Inside the Artistic Boycott Movement

Beth Kissileff

Beth Kissileff

Freelance writer, editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2015).

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From London to São Paulo to Pittsburgh, Israeli artists are being subjected to increasingly draconian standards that prohibit the free flow of ideas and culture.

“Israel’s wars are fought on the cultural front too,” says a letter to the British newspaper The Guardian explaining why over 1,000 artists based in the UK signed a February 2015 statement compiled by the group Artists for Palestine, asserting that they “will not engage in business-as-usual cultural relations with Israel.” Instead, they will boycott cultural products, events, and funding if they are connected to Israel or Israeli citizens.

It is debatable as to whether wars are indeed fought on a “cultural front,” but those who have animosity toward Israel seem to think so, and their efforts to fight this cultural war are becoming steadily more widespread and fervent.

It is important not only for supporters of Israel, but also artists around the world to understand what some of those efforts are, who is behind them, and why involvement with them can be dangerous not only to Israel but also to artistic expression itself. Even those who are critical of or passionately opposed to the policies of the current Israeli government need to be aware of the fact that this attempt to turn culture into a warzone is spearheaded not by those who wish to see political change and a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but by those who wish to silence free artistic expression through threats and intimidation, and often wish to see Israel wholly demolished. They believe, in other words, that there is no place in the world for a Jewish state or its artists.

The attempt to create a broad cultural boycott of Israel is part of the larger Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to advance the Palestinian cause through economic, political, diplomatic, and cultural war against the Jewish state. Though there are some who see the movement as a way to hasten a two-state solution, many of its leaders are quite open about their desire to see Israel dismantled, and often fall into anti-Semitic rhetoric in order to make their point.

In the realm of culture, their efforts tend to concentrate on simply silencing any and all cultural ties with Israel as part of an ideology that opposes “normalization” with the Jewish state. Culturally, this inevitably leads to the suppression of dialogue and interaction with works of art that might lead to this “normalization.” It represents, in effect, a refusal to live up to one of the most important principles of any form of artistic expression.

As sociologist and cultural critic Tiffany Jenkins recently wrote in The New Republic,

The premise of art is that one can think up and convincingly construct for others, across time and place, a different life; another experience which becomes real to the reader or viewer because it has been written, painted, performed—not because the audience has been there, seen it, or done it themselves. Just think of all your favorite productions, books, or paintings and how they differ from your personal experience but seduce you into believing in them.

If one is to be able to engage with art, Jenkins asserts, one needs to have access to experiences and ideas different from one’s own. If the ability to even view this kind of art is cut off—one of the goals of the cultural boycott—then nothing new can be experienced and a certain richness has been expunged from the world of art. As a recent petition opposing the boycott, called “Challenging Double Standards,” stated,

If we believe in the ability of art to tackle complex situations and political questions in a progressive manner, the task of art lies in insisting on specificity and subjectivity rather than simplifying context; insisting on reflection rather than reflex. We ask spaces of art and cultural production to deal actively with contradictions rather than ignoring them, and to question political propaganda rather than being subsumed by it.

Jenkins herself recently moderated a discussion on “Artistic Freedom and Political Activism: To boycott or not to boycott?” at the Battle of Ideas conference in the UK. In her TNR piece on whether an exhibit should not be seen because some viewers believe it to be racist, Jenkins added,

At their core, these calls for censorship dictate that only certain groups or people can create art because only they have the experience. Underlying these protests, then, is the idea that we, the audience, are not capable of empathy, and that the purpose of art is not to create and convince people of other worlds but to reflect the reality as the self-selecting chosen ones see it. It is an exclusive and divisive outlook, and it is one that ultimately negates the basis of art. [Emphasis added]

Jenkins is on to something when she suggests that there is a coercive and divisive element in the calls for what is essentially censorship of Israeli art and artists, as well as her assertion that art is not the appropriate realm for such strong-arm tactics.

Jenkins’ view has been seconded in a recent report by an Israeli curator, Chen Tamir, on the effect of cultural boycotts on artists:

Many argue that the boycott blocks dialogue specifically where it is needed most; that works of art can reach people who wouldn’t normally be exposed to cultural exchange and goad them to thinking in more complex, open, and holistic ways. In this way, a work of art holds the potential to broaden political awareness and enrich cultural ties.

For Tamir, as well as the artists who signed the aforementioned petition challenging the boycott, the problem with boycott is not just the truth or lack thereof in regard to its hegemonic view of Israel, but the way it effectively shuts down the potential for openness and free expression.

If, as Tamir claims, art has the potential to broaden awareness and enrich ties, it would seem that, if artists were truly committed to change, they would assume a point of view diametrically opposed to that of the cultural boycotters. They would want to engage with art created by groups they disagree with, and engage with their ideas through artistic means of expression. As the late folksinger Pete Seeger once said about cultural boycotts, “I understand why someone would want to boycott a place financially, but I don’t understand why you would boycott dialogue.”

Many artists agree that the cultural sphere should not be used to fight openly partisan political battles. The artists who created the anti-boycott petition mentioned above—who, it should be noted, “consider ourselves as part of the Left”—explained their point of view by noting, “As a collective we have benefited from and been challenged by the variety of opinions, perspectives, and experiences of the individuals among us.” The boycotters’ attempt to build an iron wall between themselves and all forms of Israeli art is rejected by boycott opponents who believe in the value of being challenged by a multiplicity of perspectives. And the petitioners are unafraid to say that they call on those who encounter “demonizing attempts such as BDS, to be critical and express this by contesting the underlying simplification.”

The anti-boycott petition argues that such boycotts simplify complex situations in a way that erases the difficulties of history and politics in a matter that is unfair and reductive. “With this letter,” they wrote,

We are advocating against reductive, binary views of conflict in the Middle East. We believe in the role of art to question and resist dichotomous views. We see dialogue as a critical part of any conceivable peace resolution between Palestine and Israel, and are troubled by the tendency among international boycott movements—particularly cultural boycott movements supported by individuals in the arts—which make dialogue impossible. Such dialogue inside Palestine and Israel is difficult, and is only made more precarious by unilateral international boycott.

The petitioners were also unafraid to connect the boycott movement to the recent escalation of anti-Semitism around the world, which has led to recent attacks on Jews at a kosher market in France and a synagogue in Copenhagen. Both these attacks, not coincidentally, were carried out in tandem with attacks on artists who challenged some of the most fervently held beliefs of fanatics who sought to silence these artists through terrorist violence. Calling out the double standards of the boycott movement, the petitioners wrote,

We fear there is an upswing of anti-Semitic attitudes and attacks, which seem to convey varying degrees of intentionality. Neglecting or simplifying significant historical legacies, Israel is treated as a paradigmatic colonial power, and is boycotted in a way that no other country is. Such discrimination and double standards, whether explicitly stated or implied, demand to be addressed.

Other artists, including those who are prominent leaders in the arts community agree. Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, is a signatory of the Challenging Double Standards petition. Yale’s was the first school of art in the U.S. connected to an institution of higher learning; it was established in 1869 and counts many prominent artists among its graduates. In a phone interview, Storr told me that he is “against boycotts, period….The cultural sphere one of the few places people can communicate with each other when there are deadlocks in politics.” He added that the boycotters need to “consider the consequences to people in their daily lives,” and that “playing chicken in this sphere” by limiting the options of fellow artists is “criminal.” Novelist Linda Grant has stated similar thoughts: “I’m happy to press war crimes charges against politicians and generals, but not punish ballerinas and actors because you can’t get at the powerful.”

Others in the art world are similarly dismayed by the tactics of the boycott campaign. In the February 25, 2015 issue of Artnet News, British art critic J.J. Charlesworth wrote that the UK artists’ boycott “isn’t really solidarity with the Palestinians; it’s moral condescension by the self-righteous and self-regarding over a foreign state they have decided they have the right to pass judgment on.” Charlesworth notes the “paternalistic” attitude behind the presumption of Western artists that it is the international community and Western governments that should be stepping in to solve a Middle Eastern conflict. Charlesworth, it seems important to note, also considers himself Left-wing, though, as he wrote to me, “there are issues that I see differently from [Artists for Palestine], as my political background comes out of a different political Left-wing than theirs.” He then continued to describe his message to anti-Israel artists:
By all means raise money, send weapons, go fight even, if you care so strongly about the cause of the Palestinians. That would be a test of your “solidarity.” But to mount grandiose displays of your own moral rectitude, while refusing to think through what power relationship you are actually lending support to, is not something the rest of us should feel obliged to support.

In this statement, Charlesworth seems to be getting at the heart of the matter. Artists should not assume that their position as creators of cultural content automatically gives them the ability to intuit the moral high ground in a complex and longstanding historical confrontation. The Artists for Palestine group is yet another attempt by boycott supporters—this one with a great deal of celebrity wattage and prestige—to isolate and silence Israelis of all political beliefs and backgrounds simply because of their Israeli citizenship.

Another artist, the Pittsburgh-based Ben Schachter, who teaches visual art and currently serves as department chair at St. Vincent College, concurred with Charlesworth in regard to boycotts in general, noting the sometimes intimidating tactics used by the anti-Israel boycotters. “This is freedom of speech,” he said. “That is the biggest miss. Whatever an individual has to say has been silenced. That is the story. The people who are silencing it are doing it through violence.” He also dislikes the “codified organized campaign” undertaken by the BDS movement. “It is the only one I know of that is organized as an attempt to close someone down,” and added, “academic and cultural boycott of Israel is just one arm of a large campaign.”

An incident at the Mattress Factory, an art venue in Pittsburgh, is a particularly egregious example of the boycotters’ attempt to not only stigmatize, but also censor, any art they view as normalizing relations with Israel, regardless of its political and artistic intentions. According to its website, the Mattress Factory is a museum dedicated to “the development of alternative art forms through site-specific installations, video, and performance art.”

In May 2014, the venue was planning an exhibit entitled “Sites of Passage: Walls, Borders & Citizenship.” The exhibition was to display works of art by Palestinian, Israeli, and American artists. It was curated by Tavia La Follette of ArtUp, who had successfully curated a similar show which featured cultural exchange between Egyptian and American artists. The May 2014 show, however, never opened. All the art was installed and the artists were in residence when one of the Palestinian artists, Bashar Alhroub, was attacked on his Facebook page because of the Mattress Factory’s statement in its publicity materials that “The artists have been working collaboratively.” According to an article in the Pittsburgh City Paper, “The three Palestinian artists—Alhroub, Manal Mahamid, and Mohammed Musallam—agreed to participate only after the Israeli and American artists expressed their support of Palestinian rights.” Alhroub told the City Paper that the Mattress Factory’s statement “could have ruined my reputation in my country, where I am well known as an artist who opposes the position of normalization.” There were also threats to the safety of Musallam—who is based in Gaza—and his family. The installation had been in the planning process for over a year when the tempest on Facebook over the word “collaboratively” forced its shutdown, and with it the possibility of its ever being seen.

Repetitive Vision, an installation by Yayoi Kusuma at the Mattress Factory, a modern art museum in Pittsburgh that was recently the subject of anti-Israel artistic boycotts. Photo: Marius Watz / flickr

Repetitive Vision, an installation by Yayoi Kusuma at the Mattress Factory, a modern art museum in Pittsburgh that was recently the subject of anti-Israel artistic boycotts. Photo: Marius Watz / flickr

The Mattress Factory, through its spokesperson Samantha Strahota Paolo, would not make the co-directors of the museum Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk available for comment, or release images from the cancelled show. However, the newspaper article contains a number of images of the works. Though I made attempts to reach the curator and the artists by phone and email, only one artist, Hyla Willis, responded. In an email, she wrote, “Thank you for your inquiry, but I am not interested in talking at this time.” I have written a great deal of journalism, but I have never seen the level of fear and unwillingness to speak to the press that I saw in regard to this particular story. This, I think, speaks to the extreme nature of the intimidation that the boycott movement is willing to exercise over its supporters and others.

This seems to be the biggest problem with the boycott movement, as well as the tactic most criticized by artists—the shutting down of spaces for artistic expression. Indeed, the Mattress Factory exhibit had initially bent over backwards to accommodate boycotters’ demands. It was planned within the guidelines of the boycott movement: It did not take money from Israel or create any impression of “normalization.” In fact, as La Follette told the City Paper, “The show would have revealed a lot about the injustice of the occupation.” Indeed, for those in the boycott movement who want to educate people about what they see as the “evils” of Israel, it seems that the show would have provided an ideal educational framework. But even this wasn’t good enough. In the end, the meaning of the show, which was clearly supportive of the Palestinian point of view in a wholly lopsided fashion, was less important than the prevention of anything that might be interpreted as “normalization” with Israel. Clearly, BDS is not really concerned with artists or art, or even promoting its own message. It is concerned with a political rigidity that is anathema to any art that might enable viewers to understand, grapple with, and be challenged by different points of view.

The Irish actor Liam Cunningham, who plays Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones, is a signatory to the Artists for Palestine boycott statement. Photo: Ben Beirdd / Wikimedia

The Irish actor Liam Cunningham, who plays Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones, is a signatory to the Artists for Palestine boycott statement. Photo: Ben Beirdd / Wikimedia

The Mattress Factory cancellation and others like it will only have the effect of further isolating Israeli artists and cultural figures. Chen Tamir wrote a 2015 report on the subject in Hebrew for Artis, an independent non-profit organization that refers to itself as “dedicated to broadening international awareness and understanding of contemporary art from Israel.” The report opens with an account of the Mattress Factory cancellation, and notes, “This incident seems to have been the nail in the coffin of joint Israeli-Palestinian exhibitions.” Tamir concluded her piece by expressing concern that “biennials around the world will reconsider requesting funding from the Israeli government, and may think twice before inviting Israeli artists, especially ones based in Israel. This grants urgency to the cultural work being done on the ground in Israel, where individuals and institutions may soon find themselves feeling increasingly isolated.”

Although the cancellation is disturbing to those who care about freedom of speech and artistic expression, what is even more disturbing is the tepid response from the local arts community. In an attempt to draw the controversy to a close, the Mattress Factory sponsored a panel discussion on the cancelled exhibit. Six panelists were invited: Tavia La Follette, the curator; co-directors Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk; Germaine Williams, whose Pittsburgh Foundation helped fund the exhibit; Dawn Waleski and Jon Rubin, co-directors of Conflict Kitchen, a program that serves food from countries “in conflict” with the U.S.; and moderator Joseph del Pesco, director of the San Francisco-based Kadist Art Foundation.

I attended the event as a reporter and was given a seat in the front row reserved for members of the press. During the hour and a half conversation, museum directors Luderowski and Olijnyk stated that they felt “gagged” by the shutdown, and added that they “don’t know when that sense of fear abates, so we shut up.” They added that there were board members who felt they should “go for it,” keep the show open, and make an open stand for free speech. But, as Olijnyk said, it didn’t happen; and for the “first time in 37 years we silenced the voice of an artist. We were silenced as an institution.” His decision, he said, was “based on humanity.” He felt the threats to the artists’ safety overrode the value of exhibiting their art.

British actress Miriam Margolyes is a signatory to the Artists for Palestine boycott statement. Photo: BBC / YouTube

British actress Miriam Margolyes is a signatory to the Artists for Palestine boycott statement. Photo: BBC / YouTube

The irony is that the exhibit was shut down over controversy on social media over language, yet Olijnyk stated that the Mattress Factory is a museum which wants viewers to respond visually to work on display.  Olijnyk explained to the audience that the Mattress Factory does not have “lots of wall text” because the curators want viewer to “respond to work first” rather than having assumptions before they enter the exhibition.

Yet, in response to a question from an audience member about what should be done regarding the “influence of one particular group that has a lot of money,” which was difficult to see as anything other than a reference to Jews, no one on the panel or in the audience called out the classic anti-Semitism of the statement. I spoke privately with del Pesco after the conference and asked him about it. He said that he was unaware of the comment‘s anti-Semitic implications.

The hostility in the room that evening was not solely directed at Jews, however. One of the artists whose work had been scheduled to be seen in the show stood up to speak in support of the withdrawal of the show from public view. She prefaced her remarks by directing a barbed look at me personally, presumably because I was the only person in the room whose laptop was open and taking notes—though a reporter for the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle taped the proceedings on her less conspicuous iPhone—and muttered something about the evils of the media. I have never felt so targeted or uncomfortable. It was also surprising that no one on the panel or in the audience questioned the necessity of abiding by BDS rules of conduct.

It isn’t only the arts community that should be concerned about the chilling effect of the boycott in the art world. Donors also deserve a say. Though attempts to contact Germaine Williams of the Pittsburgh Foundation yielded no response, the Heinz Endowment did make their Senior Director of Communications, John M. Ellis, available for a phone interview. Ellis explained the funding process: In December 2012, the Endowment donated $17,000 of the projected $48,000 budget for the “Sites of Passage” project to La Follette’s ArtUp organization. Ellis told me that there is a qualifying panel that makes decisions on small arts initiatives whose purpose is to “add vibrancy and encourage and inspire local artists.” He added that “we weren’t a party to the thing being cancelled,” but nonetheless, “we trust their decisions.” He also told me that the final report to the Heinz Endowment was still being prepared, so he could not comment further on the matter.

Jarvis Cocker, frontman of the Britpop group Pulp, is a signatory to the Artists for Palestine boycott statement. Photo: Zoe Bogner / flickr

Jarvis Cocker, frontman of the Britpop group Pulp, is a signatory to the Artists for Palestine boycott statement. Photo: Zoe Bogner / flickr

The Heinz Endowment itself has been in the news recently for its funding of the aforementioned Conflict Kitchen, run by Jon Rubin and Dawn Waleski, who were panelists at the Mattress Factory event. In its current iteration, Conflict Kitchen serves food in wrappers adorned with quotes from Palestinians; which, according to a letter from the Zionist Organization of America, contain many factual inaccuracies. One website that covered the story called the project “a food cart that hands out anti-Israel propaganda with each of its sandwiches” that “received funding from a foundation run by Secretary of State John Kerry’s wife.” Indeed, the Heinz Endowment not only funded the project but recently awarded its founder, Jon Rubin, an “Established Artist” grant at a December 8, 2014 ceremony. Rubin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he plans to use the $15,000 in prize money to continue his Conflict Kitchen and its concentration on the Palestinian cause.

Though free speech is alive and well for Mr. Rubin, it is not for many Israeli artists. There are numerous venues in which Israeli artists have not been allowed to participate in international exhibits. In addition to the shutdown at the Mattress Factory, Tamir’s report lists the São Paulo Biennial 2014, where controversy ensued when funding was sought from the local Israeli consulate. The Israeli curator, herself a boycott supporter, did not want the funding, but it was granted and the exhibition went through with a “taped amendment to the sponsorship board that stated that each consulate involved was only supporting artists from their own countries.”

Other sites that have become targets include the internationally-respected Batsheva Dance Company, which faced pickets at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November 2014; the UK Jewish Film Festival, which was forced to withdraw from the Tricycle Theater in north London, its home for eight years; and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the summer of 2014, where an Israeli theater company called Incubator Theater had to stage its performances outside due to a BDS threat to boycott the entire festival, since the Incubator Theater receives Israeli government funding.

Despite setbacks and strong opposition, it is clear that the boycott movement has met with not inconsiderable success. Two recent victories posted to their Twitter account are a listing of 1,000 UK-based artists who have signed the Artists for Palestine pledge. The website, unsurprisingly, equates Israel with apartheid South Africa.
During South African apartheid, musicians announced they weren’t going to “play Sun City” [a large South African music venue]. Now we are saying, in Tel Aviv, Netanya, Ashkelon, or Ariel, we won’t play music, accept awards, attend exhibitions, festivals, or conferences, run master classes or workshops, until Israel respects international law and ends its colonial oppression of the Palestinians.

Many have written to debunk the factually inaccurate analogy between Israel today and South Africa, including Dr. Kenneth Meshoe, a member of the South African parliament, who wrote in the San Francisco Examiner that “Israel cannot be compared to apartheid in South Africa. Those who make the accusation expose their ignorance of what apartheid really is….The misapplication of the term apartheid makes a mockery of a grievous injustice and threatens to undermine the true meaning of the term.”

The boycott movement’s tentacles reach into all aspects of the arts world, including visual art, film, dance, music, and theater. Its attempts to shut down, silence, and otherwise censor any art that might challenge its ideology demonstrate better than anything else that its motives are, in fact, anathema to those who believe in both free speech and the possibility that art can promote dialogue and empathy. In the wake of the Paris and Copenhagen terror attacks, which targeted both artists and Jews, this is more important to understand than ever before: BDS may not use violence, but it appears to be more than willing to use its own, more subtle brand of terror in order to silence artists, their art, and their audiences.

Banner Photo: Facundo Gaisler / flickr