The power of the cultural boycott of Israel

The first time I visited Matanzas’ massive Castillo de San Severino, a centuries-old oceanfront structure built by enslaved Africans, the experience was personally transformative for several reasons. On one hand, this UNESCO world heritage site exquisitely honors the structure and the island’s intertwined histories with Spanish colonization and African enslavement, while on the other works as a space for education, as well as displaying the work of current Black Cuban artists. Since the beginning of summer, as the tide of international artists publicly siding with Palestinian resistance against Israeli apartheid continues to grow, I can’t help but recall a memory from the top floor of the Castillo de San Severino, where they showcased an incredible archival exhibit on Nelson Mandela and the fight against South African Apartheid.

After walking through several rooms of exclusive historical collections, the final room was a step into the global divestment campaign which alongside armed struggle eventually aided in ending South African Apartheid: fliers for events, poetry readings, comedy shows, protests, and rallies, agitprop, performances, carefully designed political posters littered the walls. A massive picture showed South African children smiling with raised fists and a sign that read “To Hell With Afrikaans”, while all around hung hundreds of reminders that activists worked tirelessly to make this radical divestment campaign viral, culturally dominant, if not nearly inescapable. The divestment movement was huge in scope, making its way to news stations, university campuses, radio stations, hip-hop music, street art and graffiti, galleries, and, at some point, the momentum must have been inescapable. 

(Photo: Devyn Springer)

This spring as the fight to save Sheikh Jarrah, Gaza, and all of Palestine from Israeli settler-colonialism slowly became a mainstay in mainstream public discourse, it felt once again that the energy behind BDS and Palestinian resistance had become inescapable in a similar way. Varied solidarity began to pour in from individual popular artists and actors, and on a larger scale hundreds of artists across all mediums began to sign group letters of solidarity. 

Artists, Musicians Speak Out

“As artists, we felt the imperative to speak out in the face of ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem, massacres in Gaza, and settler attacks across historic Palestine, not only because we wanted to voice our opposition but because we recognized the complicity of Canada and its cultural institutions,” Palestinian-Canadian artist and activist Rana Nazzal told me. Nazzal helped organize a statement decrying Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism. “The response has been overwhelming – we put the letter online with only 80 signatures from our personal networks and in a few days it’s reached over 1000 names.”

The letter states that the Canadian artists and cultural worker signatories are “in support of the Palestinian people’s struggle against military occupation, siege, colonization and apartheid,” which contains a crucial specification: an open support of Palestinian resistance, a welcome development in the solidarity language of any struggle. Nazzal says that Canada is complicit in the occupation not just through their state policies and $57 million Israeli arms deal, but also that “Canada as a settler state set the stage for contemporary settler colonies like Israel to be able to do what they’re doing.”

Canada is not alone in setting the stage for Israeli settler-colonialism, as many of Israel’s strongest allies across the world are themselves colonial states with similarly violent, repressive histories to their statecraft: the U.S., Germany, Australia, the U.K., including their neo-colonial regimes like India and South Korea. Calling into question the complicity of allied states is an effective impact of BDS, especially considering the demand for a cultural boycott of Israel. In forcing a cultural shift in favor of Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli apartheid, it in turn forces many of Israel’s biggest supporters to be examined for their own colonial endeavors, thus making clear the effective connections between oppressions of different groups.

The importance of cultural struggle in BDS or any movement cannot be understated; the cultural sphere continues to be a powerful tool in the war of ideas, and the material consequences of those ideas.

The importance of cultural struggle in BDS or any movement cannot be understated; the cultural sphere continues to be a powerful tool in the war of ideas, and the material consequences of those ideas. Creating the shift in support from grassroots organizers, educators, activists, and artists to the mainstream public discourse or, preferably, hegemonic discourse is no easy feat, one that comes after years of dedicated struggle on a cultural front. In other words, the cultural shift and mainstream attention-grabbing we’ve recently seen could not have happened without the powerful cultural boycott campaign endeavored tirelessly by Palestinians.

Graphic that circulated on social media with the “Letter Against Apartheid”

Last week hundreds of Palestinians artists, writers, and filmmakers including Mohammed el-Kurd, Remi Kanazi, Annemarie Jacir, Bella Hadid, Elia Suleiman, Emily Jacir, Farah Nabulsi, Hany Abu-Assad, Khaled Jarrar, Randa Jarrar, and Saleh Bakri signed a powerful open letter calling for “an immediate and unconditional cessation of Israeli violence against Palestinians,” and “an end to the support provided by global powers to Israel and its military; especially the United States, which now provides Israel $3.8 billion annually without condition.” Alongside the Palestinian signatories are the names of thousands of supporters with a broad range of names, including director Boots Riley and activist Angela Davis, along with names less associated with speaking out for Palestine such as actors Holly Hunter and Thandiwe Newton, director Alejandro Iñárritu, artists Julie Mehretu and Nan Goldin, or writers Sally Rooney and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others.

“We ask all people of conscience to exercise their agency to help dismantle the apartheid regime of our time,” the letter continues. “We ask governments that are enabling this crime against humanity to apply sanctions, to mobilize levers of international accountability, and to cut trade, economic and cultural relations. We call on activists, and especially our peers in the arts, to exercise their agency within their institutions and localities to support the Palestinian struggle for decolonization to the best of their ability. Israeli apartheid is sustained by international complicity, it is our collective responsibility to redress this harm.”

Another example of the powerful ways that cultural shifts are taking place is the #MusiciansForPalestine letter, which was recently signed by over 600 musical artists including big name rappers like The Roots, Noname, Vic Mensa, and Yassin Bey. The letter, which provides information on the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, ethnic cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah, and the denial of Palestinians’ right to return, states that the artists refuse “to perform at Israel’s complicit cultural institutions,” and demand “justice, dignity and the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people and all who are fighting colonial dispossession and violence across the planet.”

Moreover, the letter calls to their peers in the music industry “to publicly assert their solidarity with the Palestinian people,” because “Complicity with Israeli war crimes is found in silence, and today silence is not an option.” Many of the names on the letter represent familiar faces in the struggle for a free Palestine, like rappers Narcy and Lowkey whose catalogues include several statements of support with Palestine, or rapper Noname whose political work with US-based Black Alliance for Peace has linked Palestine solidarity with African liberation. 

The film industry

The film industry seems to be in a similar state of unrest surrounding the issue, although it appears much more contained. Actor Mark Ruffalo apologized on social media after referring to Israel’s violence against Palestinians in Gaza as ‘genocide’, while Palestinian film producer Rani Massalha says the recent wave of Israeli violence is causing “tensions” throughout the film industry. Palestinian actress Maisa Abd Elhadi was shot by Israeli forces during a May 19 protest in Haifa, and Palestinian film director Hany Abu-Assad says he is “disturbed” at the violence. 

There has also been a noticeable surge in dialog and interest in Palestinian filmmakers as well, with the Arab Film and Media Institute making award-winning Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s entire catalogue available online for free for 10 days. Screening service Another Screen announced they’d be streaming several films by Palestinian women for free, while popular arts publication Hyperallergic recently dropped “A Beginner’s Guide to Palestinian Film” that gives a great introduction for those unfamiliar. Jewish Voice for Peace also released a detailed list of over 70 Palestinian films that are available for free.

Filmmaker Merawi Gerima, whose debut film Residue highlights the violence of gentrification in Washington, DC, says that remaining silent on Israel’s violence was not an option for him because of the similarities between the gentrification of Black people in the US and forced removal of Palestinians from their homes. “Ultimately the differences between gentrification and settler colonial ethnic cleansing are superficial,” Gerima told me. “The processes and end results are similar whether we’re talking about the genocidal settling of the Americas by Europe, the brutal installation and maintenance of a racist Israeli apartheid state by Zionists and the US government, or the economic removal of working-class Black folks from Washington, DC by real estate developers and their army of elected officials and pumpkin spice latte-wielding shock troops.” 

“The struggle for Palestinian Liberation is a fight not only against Zionism, but also against United States global domination,” he states. “And since the United States is the source of the ongoing violent domination of Black people in DC and all Black and Brown people in the world, the Palestinian struggle is also the fight for Black Liberation whether it is stated as such by either party or not.”

Like the artists who signed the #MusiciansForPalestine letter calling out their peers for complicit silence, Gerima sees a similar silence among Black filmmakers that needs to be disrupted. He says that despite the recent “massive boost in support” for BDS across the board, that “a good amount of Black filmmakers who are normally vocal and up-in-arms in support of oppressed groups have been cautiously silent in this moment.”

Gerima suggests that “most Black people automatically empathize with the Palestinian people and the shit they face,” and that Black filmmakers silence is generally “a sign that they fear losing their jobs or access if they say the wrong thing. But to that he says “no person, community or government has any right to dictate or police Black peoples’ empathy, anger, or solidarity.”

And of course, while letters from artists, musicians, and media workers have been promising and shown a clear shift in public support for the Palestinian cause, there have still been disappointing, if not laughable, attempts to stifle the momentum. Over 125 prominent entertainment industry personalities, including Gene Simmons and Meghan McCain, issued a collective call for “peace, balanced discourse and an end to inflammatory one-sided accounts.” Many artists like Rihanna caught flack from fans after releasing empty statements which called on ‘peace’ and portrayed the situation as equally devastating for “both sides.” Former Israeli soldier Gal Gadot continued her usual apartheid propaganda, saying her heart broke for both Israel and their “neighbors” without even mentioning Palestinians, Gaza, Sheikh Jarrah, Palestine, the countless children killed by Israeli forces, or the “neighbors” at all. 

Shifting media landscape

The impact of this cultural change has also been seen in media and journalism which appear to have also begun a reckoning with their industry’s complicit role in whitewashing and misreporting of Israel’s war crimes. In Australia, over 700 journalists, reporters, and media workers have signed an open letter calling on editors and publishers to prioritize those most impacted by Israel’s violence, avoid ‘both siderism’ and passive tones which obfuscate the disproportionate power dynamic, and to ‘respect the rights of journalists to openly show solidarity with Palestinians without fear of losing their jobs.’

In Canada, over 2,000 media workers signed an open letter which called on the industry to addressed its many hypocrisy in reporting on Palestine, specifically mentioning the contradiction of reporting on the George Floyd protests and Indigenous struggle while refusing to adequately report on Palestinian struggles. The letter mentioned many of the excuses journalists had been given by editors when asking to cover the escalating violence against Palestinians, including that the situation is ‘complicated’ and ‘emotional’, and that ‘both sides’ need to be heard. Journalists in both Canada and Australia are reportedly now facing backlash for their signing of these letters, essentially proving the points made in the letters and exposing clear censorship. 

Associated Press journalist Emily Wilder made headlines when she was terminated from her position following a right-wing smear campaign which used her previous pro-Palestine activism to incite her firing. But still, within all the discrepancies of Western media, Palestinians remain the victim of this censorship. On May 15, Israeli bombs leveled a Gaza City high rise known to house several media outlets just hours after another round of airstrikes killed 12 people in a refugee camp. In the same month, reports surfaced showing Israeli soldiers targeting journalists at Al-Aqsa mosque, those covering protests, and those reporting in Gaza. 

Israel’s targeting of journalists and media personnel is not new, and it illuminates the crucial importance of the cultural sphere in the fight to free Palestine. In the struggle for land, independence, and self determination, a war for the superstructure, the sphere of culture, morals, and ideology, must also be waged. As ideas and information shape public perception of the violent events unfolding in Palestine, they also play a key role structuring consent among the masses for the actions of their respective government. In the case of Israel and its allies, consent has been manufactured to allow for the continued genocidal settler-colonial violence against Palestinians.

Culture change inspiring action

If the example of South Africa’s global anti-apartheid movement is any indication of where the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of Israel stands, then the current varied state of the art and entertainment world means much progress has been made. The worlds of art, music, film, journalism, and news-media have all been forced to have difficult conversations and, one way or another, outwardly pick a side on the ongoing Israeli apartheid. By flooding social media with imagery, videos, statements, and information on Israel’s violent usurping of Sheikh Jarrah, their genocidal bombardments in Gaza, as well as illuminating the violence of individual settler actors working alongside the state, Palestinians have created for themselves a media spectacle which is largely unavoidable. 

(Photo: Devyn Springer)

Although I was not around to experience it, I imagine this looks and feels similar to the campaign for global divestment from apartheid South Africa; that artists at all levels and in all mediums were forced to ‘take a side’ and break their silence. At the Castillo de San Severino, the names on some signs shocked me; global entertainers like Whitney Houston, George Michael, Whoopi Goldberg, Gil Scott-Heron, Stevie Wonder, and Salt-N-Pepa were inspired by activists to perform at rallies to free Nelson Mandela and speak at events in support of ending the South African apartheid regime, with a few even being arrested at demonstrations. 

What becomes clear is that once the global arts and entertainment industry joined the campaign to end South African apartheid, the amount of attention which was brought to the situation was insurmountable and deeply hurt the apartheid colonizers’ ability to recuperate their public image. As the negative attention continued to swell and indeed become a powerful force, the institutions and states around the world with ties to the violent regime were then also forced into widespread scrutiny. This was as much the case for South Africa as it is currently for Palestine; negative attention towards Israel is, inherently, negative attention towards its allies, namely the U.S., U.K., and Canada.

As ideas become crystalized in the cultural world, they are then reverberated throughout the labor and political worlds, and vice versa.

Of course, culture is not the only area in which a development in solidarity politics can be observed. Workers around the world, for example, have displayed unprecedented solidarity for Palestine in the last month. Hundreds of employees across Google, Apple, and Amazon called for the companies to support Palestinians and cut ties with the Israeli regime, while many U.S. unions came out in support of the Palestinian cause as well; Italian port workers union refused to load arms shipments headed to Israel; dockworkers in Durban, South Africa, where large protests against Israeli apartheid also took place, refused to off-load Israeli cargo ships; thousands of Palestinians across Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel took place in a massive general strike which halted many business operations.

The positive developments in both the labor and cultural spheres are exciting, and both are in fact needed in order to sustain the momentum which Palestinians have worked to build. As ideas become crystalized in the cultural world, they are then reverberated throughout the labor and political worlds, and vice versa. As the storm of support for Palestinians, including support for their resistance, continues to grow, the gaps of silence must also begin to shrink. 

Speaking to Chinese cultural workers in 1942 in the midst of his people’s own decolonial war, Mao Tse Tsung stated that in their struggle for liberations: “there are various fronts, among which there are the fronts of the pen and of the gun, the cultural and the military fronts,” and that they could not solely rely on “the army with guns” but that they “must also have a cultural army, which is indispensable.” Palestinians have shown the world that they know very clearly the importance of the cultural front in their war for liberation, and their message is clear: to say nothing—to do nothing, rather—is to take the side of the oppressors. 

Devyn Springer
Devyn Springer is a cultural worker, community organizer, and independent researcher. You can follow them on Twitter at @HalfAtlanta.

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