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As the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement continues to gather speed, PACBI continues to receive an increasing number of inquiries from around the world. Many of these inquiries come from allies who are often asked to give talks or performances in Israel, or are invited to participate in activities or projects with boycottable Israeli institutions. These allies often ask for an interpretation of the academic and cultural boycott guidelines. In some instances, our advice is met with what we perceive to be a lack of appreciation of the basic context, principles and logic of the boycott. In this month’s editorial, we wish to clarify our responsibility to Palestinian civil society and our wide BDS coalition in Palestine, and our responsibility to our international allies.
It is important to note that PACBI is part of the Palestinian Boycott National Committee (BNC), a mass coalition of leading Palestinian civil society organizations. This coalition represents a near consensus in Palestinian society around the principles and guidelines of the BDS movement. The BNC has entrusted PACBI with promoting the guidelines for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. As such, PACBI is, first and foremost, accountable to the BNC, and the guidelines that the BNC seeks to promote are the minimum requirements that Palestinian civil society has agreed upon .
When international allies ask us for exceptions to the guidelines, as is sometimes the case, and when PACBI does not agree to such exceptions, this must be understood in the context of our mandate and our consistent adherence to the boycott’s principles and logic. We cannot agree to exceptions because we are accountable to our coalition.
One of the more frequent requests that PACBI receives from those who are sympathetic with the Palestinian cause is for PACBI to promote an activity in Palestine held by our allies when they are scheduled to also hold an event in Israel. This usually comes after the individuals or groups concerned realize that they would be crossing the boycott picket line if they held their activities at boycottable Israeli venues and think this is one way to show their support for Palestinians. While PACBI appreciates the desire of such individuals or groups to show solidarity with Palestinians, we cannot agree to such requests since, simply put, it is asking us to turn a blind eye to violations of the boycott guidelines. For PACBI and other Palestinian institutions to ignore these violations and allow visitors to benefit from appearances at both Israeli and Palestinian institutions would implicitly disempower the Palestinian voice, and remove a key tool of non-violent pressure from Palestinian hands. In the South African struggle against apartheid, such requests were met with the same firm insistence by the ANC that all solidarity visits must refrain from violating ANC boycott guidelines.
Palestinian civil society has come a long way since the time when Palestinian institutions—such as universities—would agree to host international visitors while on visits to Israeli institutions, most often to attend conferences or participate in activities such as concerts and art exhibits. As the boycott movement has grown and adherence to it increases, Palestinian institutions are becoming empowered to ask those who insist on violating the boycott to refrain from visiting Palestine, even if that may affect cultural and academic ties with the international community of artists or academics. In the event that these individuals heed the Palestinian appeal and cancel their Israeli events—as has been happening more and more—then they are more than welcome at Palestinian institutions . Ending Israel’s system of occupation, colonialism and apartheid, and bringing about freedom, equality and justice, have become the primary aim of Palestinian civil society and its institutions, and this is increasingly being seen as a goal that should not be jeopardized by promoting unconditional academic or artistic exchanges.
Another request often received by PACBI from sympathetic international academics and artists is for us to agree to their activities in Israel since this would be an opportunity for them to deepen their knowledge of the “conflict,” and more importantly, since they are allies, that they would use the Israeli platform to express their opposition to Israel’s oppressive policies. PACBI believes that the time has come for individuals of conscience to educate themselves about the colonial and apartheid reality of Israel without using public appearances and engagements in Israel as a cover to learn about the conflict or to express their criticism of Israeli policies. If one truly cares to learn about a struggle, or to criticize a situation, then there are many ways to do so; a public performance is not one of them . Undermining our struggle for freedom, justice and equality to learn about Israel’s oppression is clearly illogical and morally problematic.
Academics and artists must also realize that their mere presence at mainstream Israeli institutions and forums—regardless of the content of their participation, which may well often be critical of Israel—will be used to whitewash Israeli crimes and normalize Israeli oppression. This is so because violating the BDS call at a time when this movement is growing internationally, as well as in Israel, is far more damaging than making critical statements, especially when those statements are often used by Israel to promote its illusion of a tolerant and democratic society. This is not to mention that there are numerous ways to address Israelis today, and provide critical insights, without visiting the country and making public appearances.
While some might not understand our inability to entertain their requests, we believe this is the most principled way to remain true to our Palestinian coalition and to build an international campaign. Our commitment to international activists and new allies who join our movement is that we will remain firm on anti-racist principles and on principles of human rights. We will continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards that Palestinian civil society expects from us and to whom we are accountable. Our advice to allies is offered in that spirit.