Anti Fascism

Cultural Boycott

A novelist called John Berger called for a “cultural boycott” of Israel last week. John Berger is most famous for having won the Booker Prize 25 years ago, and then donating half (only half, mind) the prize money to an organisation called the Black Panther Party in Britain: a cause which was fleetingly popular with a certain section of white progressive opinion in the 1970s.

Mr Berger’s boycott is supported by 92 artists, including

– Leon Rosselson, a That Was The Week That Was songwriter, who is most famous for having penned The World Turned Upside Down (covered by Billy Bragg) and Stand Up for Judas (covered by Dick Gaughan)

– Brian Peter George St. Jean le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, who was in Roxy Music from 1971-3, and who wrote the start-up music for Windows 95

– Arundhati Roy, who is a novelist and lunatic

It also enjoys the support of Sophie Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, who is an aristocrat, and a man called Gene Younghusband. Gene Younghusband is not an artist but is, apparently, a “media theorist”. Disappointingly, Google has nothing to say about him.

As these things do, I expect that this Cultural Boycott will gather steam, and more people will sign. I was quite disappointed that the list did not contain the name of Gilad Atzmon: the famous beebopper and SWP mascot. However, Gilad has been too busy this week accusing JFJFP activist, Deborah Maccoby, of having “re-murdered the son of God” by denying the divinity of Jesus.

The Cultural Boycott has not been generally well received, and a number of playwrights and theatre directors have declined to join in:

Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, said: “There are countless Israelis who vehemently oppose their government … many are artists and academics, and none of them are prevented from expressing their opposition … It seems profoundly counter-productive to cease contact with precisely that section of Israeli society most likely to provoke a change in direction within Israel.”

Richard Eyre, the theatre director, said: “I would have said during apartheid in South Africa sanctions … were effective, but so many people since then have said they were counterproductive. It’s not cut and dried. Anything that boycotts Israel means we are in danger of cutting off access to [those] we should be speaking to.”

Today’s Guardian Letters Page is full of letters opposing the boycott:

In reading the latest call for a cultural boycott of Israel, we recognise the suffering of the Palestinians under an occupation that has lasted nearly 40 years and have personal experience of the unresolved refugee crisis that began in 1948 with the formation of the state of Israel. We none the less oppose emphatically any attempt to boycott and silence Israeli writers and artists and we doubt whether such actions would have any impact at all on the policies of the government. Nor does this call for a boycott state what it aims for: what the Israeli government or Israeli artists would need to do in order for it to be lifted. The aim of art is to make human what has been dehumanised and demonised. We will do everything we can to make both Palestinians and Jews visible in all their complex humanity.
Samir el Youssef
Linda Grant

Israel is a culturally dynamic country that is, if anything, less likely to censor or control the arts and politics than the UK. Its many neighbours across the Arab world, in Iran and beyond, censor everything in sight, imprison writers, artists, film-makers, journalists and others for the smallest infractions.

Within the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere, as well as Iran, are some viciously racist attitudes, with a level of anti-semitism as sick as anything seen under the Third Reich. Are John Berger and his friends even aware of these facts? If they are, their action is shameful. If they are not, they have no right to act in the matter. As for a boycott bringing peace, why not start with Hamas and its policy of genocide?
Dr Denis MacEoin
Newcastle upon Tyne

Gene adds: Mr. Berger’s petition states:

It is now time for others to join the campaign – as Primo Levi asked: If not now, when?

Actually that question was first asked by Hillel in the Pirkei Avot:

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

Primo Levi used the phrase for the title of his novel about Jewish partisan fighters in World War II. It’s a refrain from the suspiciously Zionist song sung by the partisans in the story:

Do you recognize us? We’re the sheep of the ghetto,
Shorn for a thousand years, resigned to outrage.
We are the tailors, the scribes and the cantors,
Withered in the shadow of the cross.
Now we have learned the paths of the forest,
We have learned to shoot, and we aim straight.
If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
If not this way, how? And if not now, when?

Our brothers have gone to heaven
Through the chimneys of Sobibor and Treblinka,
They have dug themselves a grave in the air.
Only we few have survived
For the honor of our submerged people,
For revenge and to bear witness.
If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
If not this way, how? And if not now, when?

We are the sons of David, the hardheaded sons of Masada.
Each of us carries in his pocket the stone
That shattered the forehead of Goliath.
Brothers, away from this Europe of graves:
Let us climb together towards the land
Where we will be men among men.
If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
If not this way, how? And if not now, when?

Can you guess which land the song refers to?