by Miriam Margolyes and Omar Barghouti
No words seem appropriate in reacting to the tragic news of Iain Banks’s illness. But the fact that Banks chose to announce his ill health and, almost simultaneously, to reiterate his unflinching support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, particularly the cultural boycott against Israel, not only reflects his moral distinction but also gives inspiration and courage to all of us to stay focused, more than anything else, on his masterfully crafted phrases and sharp intellect.
After Israel’s bloodbath on the Freedom Flotilla in 2010, Iain Banks was among the first international figures to endorse the boycott of Israel. He urged writers, artists and academics to “convince Israel of its moral degradation and ethical isolation, preferably by simply having nothing to do with this outlaw state.” But Banks was not alone; leading authors from around the world, including the late Stephane Hessel, a holocaust survivor himself, Naomi Klein, Henning Mankell and Alice Walker, have all reached the same conclusion that only through effective pressure, not “constructive engagement,” can they contribute to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and racial discrimination against the Palestinian people. As Iain Banks writes, “The problem is that constructive engagement and reasoned argument demonstrably have not worked, and the relatively crude weapon of boycott is pretty much all that’s left.”
Anticipating the expected smear of anti-Semitism from Israel and its lobby groups, Banks draws a clear and necessary distinction between the state of Israel and Jews around the world, arguing they are not and should not be seen as “synonymous,” and therefore that a boycott measure against the former, due to its flouting of international law, should never be conflated with racism against the latter. Similarly, while we both joined the boycott against apartheid South Africa we never conceived ourselves as anti-Afrikaner, or anti-white, for that matter; we were simply heeding the calls from the oppressed in South Africa to support the struggle there against the system of racial oppression.
Other critics may argue that culture is best left untouched by “politics,” as it is the first — and last — conduit available for dialogue with the people, regardless what international law violations governments and institutions may be responsible for. According to their argument, ostracizing Israelis working in the cultural and academic field is wrong in any context. This objection, however, is in fact based on a wrong premise—that the Palestinian-led BDS movement is calling for targeting individual Israeli academics, writers and artists. It does not and never has. Unlike the South African academic and cultural boycott — which was a “blanket” boycott that targeted everyone and everything South African — the Palestinian boycott targets institutions only, due to their entrenched complicity in planning, justifying, whitewashing or otherwise perpetuating Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights.
Underlining the logic of pressure, which lies at the core of the BDS movement, more than 150 mainstream US and British theater, film, and TV artists made history in September 2010 by issuing a statement, initiated by Jewish Voice for Peace, supporting the spreading cultural boycott inside Israel of its colonial settlements illegally built on occupied Palestinian territory due to their violation of international law. American theater and film figures as Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon, award-winning playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in American”, “Munich”), actress Jennifer Tilley (“Bullets Over Broadway”), Mandy Patinkin (“Princess Bride”) and acclaimed British actress Vanessa Redgrave were among the signatories. Frank Gehry, of Guggenheim fame, also supported this targeted boycott.
The initial categorical objection by some to any form of cultural boycott gave way to the rational and morally consistent argument that culture cannot be artificially separated from politics, nor can cultural figures abdicate, with clear conscience, their moral obligation not to allow their names and their work to be used as fig-leaves to cover up injustice and human rights abuses.
While falling short of endorsing a comprehensive cultural boycott of Israel, this targeted cultural boycott initiative broke a long-held taboo in the western mainstream against calling for any pressure, let alone boycott, to be brought to bear against Israel or its academic and cultural institutions in response to its ongoing violations of international law and war crimes. The signatories seem to have taken to heart Nelson Mandela’s cautioning against the enticement “to read reconciliation and fairness as meaning parity between justice and injustice.”
As to the charge that cultural boycotts infringe on the freedom of expression, Enuga S. Reddy, director of the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid,wrote as far back as 1984:
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.
By enjoining artists and writers the world over to join the cultural boycott of Israel, Iain Banks evokes the legacy of international solidarity with South Africa and reveals an acute recognition of the ethical duty to desist from abetting injustice anywhere, in any form.
Miriam Margolyes is a British actress who won the BAFTA Best Supporting Actress award in 1993 for The Age of Innocence, Best Supporting Actress at the 1989 LA Critics Circle Awards for her role in Little Dorrit, and a Sony Radio Award for Best Actress in 1993 for her unabridged recording of ‘Oliver Twist’.
Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian human rights activist and founding member of the BDS movement. He is a contributor to Generation Palestine: Voices from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.