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Why Boycotts Should Not be Imposed on the Arts

· 9 min read
Why Boycotts Should Not be Imposed on the Arts
Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Over the last four weeks, we have witnessed an unprecedented amount of press coverage and social media chatter surrounding the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s efforts to discourage artists and entertainers from participating in the 2022 Sydney Arts Festival, one of the premiere annual festivals in Australia. The festival is attended by hundreds of thousands of participants every year and includes live music, theatre, dance, visual arts showcases, and engaging discussions.

The reason the BDS movement wants artists to withdraw from their commitment to appear at the festival is because the Israeli Embassy was asked by the festival to help sponsor “Decadance”, a contemporary dance performance created by world renowned Israeli choreographer, Ohad Naharin. The contribution by the embassy of $20,000, according to a statement made by the BDS movement was that “by making Israel’s far-right regime a [credited] “star partner,” the festival is consciously art-washing Israel’s war crimes and system of colonial oppression.” Such a statement is completely absurd especially since the festival has historically reached out to other international embassies and cultural organizations in the past with the credit given to the Israeli Embassy consistent with what they have given to similar organizations.

As an Australian Jewish lawyer living in the United States, and someone who has spent more than 38 years working in the film and television arena, representing artists from every corner of the world including Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis, Egyptians, and Iranians, I found that I could no longer sit on the sidelines watching the assault on the festival and felt compelled to speak out openly and honestly about my feelings.

The actions taken by the BDS movement and similar organizations are not only a threat to the collaboration of international artists and entertainers. They also create roadblocks between people from different cultures who share something in common, and who want to be able to engage in open and honest discussions regarding cultural, political and even religious differences that can lead to the possibility of better understanding issues that are frequently misunderstood.

In the last five years, with the explosion of social media, we have sadly witnessed a heightened level of hatred in almost every corner of the globe where the extreme right and the extreme left, instead of representing the minority views, have masqueraded as the majority view making the great silent majority in the “middle” seem almost insignificant.

This problem has become magnified by all of us living in a digital and technological world where people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, text, email, post, message, and tweet in lieu of either picking up the phone or engaging in “in-person” discussions. This absence of live human contact and meaningful face-to-face conversation has allowed misinformation and extremist minority views to take hold more than ever.

Years ago when I started representing a young Palestinian filmmaker after seeing his extraordinary film premiere at a major international film festival, I was asked by many colleagues and friends (including some within the Jewish community) how I, as a Jew, could represent someone who’s beliefs may be completely antithetical to my own. Most of those making comments had never seen the film my client had directed and were being judgmental without knowing all (or any) of the facts, an ill-advised yet often practiced tendency. After urging them to keep an open mind and watch the film, almost everyone who saw the movie felt very differently after seeing it.

I do not agree with all of the policies of the Israeli government. Israel, like every country, makes challenging and sometimes hard to understand decisions and sometimes engages in policies that, in my view, are just wrong. I have driven from Jerusalem through Ramallah to Nablus and seen the Israeli Settlements firsthand. I did not agree with all of the expansion policies of Netanyahu’s government, a view shared by many Israelis and Jews around the world.

Politicians often find it challenging to engage in meaningful and sincere conversations about difficult issues, but when organizations like the BDS movement discourage artists and academics from engaging in constructive conversations with diverse audiences, or from performing in Israel, or in the case of the Sydney Festival, by discouraging artists from participating in an international festival, the situation is not made any better. It is only by engaging in meaningful and respectful conversation with people who have different points of view that we can look beyond our pre-conceived opinions and appreciate a perspective that we may not have previously considered.

What an amazing thing it was in March 2021 when Shalva, a band whose members suffered from different disabilities, were able to perform with both the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra as well as Emirati musicians, and sang the iconic Simon and Garfunkel song “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” with lyrics in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Doesn’t such a performance send a message to the rest of the world that people from different backgrounds and belief systems can find a way to work together? And shouldn’t that be an example for the rest of us?

The BDS movement discourages artists from visiting Israel because its leaders know that the perception they paint does not line up with the reality on the ground, which is exactly why we should encourage artists and entertainers to go to Israel, where they can see for themselves and form their own opinions. If Israel were truly an apartheid state, why wouldn’t the BDS leaders want people to bear witness to the alleged horror themselves?

The truth is that Arabs have more rights in Israel than in any of the other 21 Arab countries. Israel has about 1.8 million Arab citizens who constitute roughly 20 percent of the population. Neither today nor at any point throughout its history has Israel practiced racial segregation. It is the only real democracy in the Middle East, where Arabs sit in the country’s parliament, in its governing coalition, and on its Supreme Court. The chairman of Israel’s largest bank is a Palestinian Arab. Over 22 percent of Technion (Israel’s version of MIT) student are Arab. Israel has progressive laws when it comes to free speech and gender equality, as well as LGBTQ rights.

In December of last year, the BDS movement, through bullying and aggressive social media posts, tried to discourage people from participating in the Tel-Aviv LGBTQ Film Festival where historically, people from all over the world attend to not only celebrate their freedom of sexual preference and identity but also to create relationships with people from around the world. Why should a group of people, who historically have been abused, be denied the opportunity to come together? Why should an organization like BDS restrict Muslims and Jews, blacks and whites, and Israelis and Arabs from sharing an experience that is not based on their commonality rather than their differences?

In a statement recently published in the Guardian, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, one of the leading Sydney boycott organizers said: “you have to ask, why is the Sydney festival putting Israel ahead of the festival itself, and the hundreds of artists caught up in this?” This too is a ludicrous statement. Putting aside that the Sydney Festival on their own website indicate that “since [our] inception, it is the Sydney festival’s regular practice to establish sponsorship arrangements with embassies and cultural agencies – such as the British Counsel, Alliance Francaise, the Irish Embassy, the Goethe Institute and others – whenever presenting international work.”  The only reason that more international partners did not provide sponsorship this year was because of the reduced number of international acts that could attend by virtue of travel restrictions due to COVID.

One should not ignore the fact that the Chinese government, through the state owned China Southern Airlines, was a major sponsor of the Festival from 2012 through 2020, donating around $600,000 a year. Despite the atrocities committed by the Chinese government, including the occupation and persecution of Tibetans and Uyghurs, we did not witness many calls for a boycott of Chinese sponsored events during those years.

I deeply struggle when the actions of those individuals who have taken such a strong position in support of the BDS movement with regard to the Sydney Festival and with artists who do not want to perform in Israel, when such movements conversely do not discourage international artists from appearing in Australia because of the way the Australian government and people have historically treated their indigenous population. The same organizations do not generally discourage artists from performing or participating in China because of inhumane actions that the Chinese have taken. If the BDS movement advocates support of people they claim are being treated unfairly, then shouldn’t they be discouraging Palestinians and artists from other Arab countries from performing in the United States because of the ways the United States treated Native Americans?

Next month, a documentary entitled Breaking Bread will be released in the United States. The documentary tells the story of an Arab woman who was the first winner of the 2014 Master Chef series in Israel where Arab and Jewish chefs come together to do what they love: make and eat great food. This documentary is living proof that Arabs and Israelis, Jews and Muslims, can work together and find common ground.

Often in life, politics get in the way of finding a path to peaceful solutions because those involved cannot find a way to have or begin a civilized conversation. Sometimes the solution is to start by taking small steps in a forward direction, one day at a time. We should not create barriers to this kind of collaboration via cultural or academic boycotts. Roadblocks do facilitate the kind of interaction that leads to mutual understanding and humanizes the other. If the people in this documentary can find a way to creatively work together, we all can. Theirs is an example for our all of us that our capacity for collaboration and camaraderie is indefatigable and trumps political disagreements or preconceived notions.

A number of years ago, I was invited to attend the Beirut International Film Festival to teach a master class on the “nuts and bolts” of the screen trade to young Middle Eastern filmmakers. For this, I led a discussion with individuals from across the Middle East, the United States, Iran, and Canada about how we can use the film and entertainment industries to help build bridges and find common ground.

It was a challenging decision for me to attend, not because of any concerns I had about being a Jew in Lebanon but because the festival was being held over a week that included Yom Kippur, one of the most important days in the Jewish calendar.

Given my strong desire to meet and interact with people from around the Middle East and the opportunity to lead a discussion on a topic that is near and dear to me, I made the decision to go, which resulted in one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

The master class was well attended and filled with excellent questions from a group of young filmmakers who were hungry for information about how to create a film and get it in front of an audience.

Several hours before the Kol Nidre service that would normally begin on the night before Yom Kippur, our group participated in a moving and heartfelt discussion about the importance of being willing to listen to other points of view. We had spent the day in the old city of Byblos, a coastal Mediterranean town believed to be one of the oldest continuously occupied places in the world. It was hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the beach and the surroundings where we sat.

For more than an hour of raw, genuine discussion, we questioned how it was that each of us who came from different countries, different religious backgrounds and beliefs could be sitting together as if we had been lifelong friends. Surely if we could sit there and be civilized and respectful of each other’s points of view, then others should be able to do the same.

We live in a world where there is a lot of noise, a lot of talking but not always a lot of conversation. Meaningful conversation requires an ability to not just sit and listen to someone for understanding rather than response. The mere process of listening and showing respect to another human being can build lasting friendships and move the needle closer to the place we all need to get to.

If we tell artists not to perform or not to share their art with people of other cultures and backgrounds because organizations like BDS claim that a $20,000 sponsorship for an arts festival to help bring an Israeli choreographer somehow harms their cause, then the conversations like the one I had in Beirut will not take place and the rifts will only deepen.

History has shown that over time, artists, musicians, photographers, and filmmakers have benefited from learning from their peers who are often from other parts of the world where different techniques may often be used.  Why curtail the right of someone to expand their own horizons and knowledge? If BDS or any other group continue to advocate cultural and academic boycotts, we as people will continue to be limited in our outlook and perspective.

As the sun started to set on the beach in Byblos, it was time for our group to get back on the bus, and drive to Beirut. Someone asked the question, “Where do we go from here and how do we keep this discussion progressing?” I replied as follows: “In Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, the author describes how, after he had a life-threatening accident on the mountain K2 during a rescue mission, he found himself being nurtured back to health in a remote village in Pakistan called Balti. Seeing the absence of schools in this area, Greg made it his life mission to attempt to build schools in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. While visiting a small village one day, the author was greeted by one of the village’s elders who offered him a cup of tea. The elder explained that when we meet someone new for the first time, we offer them a cup of tea, which is our culture. When we meet the same person a second time, we drink tea again, as by this time we are no longer strangers. And when we meet the same person for the third time, we drink tea together because by now we are friends.”

And so I told my new friends in the group in answer to the question, that I looked forward to our next cup of tea.

Craig Emanuel

Craig Emanuel is a Partner in the law firm of Paul Hastings, where he is the Chair of their Global Entertainment and Media Practice. He works mainly out of their Century City office in Los Angeles.

On Instagram @quillette