Hillel president and CEO Firestone provides a perfect argument for cultural boycott

by Yaniv Reich on February 25, 2011

I can appreciate that arguments for cultural boycott might require a little more intellectual sophistication and awareness than, say, being (verbally) against Jewish-only colonies on stolen land. Every self-identified Jewish or Israeli “liberal” loves to blame the settlers for everything (when they aren’t trying to blame Hamas), but the notion of boycotting cultural icons seems very extreme to them. To help clarify this issue, Joseph Dana just wrote an excellent piece about some of the more common misunderstandings, which attempts to spoon feed some of this sophistication to his readers. In particular, he notes that the actual statements of the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel have nothing to do with racist discrimination against Israelis (the standard, boring “reverse racism” style argument that anti-BDS people typically invoke), but are specifically targeted at academic and cultural institutions that serve, directly or indirectly, to entrench the occupation and further Israel’s colonization project. Read Dana’s whole piece for more strong commentary.

A quick review of the argument for academic boycott

The essence of this strategic initiative, therefore, is the argument that Israel’s academic and cultural institutions do in fact serve the occupation, even if they contain (a relatively tiny number) individuals who are, at an individual level, against the occupation either in word or deed. Israel’s universities produce, in addition to apolitical research, numerous technologies used to control and/or kill Palestinians. They also act as breeding grounds for anti-Arab sentiment. And so on. The examples of such complicity with a brutal 43 year occupation and 64 year project of gradual ethnic cleansing are numerous and easily identified.

Anyone with the misfortune of following Israel’s official Twitter account will be more than familiar with this kind of propaganda. Here’s a sample:

  • Scientists from #Israel take part in international research team to reveal strawberry’s flavor and aroma secrets. http://bit.ly/dXaIWq
  • Robotic start-up nation: ‘thinking’ robots offer solutions for automating defense, #medicine & #agriculture. http://bit.ly/dVvSsF #israel
  • Israel issued commemorative postage stamps depicting the research subjects of #Israel’s #Nobel laureates in #chemistry http://bit.ly/gcgTma

Notice in each of these direct, 140 character efforts at propaganda, the Government of Israel is using the country’s research universities to paint a positive portrait of Israel.  Everybody loves strawberries!  There was no mention that the same day the Israeli army bombed Gaza multiple times (which is said was retaliation for the grad rocket attacks on Beer Sheba); no comment about the inhumane siege on Gaza, now in it’s 1,354th consecutive, unrelenting day; nothing about the new, Jewish-only communities being financed and defended by the Israeli government.  There was only charming “international” and Israeli “teams” delving into the “secrets” of some of the cutest and most lovable of fruits on earth.  In this way, engaging with Israeli institutions serves, either directly (as in the development of military technologies) or indirectly (for propaganda purposes), to change the subject from critical human rights and international law violations to strawberry scents and other peripheral distractions

Hillel president’s argument for cultural boycott

But what about artists from Israel, or foreign artists going to Israel to perform? Should they really be boycotted as well? The answer is ‘most definitely’. This response becomes perfectly clear when one observes the great efforts that Israel, as a rogue country in violation of more UN Security Council resolutions than any other state on earth, makes to highlight only the positive aspects of the country.  As I have already highlighted official Israel government propaganda, I want to turn to recent comments by Wayne L. Firestone, President and CEO of Hillel, the hugely important Jewish American student organization.  Like so many Jewish organizations, it promotes Jewish identity in large part by encouraging young Jews to identify with Israel the nation-state.

In a wide-ranging op-ed/interview, Firestone discusses Hillel’s strategy and tactics.  There are some real gems in his statements, including his belief that when “members of various organizations  come to campuses not to talk about the peace process but to explain that Israel should be punished for the occupation” they are being “anti-Israel”.  Wait, should Israel not be criticized and punished for it’s 43 year occupation/colonization project?  I also particularly enjoyed his comment insinuating that Israeli critics emerge only in the spring, “when the weather is nice”.  In what is almost a side note, Firestone mentions that Nakba Day, when Palestinians commemorate their expulsion from their historical homeland, also happens to occur in the spring.

In one paragraph, he absolutely nails the argument for cultural boycott:

“Our projects work much better than anti-Israel propaganda. 80-90% of the campus population connects with our cultural events: an Israeli film festival, a performance of HaDag Nahash or Idan Reichel, who are very popular on campus. Ahinoam Nin, who sings with a Palestinian partner, Mira Awad, is also well-received. Israeli literature attracts people, the novels of David Grossman, the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Also the open attitude towards homosexuals in Israel and the fact that they serve in the army, works in Israel’s favor, whenever students talk about human rights.”

In this way, one of the most important Jewish institutions in the US, just like the Israeli government, envisions the role of Israeli cultural acts in generating political support for Israel.  It is a potent articulation of the motivation for extending our nonviolent call for boycott to cultural events that are used to whitewash/pinkwash/____wash the continuous misdeeds of the Israeli government, military, and society.

By way of summary, Firestone states: “every country makes mistakes, but Israel is built on a basis of democracy, such as the right to vote, freedom of speech, and freedom for the press to criticize the government. It is impossible to say that this is not a democratic country.”  For the Jews who experience these rights, they are indeed valuable, although also under increasing threat from Israel’s proto-fascist elements.  But these rights do not extend so readily to the Israeli Palestinian population, which is not allowed, for example, the freedom of speech enshrined in, say, the right to form a political party that challenges the definition of Israel as a state not of their ethnicity.  Similarly, the right to vote for those that govern your life certainly does not exist for the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank, who have been living under brutal military occupation for more than 43 years, a fact no amount of limited self-rule under a collaborationist Palestinian regime can hide.  And the freedom of the press is great, except when the Israeli government or military puts a gag order (otherwise known as censoring) on the publication of “sensitive” materials, such as the recent news that drunken Jewish zealots committed a gruesome hate crime, murdering an innocent Arab team while chanting the genocidal trope “death to the Arabs”.  Apparently, the Israeli authorities were worried that this sensitive story might be inflammatory while large swathes of the Mideast struggled for democracy and against authoritarian tyrants.

Firestone’s belief that it is “impossible to say this is not a democratic country” sounds oh-so-hollow when viewed against the reality he so flippantly glosses over.  In the end, it sounds like he has given one too many hasbara tours to eager young American Jews.  It is precisely this Jewish and Israeli inability to engage with the tremendous problems of Israeli society—and the Zionist project more generally–that motivates the boycott movement.  Israelis must come to learn to feel a pressure to reform their sick society, which is now almost entirely lacking.  They must learn to suffer economically, materially, from their daily decision to entrench the occupation and continue the colonization of Palestine.

Thankfully, Firestone has provided an excellent argument to help build our case for BDS as the best way to move forward.


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