The auditorium was filled to capacity. On the stage, performers from the Israel-based Maria Kong Dancers Company executed graceful moves with their lithe, endlessly supple bodies. Brawny men with ear receivers stood guard on the side-lines as the city’s elite and well educated broke into loud applause.
Outside the building, which houses Delhi’s illustrious Kamani Auditorium, policemen prowled the entrance area, as the Ambassador of Israel to India and other diplomats sat in the audience.
But not everyone was content to attend the show. The November 4,2014 performance of the Maria Kong dance troupe was boycotted by the Indian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel (InCACBI). The InCACBI boycott – which is part of the wider BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement – did not specifically target Israeli artists and intellectuals, and instead focused on official Israeli state institutions, such as the Israeli embassy, which sponsored the troupe’s performance.
InCACBI considers all cultural projects commissioned by official Israeli bodies legitimate targets of boycott. Many of these initiatives are commissioned by the Israeli state as part of its “rebranding” efforts and to promote 'Brand Israel.’
InCACBI and BDS in India
The global call for BDS came from Palestinian civil society in 2005. Initially, there were several informal expressions of solidarity from student unions and groups, community-based groups, rights based organizations and concerned civil society members in India. In 2010, these actors formalized their efforts by establishing InCACBI to support the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). PACBI and InCACBI were launched to pressure Israel to “bring about its compliance with international law and the requirements for a just peace” in Palestine.
Despite InCACBI’s work, BDS is not yet popular within Indian society, even though a number of prominent artists, academics, and intellectuals have publicly expressed support for the movement. But, following the cycle of violence in Gaza this past summer, there was visible public outrage against Israel in India, which sparked a number of protests and solidarity events. These efforts were not, however, on the scale witnessed in Europe and South Africa.
India, Palestine, and Israel
Throughout the 20th century, India supported a range of anti-colonial movements including Palestine’s claims to statehood and efforts at liberation. However, since the 1990s, a dramatic shift in foreign policy priorities has created closer ties between India and Israel, while weakening formal Indian support for Palestine.
India recognized Israel as a state in 1950, two years after Israel’s independence in 1948. The Indian government only granted Israel full diplomatic recognition in 1992 following the end of the Cold War. Since then, ties between the two countries have steadily grown.
Areas of bilateral cooperation range from defense, trade, education, and business to tourism and culture. India recently finalized a $144 million deal to purchase the Israeli-made Barak missile. In fact, Israel is one of the biggest suppliers of arms to India. India and Israel are likely to complete negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) by next year, which could include agriculture, technology, and other sectors.
Recently, the Indian national daily The Hindu reported that the Indian government was considering a move to end its support for Palestine at the United Nations, which has strained India-Israel ties. The government later said there was no change in New Delhi’s policy of extending traditional support to Palestine, even as it continues to maintain good ties with Israel
In light of these developments, it is unlikely the Indian government will subvert its ties with Israel.
Why Boycott Art?
Noted Indian classical dancer Pratibha Prahlad – who directed the 8th Delhi International Arts Festival of which the Maria Kong performance was a part – said in an interview: “I am aware of the politics of the boycott campaign, but not party to it. We [have a full house], so clearly there is no boycott. I want Indians to be exposed to different cultures of the world and the indigenous art forms of people through this festival. Culture is important – it is who you are and your identity.”
Echoing her, Anderson Braz, one of Maria Kong co-founders commented that: “Dance is beautiful, and culture needs to be shared. Why stop artists from performing? It is sad to boycott art.”
Anderson is Brazilian and moved to Tel Aviv, where he co-founded the dance troupe. Maria Kong brings together artists from Israel, France, Russia, and Brazil, but has not Palestinian performers. “We don’t see them. They never come for auditions,” Anderson said.
Talia Landa, an Israeli choreographer for the troupe, was more candid about why Palestinians “never come for auditions.” “Palestinians can’t go through borders easily,” she said, referring to the daily difficulties faced by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Talia voiced her dissatisfaction with the boycott: “Do you know what makes me angry? It is the fact that academics and artists have also endorsed the boycott. Art and politics are two different worlds. Culture is far away from the world of politics and represents something bigger.”
The Political Nature of Culture
While art and culture should not be made hostage to political considerations, culture does not operate in a vacuum devoid of political context. Protest music, poetry, dissident lyrics, and flash mobs are all art forms that make culture political.
Artists take pride in carrying the message of peace and dissolving barriers associated with national territories, boundaries, language, and nationalism. They make it possible for people to know one another, independently of state mediation.
One of history’s most prominent instances of cultural boycott was against South Africa’s apartheid regime. Michael C. Beubien describes in his essay ”The Cultural Boycott of South Africa” how UN Resolution 2396, adopted in 1968, was aimed at establishing a cultural boycott of South Africa.
The resolution endorsed a boycott by artists, academics, and solidarity organizations in South Africa and asked all states and organizations to suspend cultural, educational, sporting, and other exchanges with the racist regime and organizations or institutions practicing apartheid.
While a number of artists supported the boycott, many performers continued to visit South Africa, enabling the apartheid government to claim such cultural collaborations as evidence of the legitimacy of its policies. In the end, it was a combination of cultural, political, and economic pressures, which ultimately led to the collapse of apartheid in South Africa.
The Maria Kong dance performance in Delhi was boycotted not for the performance itself, but because it was sponsored by the Embassy of Israel. The dance troupe made a political choice in accepting support from an Israeli state institution- and in acting thus, endorsed an internationally condemned occupying state and its practices.
Posted on 29-01-2015