Cultural Boycott. Why?

From the archive (legacy material)

Rowan Al-Faqih | This Week in Palestine | December 2005

In 2004, the 20th Haifa International Film Festival established a section for “New Palestinian Cinema” in cooperation with Masharaf magazine in Haifa and several Palestinian filmmakers were invited to present their films. A number of us at the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) contacted some of these filmmakers to urge them not to participate in that Festival. There were two main reasons for that: the first was that the film festival was sponsored by the Israeli government and held under the patronage of Limor Livnat, a minister in Sharon’s government and a member of the Likud party well-known for her racist and Zionist positions and actions, and the second was the fact that a boycott of the festival had been started in 2002, two years earlier, by “Gaslight,” the producers of the British documentary “Sunday.”1 In their withdrawal letter to the festival, Gaslight wrote:
“… of the many lessons that flow from the story of Bloody Sunday, key among them is the ethical political and long-term military folly of governments attempting to impose military solutions on civil and human rights problems.
“We take this action in support of the Palestinian people and in solidarity with Palestinian artists and filmmakers. It is also done in solidarity with those within Israel (both Israelis and Arabs) who are speaking out and acting (e.g. refuseniks) against the government’s murderous policies against the Palestinian people.”

PACBI’s position was that on the one hand, boycotting the festival would fortify an international position with a Palestinian one, and on the other set a precedent that would hopefully spread to other cultural events in Israel. Thus a cultural boycott of Israel would become the norm, as it was in the case of apartheid South Africa. 2
A few filmmakers withdrew their films; several others decided to go on with their participation in the festival and put forward the argument that it was a chance to present Israelis with the Palestinian side of the story. 3
Therefore, the question that remains to be answered is: why do we really need to tell our story to the Israelis? Because it’s not enough that 80% of adult Israeli males have served or will serve at an Israeli checkpoint? Because it is not enough that a large percentage of those have shot or will shoot at a Palestinian at one point during their military service or annual reserve duty? Because not enough of them have flown in F16s or Apache helicopters, that not more than a few thousand have been in tanks or bulldozers that have destroyed Palestinian homes? Because not enough of them have sat in meeting rooms or occupied Palestinian homes planning invasions, attacks, arrests and extra-judicial killings? Because they do not really know that they are caging us in when they drive by next to the Wall their government is building? What is it that they do not understand after almost forty years of occupation that a film or ten will get them to understand? That we are in fact human beings, so that if an Israeli soldier is unable to have any sympathy for children carrying school bags in real life, he or she will, with our help, be able to reconnect to his or her humanity while watching that scene on a detached screen?
Since when has it been the duty of the occupied to educate the occupier? Or for the colonized to raise the colonizer’s awareness? Is it our sense of superiority? Or our confidence in our ability to reform and convert anyone to our “religion?” Or a naïve belief that if only they knew “we were like them” they would actually see how they have done us wrong?
However, the argument for cultural boycott is not based on whether cinema and art can actually contribute to changing mindsets and prejudices, but whether Palestinian artists and filmmakers should take an active role in participating in events and cultural venues organized and sponsored by Israeli institutions. During the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, non-white South Africans accepted the fact that they themselves would be boycotted as part of the international sanctions imposed on their country. They understood that this would be the price to pay in order to end the racism, discrimination and oppression in South Africa.
The administration of the Haifa Film Festival effectively managed to end the boycott of its festival by creating a special section for Palestinian cinema. By co-opting Palestinian films and filmmakers, any possible action by international artists to boycott the festival or other events was successfully deflated.
Recently, a broad spectrum of Palestinian civil society organizations, unions, and federations issued a call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS, see Palestinian artists and filmmakers are called upon to join this call, and take part in a campaign whose goal, among other things, is to end the oppression and racism.
2 Omar Barghouti, ‘The morality of a cultural boycott of Israel’
3 Sobhi al-Zobaidi, ‘The importance of documentary cinema from within Palestine’