LONDON — In the wake of the Copenhagen and Paris attacks, a letter headlined “Our cultural boycott of Israel starts today” signed by 100 British writers, actors, artists and musicians has been greeted with withering derision.
The letter, published in the Guardian on Saturday, February 14, pledged: “We will not engage in business-as-usual with Israel. We will accept neither personal invitations to Israel, nor funding from any institutions linked to its government… Now we are saying, in Tel Aviv, Netanya, Ashkelon or Ariel, we won’t play music, accept awards, attend exhibitions, festivals or conferences, run masterclasses or workshops, until Israel respects international law and ends its colonial oppression of the Palestinians.”
The timing of the publication could scarcely have been worse for the letter’s signatories, headed by Jewish British celebrities, TV director Peter Kosminsky and film director Mike Leigh.
Kosminsky, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, took on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a 2011 television series called “The Promise.” While creating the project he told The Jewish Chronicle he became aware of controversial organization Breaking the Silence, in which ex-Israel Defense Force soldiers detail their army experiences.
Leigh’s cultural boycott of Israel unofficially began with a canceled 2010 trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank. He was recently given a life-time achievement award by Bafta, the British Academy for Film and Television Arts. In a 2010 interview with the Jewish Chronicle, Leigh called his work “inescapably Jewish.”
Only hours after the boycott letter appeared in print, a lone gunman attacked and killed a film director at a seminar in Copenhagen where writers and artists gathered to discuss freedom of speech. The shooter, identified as 22-year-old Omar El-Hussein, proceeded to the Danish capital’s main synagogue and shot dead Dan Uzan, 37, one of the community’s volunteer security guards, and wounded two police officers.
Last week the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism published a forensic 120-page report in which MPs and members of the House of Lords attacked cultural boycotts.
‘We have set out that cultural boycott, implemented in the way they were during the summer, were unacceptable’
“People have a legitimate right to protest against Israel through boycott or other peaceful means. However, such protest becomes entirely illegitimate when constituting an attack on or intimidation of British Jews. We have set out that cultural boycott, implemented in the way they were during the summer, were unacceptable. The boycott movement faces a challenge of how to put their tactics into effect while not slipping into anti-Semitism, unlawful discrimination, or assaulting valued freedoms,” stated the report.
Laura Marks, senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, alluded to the timing of the boycott letter, calling it “offensive” in an interview with The Times of Israel.
“There is something ironic in the demand for a cultural boycott and the demand not to engage when the attacks in Copenhagen and Paris were made on people who wanted to express themselves,” Marks said.
Marks claimed a cultural boycott of this sort is also “racist.” “As the APPG report makes clear, negative language towards Jews becomes the norm if you don’t challenge it,” she said.
“How do we change attitudes if people want to close down communications? Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and [these artists are effectively] saying that they will continue to work with all sorts of awful regimes and that Israel is the only one they aren’t going to deal with.”
On Monday, an editorial in The Times weighed in, saying, “The egregious campaigns for a cultural boycott of Israel are stoking ugly, atavistic movements in Europe. These need to be confronted by civilized opinion. Israeli governments are fallible but the Jewish state is a force for democracy in a region that is short of it.”
Chairman of Britain’s Zionist Federation Paul Charney was equally dismissive when speaking with The Times of Israel.
“The signed letter says much more about the myopic views of a small clique of navel-gazers then it does about any wider support for boycotts in this country,” said Charney.
Indeed, added Marks, “The signatories are not exactly household names.”
But both Marks and Charney stressed that the timing of the letter is what is significant.
“The announcement gives us a valuable insight into the world view of these self-appointed moral guardians. There wasn’t any specific trigger for the letter. Some might understand (on some level) their urge to ‘do something’ if Israel was in the headlines – but it’s clear that their obsession compels them to bring up the Jewish state even when the world is looking elsewhere,” said Charney.
The letter and its announcement showed a sort of obsession with Israel on the part of these artists.
“The multiple tragedies of the Middle East, including the unimaginable bloodshed of Syria and the cleansing of Christians, must seem like mere aggravations that unfairly distract attention from their pet subject. The BDS slogan from a few years ago – ‘Gaza is still the issue’ — shows you not only where their priorities lie, but their commitment to blocking out anything that might challenge their preconceptions,” said Charney.
Charney said the artists have overlooked “news closer to home” which has generated renewed calls for freedom of speech.
“Even if you’re clueless about the rest of the Middle East, you can’t have failed to notice the spate of attacks in Europe recently… And of course, there is the thorny issue of anti-Semitism. Even if you hold that boycotting Israel isn’t in of itself anti-Semitic, this blanket hostility to everything Israel-related certainly facilitates the idea that the Jewish state is toxic,” he said.
Jonathan Arkush, Board of Deputies vice president, was equally dismissive. Calling the letter “totally racist, bigoted and hateful”, he said that “this obsessive demonization of Israel contributes to an atmosphere where extremists feel emboldened to attack Jews.”
The signatories are a line-up of the usual suspects who hate Israel, said Arkush.
“We should relegate them to the margins where they belong and stop worrying about these deluded peoples’ obsession. Let them wallow in their viciousness – they are desperately sad and unhappy people,” said Arkush.
But perhaps the final word should go to Dr. Stephen Malnick, a British-born resident of Ashkelon whose rebuttal of the cultural boycotters appeared in Tuesday’s Guardian letters page.
“As a citizen of Ashkelon who was nearly killed when a missile missed my car by a few meters, I have a message for artists with a selective communal conscience. I do not want you to visit my city and insult 120,000 people who were daily attacked in violation of international law. There are no military targets in Ashkelon, but lots of Jews.
“After you make a stand against the extrajudicial killing of people in Gaza, and the whipping of a blogger in Saudi Arabia, and you apologize to the citizens of Ashkelon, I will consider extending you hospitality. I will continue my daily tasks, including treating Gazans who are brought to the medical center I work in. Odd, isn’t it, that they visit but you won’t?” wrote Malnick.