Pop stars Rihanna and Alicia Keys recently held separate sold-out concerts in Tel Aviv, much to the dismay of the American-based Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI). Just as its name implies, the movement seeks to boycott Israel’s academic and cultural communities as part of a larger campaign to compel the country to withdraw to pre-1967 Palestinian borders.
In conjunction with the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, USACBI has gained momentum among entertainers and activists to shun any and all involvement with Israeli universities and arts events.
It is the boycott’s fervent desire that by placing pressure on academic institutions and civilians in the hope of cutting off the country intellectually and culturally, a grassroots movement might form within Israel to put additional pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration to soften its hardline position over a two-state solution.
Regardless of where one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, this is a terrible, hypocritical idea. In addition to its cultural boycott, this organization actively supports restricting the flow of intellectual capital, such as pressuring visiting professors not to work at universities or attend lectures held in Israel. It also pressures those who sponsor these lectures around the world to exclude Israeli faculty from symposiums.
In a time when open communications between nations in conflict are already in short supply, this is an absurd policy. Anyone who is interested in real change should be encouraging dialogue, not suppressing it. The arts and classrooms are essential environments in bringing people together who hold different viewpoints and to promote healthy discourse and critical debate.
As anyone who follows Middle Eastern politics knows, Israel is a country that allows and encourages public disagreement with government policies. There has been a strong and visible peace movement within the country for decades that continues to make its voice heard. What other country in the Middle East can say the same?
Many public figures have joined this movement against Israel, either willingly or amidst social media pressure. Jon Bon Jovi, Carlos Santana, Elvis Costello, the late Gil Scott-Heron, and filmmaker Mira Nair (who Bowdoin granted an honorary degree to in 2011) are among many other notable artists who support this movement.
They accuse Israel of human rights abuses and of being an apartheid regime that legally promotes and supports one religion at the expense of another. Well, it is the homeland for the Jewish people, so I suppose they have a point. But it is not my objective in this column to defend Israel’s policies.
There is a much bigger issue at stake here. It is just as wrong when countries (such as the United States) walk out of the U.N. when Iran or some other “rogue” nation speaks to the assembled leaders. Cultural and intellectual boycotts create the same intolerant environment. One may disagree, but an exchange of ideas, no matter how repellent, is always better than muzzled silence.
But there is also underlying hypocrisy that must be recognized here. The supporters of the boycott are singling out Israel as the only nation with controversial policies. Bon Jovi refuses to play in Israel but he’s performed in Saudi Arabia, a nation that has no regard for civil rights, denies women many basic freedoms, and views other religions besides Islam with suspicion or downright hostility.
Nair released a defiant Twitter statement refusing to show her latest film, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” at Israel’s Haifa International Film Festival because of the aforementioned reasons regarding Israel’s policies. I believe that she missed a great opportunity to open the flow of healthy dialogue between Jews and Arabs about the issues portrayed in the film. But while Nair boycotts Israel, she agrees to show her films in countries such as Pakistan and Qatar, where spotty records of human rights—not to mention both states disregard for religions other than Islam—seems to present no ethical problem for her.
Daniel Barenboim, the world-famous Israeli-Argentine conductor, has a better idea. He founded the West Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999 consisting of musicians from a variety countries in the Middle East, including the Palestinian territories, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iran, to name a handful. I’m sure when they’re not performing these musicians may not see eye-to-eye on many things, but they have their eyes on a bigger prize. They are saying to the world, “Hey, if we can get along, why can’t you?”
An American, Micah Hendler (a former counselor at the Seeds of Peace co-existence camp in Maine), has founded an Arab-Jewish youth orchestra in Jerusalem just five months after finishing college. It might not be a bad idea for Bowdoin to invite him to speak on campus, where he could share the lessons of his work with Bowdoin’s chapter of the nonprofit group J-Street, which seeks to end the Israeli-Arab conflict in a peaceful manner.
I also applaud the efforts of musicians like Leonard Cohen, who played a concert in Ramallah during his Israel tour and donated the proceeds of his Tel Aviv concert to Israeli-Palestinian co-existence projects. Similarly, Paul McCartney made a point to visit the West Bank during his Israel tour in 2008. Alicia Keys summarized the best approach to standing up to the divisive message of the boycott, in a statement to The New York Times: “I look forward to my first visit to Israel. Music is a universal language that is meant to unify audiences in peace and love, and that is the spirit of our show.”
But it’s not just in the entertainment field where change is happening. Hebrew University does an excellent job of promoting the message of Israeli-Palestinian co-existence through its establishment of a comprehensive Arab Immersion Program at its Rothberg International School, which deals with the culture and language of the region.
The USACBI is simply unproductive and selfish in its efforts, thwarting the development of cultural understanding and communication between the two sides. Peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will never happen if they don’t speak to each other or if the rest of the world turns a deaf ear. As John Lennon and Yoko Ono said, give peace a chance.