NYC Artists Endorse Cultural Boycott of Israel at Brooklyn Event

(Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)

On a chilly New York City night, roughly 400 mostly young people crowded into the offices of the progressive publishing house, Verso Books, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dumbo. With its avant-garde vibe, the space was the perfect site for Adalah-NY’s “Palestine Calling,” billed as a launch party “to amplify the cultural boycott of Israel in NYC.” Headline performers included Suhel and Tamar Nafar of the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen accompanied by Firas Zreik on oud, jazz musician Daro Behroozi of Lucky Chops, vocalists Sonny Singh, Adam Matta, and Arun Antonyraj, as well as singer-songwriter Tamar-kali and DJ Myrto Joyce, who closed out the evening.

Adalah-NY (not to be confused with the Israel-based human rights organization and legal center of the same name) is a volunteer-based organization of activists in New York City, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005. This particular evening marked a change in Adalah-NY’s strategy hitherto, replacing its reactive approach with a more proactive one; in other words, encouraging artists to publicly declare their support for the cultural boycott of Israel rather than staging events either to protest state-funded Israeli artists on tours to “brand Israel” or to persuade U.S.-based artists to cancel events at Israeli venues.

“What tonight is about,” explained Riham Barghouti, one of the founders of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and the evening’s MC, “is having artists come out and say, ‘We won’t go. We will not engage with apartheid. We will not engage with Israeli policies. We don’t want to be complicit.'”

(Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)
(Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)

In addition, Barghouti argues, by performing abroad as part of the “Brand Israel” campaign launched by the Foreign Ministry in 2005, Israeli artists glorify the state and derail attention from the occupation. “It also promotes an image of Israel as a beacon of culture and democracy while the state continues to oppress and violate the Palestinian people.” For Barghouti, the cultural boycott is not about targeting individual Israelis. She notes that many artists in Israel are opposed to the occupation, but “cultural institutions are complicit until they say otherwise.”

(Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)
(Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)

Accountability

BDS is of increasing concern to the Israeli government and to pro-Israel advocates and organizations in the U.S. Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, for example, held a gathering earlier this year to raise millions of dollars to combat student-led divestment campaigns on U.S. college campuses. At the much publicized event, he quoted from a letter by the Israeli prime minister in which Netanyahu stated that “De-legitimization of Israel must be fought, and you are on the front lines.” Furthermore, a leading Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, announced that its staff were “mobilizing to join battle” in the anti-BDS campaign launched in June

“Congress is paying attention,” Andrew Kadi told Palestine Square. The co-chair of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Kadi pointed out that not a single Palestinian was invited to explain the movement’s goals at a recent congressional hearing on BDS. Except for Matt Duss, of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, who cautioned against demonizing the movement, all the speakers strongly opposed BDS. Nevertheless, both Kadi and Barghouti  expressed the conviction that the momentum is in their favor.

One organization, in particular, seeks to directly counter Adalah-NY’s efforts, the recently-established Creative Community for Peace (CCFPeace), founded by the Los Angeles-based Stand With Us. Although the organization claims to be working behind the scenes to counter online campaigns encouraging artists to boycott Israel, Patrick Connors of Adalah-NY expressed his sense that CCFPeace was not as effective as he once imagined. Although he acknowledged that it was difficult to know exactly what passes in private correspondence between artists and their agents, he said he had “been surprised not to see that much” come out of the organization. While CCFPeace has taken out some ads against cultural boycott and, during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge war on Gaza (July-August 2014), it circulated a letter that placed the blame for the conflict’s outbreak on Hamas, actors and musicians were only a fraction of the 300 signatories.

Tamar-kali (Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)
Tamar-kali (Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)

Barghouti outlined the strategy that BDS activists employ. First, they send a private letter to the artist explaining the cultural boycott. “Generally speaking, you don’t get a response,” she explained, adding, “that’s when you go public and send the same message.” With added pressure, an artist might openly declare their intention to go to Israel regardless of the criticism or withdraw. “We are increasingly seeing the latter happen,” Barghouti stated. Even when the campaign is unsuccessful, it still promotes the movement’s growth. “When you publicly approach an artist, millions of other people hear the conversation for the first time and frequently wonder, ‘Is it really that bad what Israel is doing?'” Regardless of what the particular artist decides to do, the campaign achieves its goal of increasing awareness about Israeli transgressions against international law in the occupied territories. Barghouti cited the recent case of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling: “I do believe individual artists like [her] do not have a clear idea of what’s going on in Palestine. If they knew about the impact of the Israeli colonization of Palestine, their position would change. That’s an opportunity for education.”

(Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)
(Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)

In a public statement in late October, Rowling had written that “cultural boycotts are divisive, discriminatory and counter-productive.” But Daro Behroozi, who started his activism as an organizer with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Columbia University pointed out that such an argument was “turning on its head what is really separating people.” To the charge brought against BDS that it is a divisive strategy, he answered, “If you’re talking about dividing people just look at the Wall … So if I want to connect with people, it’s a big deal getting rid of that”” What is actually not allowing people to play music together, he continued, are concrete walls and separation policies. The cultural boycott, he stressed, is a strategy to break those walls down, literally and figuratively, and pressure Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Daro Behroozi (Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)
Daro Behroozi (Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)

Simon Shaheen, who like the Nafar brothers is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, offered a similar message: “It’s not about the boycott of the humane and the artistic, but [of] institutional and political thinking.” In addition to having an invaluable role to play in the movement, Shaheen went on,  “[artists] are symbols of high spirit, of expression, of awareness…[They] can influence a lot of people. So if this movement is about awareness, then artists should be participating.”

Another charge brought against BDS is that the campaign’s activists are singling out Israel. “The problem is not that we are singling out Israel,” Barghouti countered, but that “Israel is being allowed to carry out amazing violations of international law, unbelievable violations of human rights, with total impunity by international governments.” Exhibit A, for Barghouti, are the military sales and aid provided to Israel, primarily by the United States. “We’re not saying to treat Israel differently than any other country,” she went on. “It’s the same way we treat other countries that violate international law and human rights, [which is to treat] them like a pariah state, like apartheid South Africa.”

A Changing Atmosphere

(Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)
(Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)

Connors remembers being on the streets of NYC at a time when Adalah-NY’s activists provoked hostility by discussing the boycott campaign. In the past several years, however, Connors has noticed a perceptible change in the atmosphere. “More people are shaking their heads and saying, ‘Yeah, we understand what you’re talking about.'” He also mentions that artists are more receptive to the boycott campaign and more willing to attach their names to it, and points to one of the organization’s recent successes. In 2014,  when the Brooklyn Book Festival had reportedly accepted a donation from Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs in New York, Adalah-NY put out a letter asking the festival to turn down the offer and circulated a petition that was signed and endorsed by numerous organizations (including Israeli organizations opposed to the occupation) as well as a number of writers, poets, editors, critics, and even publishers. The donation was not returned, but the message—institutions complicit with the Israeli state will suffer a backlash—might have been received: the 2015 festival featured no Israeli-sponsored events.

The evening's MC Riham Barghouti (Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)
The evening’s MC Riham Barghouti (Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)

Perhaps Adalah-NY’s most prominent campaign has been against Israeli businessman and diamond merchant Lev Leviev, an active supporter and benefactor of the movement to expand illegal Israeli settlements. Adalah-NY regularly stages protests outside the Leviev diamond boutique on Madison Avenue and it reached out to celebrities—including Salma Hayek, Halle Berry, Drew Barrymore, and several other well-known actresses and musicians—involved in showcasing Leviev’s jewelry for a photo spread on the boutique’s website. As a result of these efforts, UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) and the international NGO, Oxfam, both announced they would no longer accept donations from Leviev; the British government pulled out of an agreement to house its Tel Aviv embassy in a Leviev-owned office building; and the Norwegian government divested its pension funds from Leviev-held companies. As for the celebrities: while none was willing to say anything publicly, after Adalah-NY was able to speak with their representatives many had their photos removed, and the whole photo spread was eventually taken down from the Leviev site. (Recently, the organization tried to deliver a letter to executives at O, Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, after its eponymous star was pictured wearing Leviev diamonds on the cover. They were turned away.)

Something both Adalah-NY and PACBI run into is sometimes private adherence to the boycott accompanied by public silence. When confronted with artistic silence, Barghouti counsels artists “not to be afraid to show that they have a conscience.” “Artists were willing to make strong statements against apartheid in South Africa,” she stated. “If they can truly see what is taking place in Palestine and have decided it is wrong,” she added, they need to summon “the courage to speak out.” While not dismissing “silent” boycotts out of hand, vocal adherence was essential, she stated, because “that’s the only way Israel will know that because of its policies people are taking this position.” Barghouti also spoke about “scaffolding conscience,” a technique rooted in her experience as an educator. According to the Glossary of Education Reform, scaffolding is a “variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding.” Barghouti relies on a similar method when meeting artists: “Find out where they’re at and build them up…develop their ability to take vocal positions.” Ultimately, the cultural boycott’s success will be judged by whether it can convince more and more artists to be visible. “This is what tonight is about,” she reiterated. “Before artists are even invited to Israel, they will say, ‘We won’t go; we won’t engage with apartheid and oppressive policies; and we won’t be complicit.'” That, in her words, is the “highest level of BDS.”

Suhel and Tamer Nafar of Dam. (Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)
Suhel and Tamer Nafar of Dam. (Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)

Connors echoes the sentiment. Adalah-NY, which now organizes teach-ins for artists to encourage them to pledge a cultural boycott of Israel, modeled its initiative after a similar pledge in Montreal that has attracted over 500 artists so far. The “Palestine Calling” event also included the sneak-peek premiere of a video featuring NYC-based artists who support the cultural boycott. The video, which was released online on November 17th, features actress Kathleen Chalfant, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, musicians Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio, author Molly Crabapple, and visual artist Swoon, among others (see below). While acknowledging that there are artists still reluctant to speak out publicly, Connors expressed the hope that Adalah-NY’s video might inspire others artists to take a more public stance.

SodaStream

One of the most publicized BDS campaigns in the United States targeted the Israeli beverage company SodaStream and its 2014 Super Bowl ad starring actress Scarlet Johansson. At the time, SodaStream’s factory was located in an Israeli industrial zone at an illegal settlement on the West Bank. When confronted with criticism and counseled to end her relationship with a company profiting off occupied lands, Johansson expressed her opposition to the BDS movement and admitted that she was aware of the facts before signing on, but that “it still doesn’t seem like a problem.” She borrowed the line from SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum that the factory provided jobs for Palestinian workers and served, in her words, “as a model for some sort of movement forward in a seemingly impossible situation.” BDS activists countered that the factory operated on stolen Palestinian land; entrenched the Israeli occupation by making it profitable for Israeli businesses, which receive state benefits for opening up shop in the West Bank; and exploited a captive force of Palestinian workers—cheap labor, the activists pointed out, only made possible through decades of Israeli policies deliberately calibrated to undermine Palestinian economic development. This argument was supported by Oxfam, for which Johansson served as an ambassador. “Businesses that operate in settlements,” Oxfam outlined in a statement, “further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.” Oxfam offered Johansson the opportunity to either cease her publicity for SodaStream or end her partnership with the organization, arguing that the former was incompatible with the latter’s global ideals. Johansson chose SodaStream.

DJ Myrto Joyce (Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)

That notwithstanding, Kadi still considers the campaign a success. Johansson’s decision and her public response brought attention to SodaStream’s business practices and as a result,  the company “which had been quietly gaining ground in the U.S. market,” began to see a decline in its U.S. sales. Testifying before the Congressional hearing mentioned earlier, Birnbaum blamed BDS for the company’s troubles. (Its stock price has plummeted to less than $14 from over $40 when the campaign first made headlines.)

Since then, SodaStream has relocated to the Negev desert in the south of Israel where the government is currently involved in a project to build Jewish-only housing, displacing local Bedouin communities in the process. According to Kadi, SodaStream is now talking about employing and empowering Palestinians in the Negev using language similar to that deployed earlier in the West Bank. “Celebrating Bedouin Palestinians,” he notes sardonically, “while participating in their displacement.” For Kadi, BDS’s SodaStream success reflects the changing environment of Palestinian solidarity activism that the US Campaign (a coalition of over 300 organizations across the country) has helped bring about. “BDS has mainstreamed a little bit more and it has reached the point where presidential candidates are addressing it,” he says—a reference to Hillary Clinton’s July letter to Israeli-American media mogul and major Democratic donor Haim Saban stating her intention to combat BDS if elected president. He further notes that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has prioritized challenging BDS, but has mainly avoided publicly addressing it for fear of legitimizing the campaign.

Member-organizations that make up the US Campaign’s coalition have all endorsed BDS principles and while they mostly organize separately, they benefit from the coalition’s coordination experience and media and messaging strategies. The organization spearheaded the campaign against French firm Veolia for its involvement with the Jerusalem light rail (which connects illegal settlements to Israeli West Jerusalem) and its bus lines and water management projects in the West Bank. BDS campaigns reportedly cost Veolia $20 billion in potential contracts in Europe, the Middle East and even the U.S. In 2015, Veolia sold all its Israeli holdings.

National Strategy and International Solidarity

Simon Shaheen (Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)
Simon Shaheen (Photo Credit: Sainatee Suarez)

Barghouti is optimistic about the potential for BDS to effect change in occupied Palestine. She is convinced that the growing global awareness of the movement is trickling down to the United States. “America is the belly of the beast,” she says. “Sometimes vocally, sometimes in unspoken ways,” European artists are ahead of their American peers, but she believes the movement will continue to grow in the U.S.

However, Barghouti concedes that BDS is no substitute for a Palestinian leadership. She is clear that Palestinians need to revive their national movement with a capable and representative leadership and a national strategy for ending the occupation, something that existed prior to the 1993 Oslo accords. As she put it, what BDS offers is an opportunity “for the international community to be in solidarity with [that] Palestinian struggle for self-determination.”

Article by Khelil Bouarrouj.