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PACBI-Protesters want this Israeli film dropped from the Edinburgh Film Festival and an Israeli cricket team banned ...Is a cultural boycott ever justified?

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Sunday Herald | August 6, 2006

Protesters want this Israeli film dropped from the Edinburgh Film Festival and an Israeli cricket team banned ...Is a cultural boycott ever justified?

YES: by Mark Brown
ISRAEL’S war on Lebanon has thrown into stark relief the debate about sporting, cultural and economic boycotts. By the time you read this article, the Israeli cricket team’s latest game in the European tournament in Glasgow, scheduled for yesterday, may have been cancelled. For sure, hundreds will have joined the Stop The War Coalition’s protest outside the Glasgow Academicals ground.

Meanwhile, the Edinburgh International Film Festival has, in protest at the war in Lebanon, refused the offer of funds from the Israeli Embassy to pay for the air fares of film-maker Yoav Shamir. His documentary 5 Days, which charts the Israeli army’s withdrawal from Gaza last year, will still be shown at the festival, and there is talk of picketing taking place outside screenings.

For some, both the campaign to boycott the Israeli cricket team and the various degrees of boycott over Shamir’s film (from refusing Israel’s money to a complete boycott of the film) are misplaced.

Sports people and artists, the argument goes, are entitled to participate in their chosen fields without being punished for the perceived sins of the country from which they come.

As a position which defends freedom of expression, this can seem like a very reasonable stance. Like most abstract principles, however, it is deeply problematic when it is actually applied to specific circumstances.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s the international movement against apartheid called for a global boycott of South Africa. Peter Hain of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, now a minister in Tony Blair’s cabinet, led campaigns of civil disobedience against South African rugby and cricket tours.

The boycott placed the right of black South Africans to freedom from a racist dictatorship above the supposed right of racially selected South African sports teams to take part in prestigious international competitions. The boycott ostracised South Africa from the family of nations. Who now doubts that it played an important role in the eventual collapse of apartheid?

The arguments over the boycott of Israel today are remarkably similar.

How can the so-called “right” of the Israeli cricket team (which is stuffed full of Israeli army reservists) to participate in an international competition possibly compare to the rights of the Palestinians and the Lebanese who are so clearly oppressed by the might of the Israeli military?

In refusing the Israeli Embassy’s cash, the Film Festival has, in effect, said that it considers such money to be tainted with the blood of the 900 Lebanese civilians massacred over the last four weeks. That isn’t an attack on cultural freedom, it is a principled statement of human solidarity.

Of course, in every boycott there are areas of light and shade, issues where campaigners need to take a more nuanced position. Did, for instance, the cultural boycott of South Africa extend to anti-apartheid Afrikaner comedian Pieter-Dirk Uys; most supporters of the boycott agreed that it did not.

The question of whether or not to boycott was decided, primarily, on the basis of the artist’s relationship to the state. Official state artistic companies, or companies supported by the state, were boycotted, but opponents of the regime were welcomed.

Where Shamir’s film is concerned, things are less clear-cut. I have not yet seen his movie, but it sounds to me as if it raises important questions about the Israeli military, rather than being a piece of state propaganda. The problem arises in that he appears to have been prepared to have his trip funded by the Israeli state.

As a theatre critic and a lover of the arts, I instinctively uphold freedom of expression. However, I do not uphold it above all other freedoms. Just as I would never have agreed to review a work by a state company from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, I would refuse to review the work of the Israeli National Opera today. However, where Shamir’s film is concerned, I tend towards the view that the screenings should go ahead.

The deciding factors are, firstly, the relationship of the artist to the state, and, secondly, the benefit of a boycott to those fighting against oppression. In the case of the Israeli National Opera, the benefits of a boycott which damages the prestige of the state of Israel are obvious. In the case of Shamir, it is hard to see how the Lebanese or Palestinian people would benefit from a boycott.

Those who persist in opposing all boycotts are either washing their hands of the oppression of the people of Palestine and Lebanon or pursuing an abstract principle which would have put them at odds with Nelson Mandela when he called for the global boycott of apartheid.

Mark Brown is the Sunday Herald’s theatre critic and a member of the Stop The War Coalition

No: by Claire Fox
ON the eve of the Edinburgh festivals, traditionally an unapologetic celebration of all things cultural, it is sad to see Scottish arts and political figures indulging in politicking around film and sport. The debates about whether the Israeli cricket team should be allowed to play or whether the film festival should take a travel grant from the Israeli Embassy Cultural Department to enable Israeli film-maker Yoav Shamir to attend the screening, might make anti-war protesters feel virtuous about themselves.

However, in truth they reflect dangerous trends that afflict so-called progressive politics in the UK, when self-appointed moral policemen demand that the cultural world reflects their own political worldview.

Boycotts always end up acting as a radical apologia for censorship. Recent decisions by university lecturers selectively to boycott certain Israeli universities flout the hard fought-for ideal of academic freedom.

With what consequences? The Israel Science Foundation, the biggest government funder of Israeli research, has already found itself a victim of such blacklists, with British academics refusing to review applications because they disapprove of Israel’s actions. So much for universal scholarship, knowledge across frontiers and the free exchange of ideas, all core aspects of academic research that distinguishes it from the protective, self-interested world of big business and government.

If arts organisations begin to compromise their programmes as a result of political tensions, then artistic and journalistic freedom is at stake .

Remember the excuses given for the withdrawal of the play Beshti from the Birmingham Playhouse in 2004 after angry Sikh demonstrators took to the streets. The theatre claimed health and safety concerns as the reason the show could not go on. This lily-livered censorship that dare not speak its name at least led the arts world onto the offensive, and Jerry Springer The Opera has gone on tour in defiance of angry Christian demonstrators who have tried to get that show closed down.

It could be argued that Shamir’s film 5 Days is on the side of the angels as the film-maker is a trenchant critic of Israeli policies. But I don’t want to resort to this tick-box approach to artists’ political positions.

In academia, a modification of the original blanket boycott means it only applies to academics who refuse to denounce their government. This effectively means setting up thought police to ensure only “good” Israeli academics are published or collaborated with. Similarly, judging a film by its subject matter – or indeed its funding – undermines artistic judgment. As swathes of international critics descend on Edinburgh, one hopes they will not be recommending an endless stream of worthy but badly written and poorly executed plays and films about right-on topics.

Is sport a different matter? Perhaps it is rather lame to cry “free speech” when the Glasgow Stop The War Coalition and Muslim student groups demand that matches involving the Israeli cricket team should be cancelled, as “it is unthinkable” to let them “play in our backyard while these acts of aggression continue to take place”.

Yet, I have some sympathy with Stephen Kilner, honorary president of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council, who notes that, “in the true Olympic spirit sport should transcend politics”. God knows, one wouldn’t want to scrutinise the political regimes that have produced some of the most glorious gamesmen and women over the years. Is Wayne Rooney to be shunned because of Blair’s disastrous occupation of Iraq? Should we refuse to give China’s brilliant Liu Xiang recognition for breaking the world record in the men’s 110m hurdles because his government is viciously authoritarian?

Even worse than turning sport into a political football, is the delusional importance attached to such actions by campaigners. A Stop The War Coalition spokesman claims on BBC online that “Sporting events such as these are little more than attempts to give international respectability” to the Israeli “regime”.

Who is he kidding? This is not the South African Springboks, one of the great teams in rugby history. This is Division Two of the European Cricket Council Championship, including such illustrious cricketing nations as Jersey and Norway. If Israel is dependent for its respectability on a second rate sports team, it must be in trouble.

It suits campaigners to talk up the cricket team, as it allows them to talk up their own brave resistance to oppression in Lebanon. But this seems more like a narcissistic stage show for British anti-war campaigners’ gratification than effective political action. Shane Danielsen, film festival artistic director, declared that “there comes a point when you have to make a stand”, before handing back an estimated £300 to the Israeli Embassy. £300? How brave! The people of Lebanon must be so grateful.

Before anyone shouts “South Africa”, remember that even those claiming that boycott led to the collapse of the apartheid regime are indulging in a self-flattery. It might suit those of us who didn’t bank at Barclays or buy South African oranges to pat ourselves on the back, and allow boycott leader Peter Hain to claim himself a hero, but actually it’s an insult to the people of Soweto and the ANC who fought and put their lives on the line to smash apartheid. For those of us who are serious about opposing Israel’s onslaught, such counterproductive moral posturing is no solution.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute Of Ideas

Posted on 06-08-2006

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