They understood that it’s not about boycotting ourselves, but about asking the international community, asking our fellow citizens everywhere in the world for action: Please help us by boycotting us.
Surasky: Let’s talk about specific examples of other people who are supporting this call.
Klein: Most artists do not know about the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions, even though it comes from hundreds of Palestinian groups. We’re working within a context where Palestinian voices are virtually inaudible in the West.
So people will come to Israel to accept an award or agree to play a concert in Tel Aviv, and they don’t know that they are essentially crossing a picket line. Most don’t even know a call has been made for nonviolent resistance by a people who, let’s remember, have been utterly vilified for using any kind of armed resistance. I mean come on: If you reject armed resistance, and you reject boycotts and sanctions, what’s left? Online petitions? Do we really think that’s going to end the occupation?
But yes, some filmmakers who are politically active have decided not to participate in Israeli or Israeli-sponsored film festivals.
Ken Loach has pulled out of the Melbourne International Film Festival because it was sponsored by the Israeli government. The Canadian filmmaker John Greyson pulled a terrific film called Fig Trees from this year’s gay and lesbian film festival in Tel Aviv.
More recently, the Yes Men wrote a really thoughtful letter to the Jerusalem Film Festival explaining why they decided to pull their new film, The Yes Men Save the World, from the festival.
And now there is some talk of organizing a pro-BDS film festival in Ramallah, once again to boycott normalcy but to still get these films out there.
Surasky: I just read a criticism of BDS that said, “You’re not calling for a boycott of North Korea, or the United States for that matter because of Afghanistan or Iraq. So, that makes this anti-Semitic.” How do you address this criticism?
Klein: I’ve heard that too, but I’m not calling for a boycott of anyone. I am respecting a call for a boycott that has been made by hundreds of Palestinian groups.
I believe in the principle that people under oppressed circumstances have a right to self-determination. That’s at the heart of this struggle. This is a nonviolent tactic that has been selected by a broad range of civil society groups.
Iraqis, so far as I know, have not called for BDS tactics against the United States, though it would certainly be their right. And yet some people act as if I sort of made it up in my bedroom like, “who should I boycott today? Eenie-meenie-miney-mo, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Burma, Israel!”
Once again, the only reason this can happen is because Palestinian voices are so effectively marginalized in the Western press.
By the way, most of the examples that are trotted out in these debates are examples where there are very clear state sanctions against these countries. So we’re not dealing with impunity as we are with Israel.
In this case, you need a grassroots project to fill in where governments have completely abdicated their responsibility to exert pressure on behalf of international law.
Lerer: But not only that — these countries don’t have these film festivals, and Madonna is not going to have a concert in North Korea.
The problem here is that the international community treats Israel like it was a normal, European, Western state. And this is the basis of the boycott call — the special relationship that Israeli universities have with European universities and with universities in the United States, which universities in Zimbabwe don’t have.
I do believe that Israel could not continue the occupation for one single day without the support of the United States and the European Union. The Western community supports the occupation. Like Naomi was saying, not doing something is the active thing.
Surasky: Some say, “This is not going to help. Israelis see themselves under siege, we Jews see ourselves under siege. It’s actually going to make Israelis less open to peace.”
Klein: It’s inevitable that, at least in the short term, it’s going to feed this Israeli feeling of being under siege.
It’s not rational, because in fact, what we’re dealing with is a context where Israel has been rewarded. If we look at these key years since the election of Hamas, when the siege on Gaza became utterly brutal and just undeniably illegal, trade with Israel has actually increased dramatically. There have been new special agreements launched with the European Union and Israel, with Latin America. Last year, Israeli exports to Canada went up 45 percent.
Even though Israel is being rewarded for this criminality and is getting away with just extraordinary violence, the feeling among many Israelis of being under siege is increasing.
The question is, do we just cater to this irrationality? Because if we just cater to it, that means we do nothing, we voluntarily surrender the most effective tools in the nonviolent arsenal.
Israel, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, believes that the whole world is against it and that all the criticism it faces flows from anti-Semitism.
This is simply untrue, and as activists, we can no longer allow one nation’s victim complex to trump the very real victimization of the Palestinian people.