After previously defending their decision to schedule shows in Israel following public backlash, critically-acclaimed indie rock band Big Thief recently canceled their charity concerts in Tel Aviv. In their new statement, they backpedaled on their initial stance on ‘love beyond disagreement’, stating that,  “We now recognize the shows we had booked [did] not honor that sentiment.”  In doing so, they have aligned themselves – alongside hundreds of other artists like Rage Against the Machine, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and more – with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.

The BDS movement was founded by Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti with the aims of protesting the Israeli state’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, discriminatory laws against Palestinian citizens of Israel and its denial of Palestinian refugees’ international right to return

Without context, some might ask – is the cancellation of a concert for political reasons not considered a form of censorship? Given art’s ability to foster understanding in spite of cultural differences, many argue that art should be considered apolitical. Some have stated their belief that the cancellation of a charity concert, such as in Big Thief’s case, would be counterintuitive, hurting Palestinians who would have benefitted from some of the proceeds of the event rather than would-be Israeli concert-goers. 

It is important to note that while asking some of these questions is perfectly valid, decentering the conversation away from the reasons why people are boycotting in the first place is counter-productive, stifling serious conversation on the issue in and of itself. In spite of some of these arguments, boycotts remain a vital element of free speech that have been used for over a hundred years. Specifically, boycotts of South African goods and publicly denouncing artists who chose to play concerts in the racially segregated country were key tools for activists around the world in the 1970s and 1980s, crucially raising wider awareness for the anti-apartheid cause.

Given that Israel has been deemed an apartheid-state by a comprehensive investigative report led by Amnesty International, drawing comparison to the boycott tactics used during apartheid-era South Africa is relevant to any discussion regarding Israel and the effectiveness of the BDS movement.

The History of Apartheid and Cultural Boycotts

Apartheid, which means ‘apartness’ in Afrikaans, was a series of segregation laws enforced by the South African government from 1948 until the early 1990s that upheld an explicitly racial hierarchy of minority-white settlers over South Africa’s majority black and mixed race populations. Anyone with dark skin was treated as a second-class citizen under the law, subjected to higher policing, numerous checkpoints, reduced access to employment, education, housing and more. 

With apartheid-era South Africa collectively remembered negatively and universally condemned, the idea of apartheid existing today comes across as shocking. However, the decades-long apartheid practices in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories has been well-documented by a number of human rights groups and even the United Nations. This designation has gained traction in recent years following Amnesty International’s investigation, whose report details how “Israel imposes a system of oppression and domination against Palestinians across all areas under its control… [which] amounts to apartheid as prohibited in international law.”

Many of the previously mentioned inequalities between whites and blacks during apartheid-era South Africa exist today between Palestinians and Jewish people in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The 19th-century nationalist ideology of Zionism, which holds that Jewish settlers deserve the right to an ethnostate in historic Palestine as a Jewish homeland providing refuge from historic anti-semitic persecution in Europe, saw the violent establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 facilitated by the British colonial administration. The foundation of the Israeli state saw the displacement of the indigenous Palestinian population and the continued discrimination of those that remained until the present day. This is similar to how Dutch Afrikaner settlers displaced local populations throughout the 19th century and established the decades-long system of apartheid, a comparison echoed by renowned South African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu. Given this resemblance in circumstances, the BDS movement was formed in inspiration from the strategies of resistance used to combat segregationist policies in South Africa – namely, an academic and cultural boycott. 

Calls for an international academic and cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa were made as early as 1958 by the African National Congress. However, vested interest in the country as a valuable ally meant that many Western countries did not support anti-apartheid activism until ten years later, when the United Nations made its first resolution calling for sanctions against South Africa.  Even still, international adoption of sanctions was slow until 1980, when the UN made a binding resolution to “prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges with South Africa.” Cultural boycotts, then, were instrumental in raising broader public awareness of these issues and spurring governments to take greater action. Therefore, the BDS movement has a clear historical precedent in the effectiveness of boycotts in dismantling discriminatory, apartheid systems of law and governance. To have supported the boycott of South Africa but condemn activist calls to boycott Israel reflects an inconsistency in the discourse surrounding the issue. 

Countering Propaganda: ‘Brand Israel’ and Shaping the Narrative

The continued scheduling of concerts in Israel by major international artists like Justin Bieber and Celine Dion begs the question: why call for further cultural boycotts when most artists have already been made aware of the situation? The attention brought to criticism of these critically acclaimed artists offers an avenue to raise awareness on the apartheid practices of Israel. This is especially important given the degree of censorship that advocates for Palestinian rights face on social media as well as the misinformation that mainstream news discussion of the issue sees. Mainstream media often reports that Israel and Palestine are involved in an equal-sided “conflict”, which usually ignores the issue of discriminatory laws and illegal military occupation faced by Palestinians. Therefore, whether they decide to adhere to the boycott or not, criticizing artists commanding attention who plan to play in Israel offers much-neglected visibility on the issue of apartheid for unexposed audiences.

To this end, since 2005, a renewed effort at “recalibrating” Israel’s international perception from conflict-ridden to ‘cool’ vacation destination has been undertaken under the banner of Brand Israel. Described by Israeli politicians as an effort to ‘portray the prettier face of Israel to the world’, Israeli cultural institutions and the exportation of Israeli state propaganda in recent years have greatly contributed to the downplaying of Palestinian suffering; as Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, former Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel, put it,  “We are seeing culture as a hasbara [propaganda] tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture.” 

It is of vital importance to stress that Jewish culture is, without a doubt, worth celebrating. Nevertheless, this is not what Brand Israel aims to do  — celebrating Jewish culture is very different from celebrating and whitewashing the national culture of a country that continues to discriminate against over a third of its population and uphold an illegal military occupation. Regardless, this has seen critics of Israeli policy informed by Zionism often labeled as anti-semitic in the media to shut down discussion.

Fundamentally, not all Jews are Zionists and not all criticism of the Israeli state is anti-semitic – Jewish organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and religious groups such as the Neturei Karta exist in opposition to Zionism. It is more egregious that supporters of Zionism see it fit to associate the totality of the Jewish people and their culture(s) with the egregious human rights violations and breaking of international law that the Israeli government commits against Palestinians. 

This whitewashing of Israel and equating of its national culture with that of Jewish culture has seen discussions ignore and coverage sensor the country’s treatment of Palestinians, shooting down crticisms and attempts of dialogue with accusations of anti-semitism. One need only look at the adoption of laws in twenty-seven states of the U.S penalizing businesses’ participation in the BDS movement since 2014 to understand that the stakes are high for those trying to exercise their freedom of speech to see past the “prettier face of Israel” pushed by Brand Israel.  

Ultimately, it is these unbalanced power dynamics that provide one of the greatest reasons for cultural boycotts. The repeated attempts at silencing dissenting voices to Israeli apartheid via anti-boycott laws and discourse reflect how Palestinian voices have been tuned out of the conversation.

Boycotts and the Attack on Free Speech 

Even if they may be portrayed as counterproductive, unrelated, or, in the case of Israel, anti-semitic, principled free speech in the form of boycotts allows people on the ground to push back against Israeli apartheid that has faced few repercussions from the international community, much like how South African apartheid was tolerated for so long. Understanding the threat the existence of boycotts and the BDS movement face is important, given that the United States Supreme Court is soon slated to give a ruling on the right to boycott Israel. This would not be the first time that such measures were enforced in the U.S., with Canada and France also seeing similar bills at different times. 

By potentially outlawing any boycotts leveled against one particular state, it has become clear that most arguments against boycotts were never about the boycotts themselves, but rather their targets. To supporters of Israel’s system of apartheid, freedom of speech is only acceptable when it is used to express disapproval for the BDS movement, not when it is used to protest Israel’s violations of international law

While divestment and sanctions are actions left out of the hands of the average individual, calls for boycotts are strongly supported by historical precedent – just as the boycott of art, goods, and academia were the spark that lit the fire of positive change in South Africa, so too can they work to bring justice for Palestinians. 

Edited by Majeed Malhas

Henry Stevens

Henry is originally from Waterloo, Ontario and is currently attending UBC in Vancouver where he is completing his B.A in history with a minor in international relations. His studies focus closely on global...