Thursday, September 16, 2010

Reuven Kaminer queries PACBI on Israeli artists

Reuven Kaminer, whose essay appears below, is one of the elder statesmen of the Israeli left. He was born in Detroit in 1929 and emigrated to Israel in 1951. His wife, Dafna, is a co-founder of the anti-Occupation groups Women in Black and The Coalition of Women for Peace, and his grandson, Matan, is an Israeli military refusenik who recently spent two years in prison for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. Reuven is a member of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, typically denigrated as an "Arab party" in the Knesset, but he has also in the past been a member of Peace Now, and, as a moderate, he has for example rejected <> leftist historian Ilan Pappe's critical view <> of the historic Geneva Accord and Oslo Accord. On the other hand, he has reportedly also opposed the current peace negotiations conducted by the Obama Administration because they aren't grounded in international law, and hence may simply reinforce the existing power imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians. His publications are numerous, and include his 1996 book, "The Politics of Protest: the Israeli Peace Movement and the Palestinian Intifada."

Kaminer writes, in what follows, about the criticism leveled by some Palestinian activists against Israeli theater artists who recently declared their refusal to participate in any cultural activities in the West Bank. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) recently surprised some on the left by issuing a sharply critical response <> to these dissenting artists. The Israeli artists had received support from a group of 150 prominent American and international theater and film figures -- organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, as the New York Times recently reported <> -- and PACBI subsequently issued another communique <> encouraging these international film and theater people who have rallied around the Israeli artists.

But why has PACBI not similarly defended and encouraged the Israeli artists themselves, who have jeopardized their careers by publicly refusing to perform or exhibit in the Territories? While Kaminer doesn't presume to judge PACBI's motives for criticizing Israeli artists who take risks to undermine the occupation, he does offer some hard-won wisdom for Israelis, Palestinians, and indeed everyone on the left critical of the Israeli occupation: "Solidarity can only be constructed on the basis of mutual respect and a deep understanding of the difficulties of the left opposition in both nations."

--Lincoln Z. Shlensky



PACBI – Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel Criticizes the Boycott by Israeli Theater People on Ariel*

As we know, some 60 Israeli theater people came out a few weeks back with a declaration that they will refuse to appear at the Ariel "Culture" Hall located in the occupied territories. It is important to stress that actors-artists are employees subordinate to the administrative and financial owners of the theater who are their employers in every sense. So, we are not speaking only of taking a courageous stand, but an act which puts the actor on a collision course with his boss. And we are not speaking of any kind of profession. An actor, without the theater, cannot work, create or make a living. Therefore, most honest people tend naturally to honor and applaud the brave tens of theater people for their act of protest.

It is also natural that the Israeli theater people received support from abroad. Indeed 150 central cultural figures, mainly from the US and the UK expressed their admiration for the courageous stand of the Israeli theater people.

This chain of events is yet another component in a broad movement in Israel and abroad serving to delegitimize the occupation regime and overall Israeli policies. It is important to note that this movement is itself composed of a variety of various, independent, groups and organizations, each of which has a record of long and difficult struggle against the occupation and its evils.

Boycott in Principle

For quite a while a serious debate has been taking place in our circles and in the broad public as to whether the boycott is an appropriate instrument for our struggle. There are those who argue that any boycott against Israel is unjust, really an act of anti-Semitism. But this is a rather naïve position of those who refuse to recognize the suffering and the deprivation of the Palestinian under Israel occupation. Those who support peace and are struggling against the occupation cannot reject any non violent activity aimed at advancing the struggle against the occupation. It is necessary to add that by virtue of its emotionally charged nature, boycott is never a simple affair. It is always a complex mechanism and should be employed with caution and wisdom. Boycotts should be aimed at a definite goal and should be accompanied with detailed political explanation on the cause and the goals of the boycott.

In general, the left in Israel supports boycott activity that conforms to the aforementioned reservations.

PACBI - The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel

Those who follow Palestinian politics know that we are talking about a small and energetic group of activists who have a very explicit political agenda. They see in boycott activity a political instrument with a clear and definite message. This message is revealed in the first statement of their program, which declares the purpose of the boycott: "the elimination of the colonization of all Arab lands" <>. This formulation expresses the position of the group, which negates the existence of the state of Israel. In of itself, there is nothing illegitimate about this position. We are talking about leading intellectuals who are members of a nation oppressed by Israel for decades. Difficulties arise on the strategic level. Within the framework of BDS activity, the PACBI people represent a determined line, which demands that boycott activity should conform to their principled position. It is worth being clear on this question from the onset: they do
not support activity against the occupation in and of itself because they see such activity as a diversion from the main issue. Their hard-line interpretation that all Israel must be considered territory under occupation brought them into conflict with important leaders of the peace movement such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein.

I confess that I am not enthused about getting into a critical discussion about PACBI. I have no doubt regarding the noble intentions of members of the group and their devotion to non-violent struggle against the occupation as they perceive it. However, when they decide to deride the brave struggle of Israeli members of the peace movement and at the same time demonstrate their lack of understanding of our conditions, it is necessary to comment on this. Precisely out of concern for the campaign of the Israeli left against the occupation it is necessary to come out clearly against Palestinian friends who desire to insult with callousness and derision courageous and effective protest.

PACBI Against the Theater People and their International Supporters

We cannot know why PACBI issued, in the space of two days, two separate declarations that deal with the Israeli protest action against the "Cultural" Hall in Ariel. We will deal first with the declaration dated 7th of September <>. There is nowhere in this text a good word about the activity of the Israeli theater people, and the declaration gives us a detailed and lengthy explanation for this. "While we welcome acts of protest against any manifestation of Israel's regime of colonialism and apartheid, we believe that these acts must be both morally consistent and anchored in international law and universal human rights." These words serve as an introduction to a text in which PACBI explains that the action by the theater people does not meet these criteria.

These are the faults in the behavior of the theater people:

"First, we believe that the exclusive focus on settlement institutions ignores and obscures the complicity of all Israeli academic and cultural institutions in upholding the system of colonial control and apartheid under which Palestinians suffer. PACBI believes there is firm evidence of the collusion of the Israeli academic and cultural establishment with the major oppressive organs of the Israeli state. Focusing solely on obviously complicit institutions, such as cultural centers in a West Bank colony, serves to shield mainstream Israeli institutions from opprobrium or, ultimately, from the growing global boycott movement that consistently targets all complicit institutions. Furthermore, the cherry-picking approach behind targeting a notorious colonial settlement in the heart of the occupied West Bank diverts attention from other institutions built on occupied land. Supporters of this peculiarly selective boycott must be asked: is lecturing or performing at the Hebrew University,
whose Mount Scopus campus sits on occupied Palestinian land in East Jerusalem, acceptable?

The PACBI people go on to submit a list of "test questions" to the theater people: why did they refrain from taking a position against the suffocation of Palestinian cultural institutions in conquered Jerusalem? The PACBI people continue the test questions: "If the artists' and intellectuals' role as voices of moral reason is behind this most recent call to boycott Ariel, where were these voices when academic and cultural institutions were wantonly destroyed in Israel's war of aggression on Gaza in 2008-2009?"

In all seriousness, there is no sincerity and no honesty in referring these questions to these people in these circumstances. The theater people under discussion were never a separate and organized movement but only an ad hoc formation. At the same time, among the theater people there are indeed those who protested the war on Gaza, against the occupation of East Jerusalem and the like. In any event, the "cross examination" style is not appropriate here.

The Second Document

As we have noted PACBI published a second declaration on this subject <>. The second document, issued two days after the first, is different in that it is in the form of an open letter to the American and English cultural figures who cam out in support of the cultural boycott against the Israeli settlement of the West Bank. Their letter praises and commends the theater, film and television people following their declaration of support of those boycotting Ariel. Reasonably, PACBI calls on the artists abroad to deepen and expand their steps for yet a more comprehensive boycott. However, it is a bit strange to praise and to commend people abroad on their declared support for peace-loving Israelis, while the Israeli activity in itself is not considered worthy in PACBI eyes.

The explanation for this is contained in a paragraph which presents a set of "test questions" similar to those addressed to the Israeli theater people. PACBI wants to know why the cultural figures abroad refuse to act in good time: "In light of this inspiring history, we cannot but ask, why haven't you taken your taboo-breaking position in response to appeals by the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, including almost all leading artists? Why did you have to wait for a relatively small number of dissenting Israeli artists and academics to initiate a boycott, a peculiarly selective and morally-inconsistent one at that? Do authentic voices of the oppressed, especially those in the besieged Gaza Strip, incarcerated in the world's largest open-air prison, also count?" PACBI concludes its letter to the artists abroad that they act according to the spirit of its positions.

In Summary

PACBI, as important as it is, is not the only political factor in Palestinian society, but only one of many Palestinian organizations. While all Palestinians support, in principle, actions against the occupation and against Israeli policies, there are discussions and debates all about the vital issue of strategy and tactics. PACBI represents a version that causes unnecessary difficulties for building the unity of all peace loving forces, who support the Palestinian right of self determination. The recent appearance of an important coalition built on the parties of the Palestinian left and on the political initiative of a grouping around Dr. Mustafa Barghouti is of tremendous importance. This group has criticized the defeatism of Abu Mazen and his people while continuing its support for a just peace. And in respect to our concern here it is important that this coalition supports cooperation on the basis of mutual respect between themselves and the democratic and peace forces in Israel
Solidarity can only be constructed on the basis of mutual respect and a deep understanding of the difficulties of the left opposition in both nations.

*This article was written and published originally in Hebrew. I was concerned that its publication in English might needlessly intensify the debate. However, a number of good friends, who are sincerely devoted to BDS activity, requested an English translation, and convinced me of its value.

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Z. Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman
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Snerpis said...

I think it would be valuable to read - or even distribute - this:

The Thin Green Line

It references many of the JPN positions and addresses the BDS issue in general.

Kim said...

Lincoln Shlensky and Kaminer both seem to miss the point of what solidarity actually is about.

Kaminer argues (and Shlensky agrees it seems) that "Solidarity can only be constructed on the basis of mutual respect and a deep understanding of the difficulties of the left opposition in both nations".

While there is some truth in statement solidarity needs to be built on mutal respect, what Kaminer leaves out - either deliberately or by design - is that solidarity with the oppressed is about building a solidarity movement built and based on the NEEDS OF THE OPPRESSED, not the needs of those in solidarity with them.

It is clear from Kaminer's article he does not get this at all.

Non- Palestinians, including Israelis, can be part of the Palestinian struggle for national liberation, however, it is not “our struggle”, it’s the Palestinian’s struggle, one which they must lead. We stand in solidarity with their struggle.

We can be political participants in it and play a valuable leading role, but ultimately, it is the Palestinians who must determine the parameters of their struggle, not us. Kaminer, however, rails against this.

More importantly, as the Israeli Anarchists Against the Wall pointed out in their acceptance speech in Berlin when they and the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall were awarded the Carl von Ossietzky Peace Medallion, Israelis and Palestinianis are not "equal partners" in the struggle.

Instead, as they noted: “Here, as in the olive groves, I would like to stress that we are not equal partners, but rather occupiers who join the occupied in THEIR struggle. We are aware of the fact that for many, the participation of Israelis in a Palestinian struggle serves as a stamp of approval, but in our eyes, this partnership is not about granting legitimacy. The Palestinian struggle is legitimate with or without us. Rather, the struggle is an opportunity for us to cross, in action rather than words, the barriers of national allegiance”.

Perhaps it’s time Kaminer and others who claim to be in solidarity with the Palestinians try to recognise this fact.

Stella Goldschlag said...

I too agree with PACBI that this is a feelgood maneuver that perhaps just boosts the profile of the boycotting artists. I must confess that I never heard of most of them until reading this petition. In order for the boycott to really be effective, it must cause some discomfort to the boycotters too. The following must occur.
1) All progrssesives living in Palestine must disavov their Israeli citizenship
2) They must renounce the fake history that the zionist entity is built upon
3) They must physically depart from Palesine from the River to the Sea. I call on Shlensky and Kaminer to take a determined stand here