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Nicholas Blincoe | The Observer | 16 June 2002
Novelist Nicholas Blincoe explains what he hopes to achieve by a boycott of Israeli artists
The moment before I ran on stage at the Barbican, I was more conscious of my pulse rate than I have ever been in my life. The event was MedFest 2002, a celebration of music from the nations of the Mediterranean. I knew I would be nervous, but hoped adrenaline would see me through. My carefully chosen wear included a pinstriped Savile Row suit, orange tie and a large cotton sheet spray-painted with the slogan 'Cultural Boycott of Israel'. I left my seat and edged to the aisle, pausing while mycolleague, Chris Dunham, joined me. Then we ran for the stage to disrupt the act of Israeli folk-singer Noa.
The call for a cultural boycott of Israel came from Palestinian artists in the occupied territories, through the Network of Palestinian Art Centres. I am fully aware that a cultural boycott provokes mixed emotions. An economic boycott appears a simpler issue. Produce labelled 'Made in Israel' may have been grown or manufactured in the occupied territories, in flagrant breach of EU labelling law. A Palestinian will have the deeds to the land these goods come from. He will even have the comfort that the entire world, including the United States, regards the land as illegally occupied. But he will face death or imprisonment if he risks entering it. And so, as economic boycotts helped end apartheid in South Africa, we can understand how an economic boycott will pressure Israel to end its 35-year occupation.
But it is the success of the boycott against South Africa that makes the argument for the cultural boycott of Israel so compelling. Apartheid South Africa prided itself on being a sporting nation, and as a result, the cultural boycott focused chiefly on sporting events. Israel prides itself on its creative life, and this time the boycott is likely to focus on art events. When Noa got on stage at MedFest 2002 she was representing her nation - in that context she became the Israeli equivalent to the Springboks.
Over the past two months, the Barbican had been repeatedly petitioned by a number of individuals and asked to reconsider Noa's participation but the management replied that it was not a political organisation. Both Twickenham and Lord's used the same argument, but in those cases the anti-apartheid movement finally won the day and the boycott was seen as just.
Artists tend to value art over sport, but both are important in fostering understanding between peoples. A boycott does not necessarily suppress this understanding. Like a consumer boycott, it can be a creative way to give individuals a voice; to let their actions speak, and so express their disapproval.
Currently, Israeli society is fed the narrowest and most extreme sections of world opinion: on the one hand, implacable opposition to the Israeli state; on the other, the warm approval from American legislators that greets Israel's every brutal foray into the West Bank. Israeli citizens are far from being aware of how unacceptable ordinary people find the actions of their government and the vast swaths of Israeli society that support permanent military occupation.
A cultural boycott is painful. But it is also a form of communication: a positive act of non-violent protest. It ought to be contrasted with Israel's brutal silencing of the Palestinians. As long as Palestinians are denied freedom of movement, it is impossible to know and to understand Palestinian culture. The few flashes that reach us, such as the films of Elia Suleiman, winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes this year, hint that the next Woody Allen may very well be Palestinian. If we are unable to hear Palestinian voices, we are more likely to believe they are 'vipers' or 'animals' or congenital liars, as Israeli politicians have described them in recent media interviews.
My most recent novel was published in Israel, before Palestinian artists called for the cultural boy cott. I do not regret that I have a novel on sale in Israel. There was a time when the Israeli editor and myself shared an optimism for the future. Today there is no cause for optimism. Ariel Sharon founded the Likud coalition in 1973 with the aim of holding on to the occupied territories. Now he has ripped apart the Oslo Agreement and with it the fabric of Palestinian life, and he has done it with impunity.
My time in the spotlight lasted less than two minutes. I unfurled a banner while Chris, an energy consultant, spoke to the audience through a percussionist's microphone. When the microphone became unplugged, I shouted as the security guards bundled us off. The news reports say that Noa, the folk singer, was upset and had to be comforted before she could continue with her show. There is no pleasure in this; indeed, this article is partly written to explain our position to Noa herself. As an audience member said after the show, our actions were reminiscent of the Jewish protests against the Soviet Union. This is not an outlandish form of politics: cultural boycotts have a long history. Our protest reflects mainstream distaste at a long military occupation.