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PACBI-Open Letter to William Kentridge: Dont Exhibit for Apartheid

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PACBI | 4 February 2011

Open Letter to William Kentridge: Dont Exhibit for Apartheid

Occupied Ramallah, 4 February 2011

Dear William Kentridge,

We, at the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), have recently learned of a scheduled exhibition of your art in Israel beginning March 5 [1].  As you may or may not know, in 2004, inspired by the triumphant cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa, and supported by key Palestinian unions and cultural groups, PACBI issued a call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel [2].  We wish, in our letter to you, to stress the importance of this Palestinian call, and underscore the rationale for the global BDS movement against Israel.  We trust you will listen as we take our cue from your struggles and experiences in South Africa against oppression and injustice.

The 2004 Palestinian call for academic and cultural boycott of Israel appealed to international artists to refuse to perform in Israel or participate in events that serve to equate the occupier and the occupied [3] and thus promote the continuation of injustice.  Following this, in 2005, Palestinian civil society called for an all-encompassing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign based on the principles of human rights, justice, freedom and equality [4].  The BDS movement is asking artists to heed our call until “Israel withdraws from all the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; removes all its colonies in those lands; agrees to United Nations resolutions relevant to the restitution of Palestinian refugees rights; and dismantles its system of apartheid" [5].  In light of our call, your upcoming exhibit would violate the appeal of the Palestinian BDS movement which urges people of conscience throughout the world to isolate Israel until it ends its colonial and apartheid oppression of the Palestinian people, as was done to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

We find that exhibiting your work in Israel would be particularly disturbing given your own past experience with apartheid in South Africa.  Obviously, there is no need to remind you of your family’s positions in the anti-apartheid struggle, as this would be presumptuous on our part.  However, we do think that a deep connection must be made between events in your life, such as your terrifying childhood experience of seeing pictures of “black people shot by the police” [6], with the kind of images you would see of Palestinian people shot by the Israeli army.  In both cases, the dead are victims of a policy of racial superiority that manifests itself, in the Israeli case, through occupation, settler-colonialism, and yes, even and especially in forms and policies of apartheid.  

Exhibiting your art in Israel will mean that Palestinians just minutes away in the West Bank and Gaza will not be able to attend.  In fact, they would have a higher likelihood of obtaining a visa to attend one of your exhibits in Europe!  It seems hard to think that you wouldn’t already know the arguments for and merits of a cultural boycott, given that your art is deeply political, but perhaps you are not too familiar with Israel’s crimes that your exhibit would whitewash, making it appear as though business could go on as usual.  Some of Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights that you would be turning a blind eye to are:

- Its brutal and unlawful military occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip.  Israel restricts Palestinians’ freedom of movement and of speech; blocks access to lands, health care, and education; imprisons Palestinian leaders and human rights activists without charge or trial; and inflicts, on a daily basis, humiliation and violence at the more than 600 military checkpoints and roadblocks strangling the West Bank.  All the while, Israel continues to build its illegal wall on Palestinian land and to support the ever-expanding network of illegal, Jewish-only settlements that divide the West Bank into Bantustans.

- Its growing system of Apartheid towards the Palestinian citizens of Israel, with laws and policies that deny Palestinian citizens the rights that their Jewish counterparts enjoy. These laws and policies affect education, land ownership, housing, employment, marriage, and all other aspects of people's daily lives. 

- Its denial of the internationally recognized right of return for Palestinian refugees who were ethnically cleansed in 1948 in the process of forming an exclusivist Jewish state.  Israel also continues to expel people from their homes in Jerusalem and the Naqab (Negev). Today, there are more than 7 million refugees, still struggling for their right to return to their homes, like all refugees around the world.

- Its illegal and criminal siege of Gaza.  As part of this siege, Israel has prevented not only various types of medicines, candles, books, crayons, clothing, shoes, blankets, pasta, tea, coffee and chocolate, but also musical instruments from reaching the 1.5 million Palestinians incarcerated in the world’s largest open-air prison [7].

Can you entertain such a state with a clear conscience? 

Israel uses artists, musicians and other cultural workers as part of a campaign to Brand Israel [8], a campaign that has been launched by the Israeli government and promoted by institutions throughout the country and abroad in order to whitewash Israel’s violations of international law and project a false image of normalcy.  But after Israel’s war of aggression against Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, which left 1,400 Palestinians dead [9], predominantly civilians, and led the UN Goldstone Report to declare that Israel had committed war crimes [10], and after the flotilla massacre, many international artists have refused to conduct business as usual with a country that places itself above international standards.  Elvis Costello [11], Gil Scott Heron, Carlos Santana, Devendra Banhart, and the Pixies are but a few of the artists who have refused to perform in Israel in the past year.  In his decision not to play, Devendra Banhart said,

Unfortunately, we tried to make it clear that we were coming to share a human and not a political message but it seems that we are being used to support views that are not our own. [12]

The call for BDS has also been supported by prominent and devoted anti-racist activists around the world, from South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to best-selling African-American author Alice Walker.  Your own Archbishop Tutu recently noted in a historic statement unequivocally supporting the Palestinian boycott campaign against Israel:


I never tire of speaking about the very deep distress in my visits to the Holy Land; they remind me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like we did when young white police officers prevented us from moving about. My heart aches. I say, 'Why are our memories so short?' Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their own previous humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? … When we say 'Never again!’ do we mean 'Never again!’, or do we mean 'Never again to us!’? [13]

Recently, in a presentation to the UN General Assembly, Richard Falk, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territories occupied since 1967, had this to recommend:


The other recommendation that seems responsive to recent developments is to encourage UN support for both efforts to send humanitarian assistance direct to the people of Gaza in defiance of the persistence of the unlawful blockade and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign that seeks to respond to the failure of Israel to uphold its obligations under international law with respect to the Palestinian people. The BDS campaign represents a recognition that neither governments nor the United Nations are prepared or able to uphold Palestinian rights. In this respect, it should be recalled that the anti-apartheid campaign of the late 1980s was strongly endorsed by the United Nations. [14]

If you remain unconvinced because of claims that a cultural boycott of Israel may infringe on freedom of expression and cultural exchange, then we recall for you the judicious words of Enuga S. Reddy, director of the United Nations Center against Apartheid, who in 1984 responded to a similar criticism voiced against the cultural boycott of South Africa by saying:

It is rather strange, to say the least, that the South African regime which denies all freedoms... to the African majority... should become a defender of the freedom of artists and sportsmen of the world. We have a list of people who have performed in South Africa because of ignorance of the situation or the lure of money or unconcern over racism. They need to be persuaded to stop entertaining apartheid, to stop profiting from apartheid money and to stop serving the propaganda purposes of the apartheid regime. [15]

Mr. Kentridge, we are appealing to you because we believe you would probably stand by the side of those brave anti-apartheid Israelis calling for a boycott of their country had you been born in Israel rather than South Africa.  You may also want to consider the news and events in South Africa surrounding our call on the Cape Town Opera not to perform in Israel, as well as the way this call was received in Israel the night they did perform [16] (and see video link attached [17]).  

We hope you will read this letter with an open hand extended in solidarity with us, and look forward to having you as an ally in our struggle for justice.












[6] Tomkins, Calvin. Lines of Resistance. New Yorker, 1/18/2010, Vol. 85, Issue 45.












Posted on 04-02-2011

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