Cultural Boycott in History + Context

Kareem Estefan, Carin Kuoni and Laura Raicovich (editors), Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production. New York/London: OR Books, 2017. 272pp. $18/£14 paperback.

The struggle for Palestinian rights is central to radical politics today. The fight for BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions)’ is the sharp end of this. The fury seen in the media and by most politicians as well as the huge sums spent by the Israeli state in countering BDS suggests a movement gaining in momentum

This, of course, is not the first campaign against a racist apartheid state in recent history. The successful movement against apartheid in South Africa set a template for such boycotts. Nor is the campaign to impose BDS, the only boycott in town. The last few years have seen a remarkable surge in the use of such tactics against art institutions and events that receive corporate or governmental support tied to politics that exhibiting artists find objectionable.

The new collection of essays, Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, Cultural Production, is therefore welcome. As an activist in London Palestine Action, who were central to the (unsuccessful) attempt to pressure Radiohead not to play in Israel, I approached this book with enthusiasm.

The origin of this collection lay in a series of seminars and programmes at the Vera List Centre for Art and Politics at the New School in New York in 2014 and a subsequent colloquium.

The book thus is a handbook and guide for activists. As the foreword pronounces, “the essays shed light on boycotts as cultural work and unpack their motivations (why a boycott), practices (how a boycott), and consequences (what effect does a boycott create).” 

Kareem Estefan’s introduction is very clear:

…art does not transcend the political conditions under which it is exhibited… We recognise that boycotts are a condition of our time and that our work is affected by them and that our work as cultural practitioners is affected by them regardless of whether or not we endorse a particular campaign. In this context, we wish to suggest that acts of boycott are often beginnings and not ends, that they frequently generate challenging and productive discussions rather than shutting down dialogue.

Beyond Sun City – BDS + Apartheid South Africa

The book begins with a series of pieces on the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa. The opening essay by Sean Jacobs provides an overview. Initially the boycott was aimed at the economic and military ties of the apartheid regime but the African National Congress (ANC) eventually became convinced of the power of a cultural boycott and involved exiled musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba in building mass solidarity across the world. The aim was to convince actors and musicians not to perform in South Africa, in particular in Sun City, the holiday and gambling resort in one of the Bantustans, Bophutswana. Although some musicians did break the boycott, it became a major public debate after the hugely important music video ‘Sun City’ was released in 1985 featuring a wealth of musical styles and an amazing roster of musicians including Afrika Bambaataa, Miles Davis, Big Youth, Reuben Blade, George Clinton, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed.

Hlonipha Mokoena’s valuable essay ‘The revolution was not televised; it announced itself in song’ deals with some of the contradictions that emerged in the campaign. The cultural boycott was aimed at all musicians irrespective of whether they were privileged white South African musicians or black ones. This meant that anti-apartheid musicians weren’t allowed to perform outside the country unless they went into exile, and they gained little international exposure. In fact, they were necessarily dependent on the state controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) for any airplay. It did mean however that such artists had to pitch their music to a local audience, out of local traditions. This eventually created ‘myriad surprising’ counter-cultures. Of course, this did fit in with the cultural policy of the apartheid regime which wished to create a multiplicity of segregated musical cultures based on invented ‘tribal’ and racial divisions. Thus, the cultural boycott was an ambiguous tool seen from a local perspective. This was complicated by the fact that state censorship meant that many black South Africans had little knowledge of the cultural boycott to begin with!

One very visible aspect of this was the furore over Paul Simon’s Graceland album. Simon went to South Africa to record his album with a host of black musicians but this of course was a breaking of the boycott despite, Hugh Masekela’s support for the project. Certainly, Simon was naïve, but it did raise serious issues about who the boycott was meant to harm. 

In contrast, John Peffer in his essay on two schools of artistic practice amongst South African opponents of apartheid suggests one instance of a very different outcome to this question. One of these two approaches, Thupelo, (‘teach by example’ in Sotho) ran a series of art workshops in Johannesburg linked to a similar one in New York City.  These provided local South African artists, many of whom had never had access to a studio or sufficient materials with an opportunity to experiment with abstract art. What is astonishing is that the ANC gave a special dispensation to Thupelo to ignore the boycott as artists from outside South Africa were allowed to attend their workshops and black South African artists from Thupelo went to the USA. Peffer does suggest that the probable reason for this was that some of the artists had close links with the ANC’s upper ranks and were activists in the movement themselves

It is clear that the BDS movement has used the legacy of the cultural boycott in South Africa to campaign for musicians to boycott Israel. Some like Elvis Costello have done so, but it is a battle being fought artist by artist. Furthermore, given that we have not yet reached the ‘South African moment’, it is not surprising that the boycott arguments do not always win as we have seen with Nick Cave and Radiohead. However, BDS within Israel/Palestine has only been directed at Jewish Israeli musicians with funding from the state and ties to the regime, it has not included Palestinian citizens of Israel or those living in the occupied territories.

What none of these essays mention is the fact that the cultural boycott’s peak coincided with the huge township rebellions and strike waves of the ‘80s. Boycott and mass action went hand in hand. Sadly, Palestinians do not have the economic power that the black South African working class has. 

Between the 3 essays on South Africa and the section on BDS, the book takes a sharp swerve. Instead of analysis we get a drama, in the form of a memoir by Frank B. Wilderson III that illuminates the terrain of apartheid South Africa in its dying days.

A group of men and women, gangsters, nurses, students and the narrator drive to a party in the gangster’s house. Outside the house, there are 2 white Afrikaner cops with guns threatening them. Weapons are pulled out in the car too. A tense situation. The cops turn tail and drive off.

Inside the party there is drama of a different kind. Political arguments develop, and the women go off into the kitchen. Well not all, a young woman student Khanya, argues for a mortgage strike alongside the rent strikes that have been going on for over a year, arguing that it will hit the bourgeoisie more. On the other hand, the gangster (who interestingly only became a gangster after the regime prevented him becoming a dentist – having been trained in the US) argues that the problem with black men in the states is that they can’t control ‘their women’. Khanya challenges his sexist shit and the narrator, who teaches Fanon, attempts to trump Richard by teacherly games citing ‘Wretched of the Earth’.

The argument then takes a 180 degree turn. The narrator contends that they must get Mandela released as quickly as possibly. Everybody is in agreement. Then he insists ‘we have to hope he then dies quickly of natural causes’. The atmosphere becomes knife edge. The problem is liberalism he continues, Mandela will sell us out to Anglo-American capital. He will oppose the rent strikes and the escalation of struggle. He will make South Africa safe for the world system. His audience, angrier by the minute, thinks he is calling for Mandela to be assassinated. They are involved in game changing struggles, confronting apartheid’s forces of death yet they still believe in the unity of the ‘nation’ and Mandela is the symbol, and the embodiment of this.

But we know 30 years later the narrator was prophetic (although his alternatives themselves are way too timid). The post-Apartheid South Africa would be a neoliberal one. 

One of the ironies of this piece is that it is not about the Cultural Boycott, but a literary piece that contains more insight into the politics of fighting Apartheid than the previous two essays. 

BDS Today in Israel 

The second section focuses on the BDS movement today. Noura Erakat’s article is the key piece which sets the context for the BDS movement in Israel/Palestine. The piece comes from a speech made in 2015 presenting us with a sharp analysis of BDS and its roots in the reality of Israel/Palestine. BDS emerged out of the political vacuum created by the collapse of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation into the Palestine Authority. This was the immediate consequence of the Oslo accords which allowed the Israelis to further fragment the Palestinian population. Gaza was turned into a ghetto and the West Bank was divided into 3 administrative areas with the wall further fragmenting the enclosed population. Settlement building and the number of settlers in the West Bank accelerated dramatically. In Jerusalem, Palestinians are in an even more precarious situation and this is likely to worsen over the coming period as Israel has just passed a law making the right to live in Jerusalem depend on loyalty to the Jewish state. The Palestinian Authority has become a facilitator of the worsening situation. During the 2008-9 onslaught on Gaza, Israel was able to deploy its troops from the West Bank to the besieged enclave knowing that the PA would keep order and prevent any protests or resistance to the horrendous massacre. The Palestinian leadership now acts as the prison guard for their own population.


It is in this context that BDS emerged, out of Palestinian civil society and gaining support from trade unions, anti racist organisations, religious groups and Jewish organisations around the world. Although the BDS call is based on a civil and human rights agenda it is stigmatised by the Israeli state as anti-semitic, and a threat to the very existence of Israel. This is because it threatens to alter the demographic balance inside Israel making the existence of a ‘Jewish state’ untenable. This question of demography, of the balance between Jews and non-Jews in Israel, has been at the heart of Israeli practice since the Nakba. In order to preserve the race-based discrimination that privileges Jews at all levels constantly, the state seeks to push out Palestinians from their society. (Thus, the latest law on Jerusalem). But the BDS call threatens first to undo all the imposed divisions of Palestinian society that Israel has created since 1948 and through the demand for the Right of Return of the refugees to transform Israel/Palestine to one in which a racially exclusive society is impossible.

BDS upturns the endless liberal call for dialogue by showing the conflict is one between a powerful militarised state and an oppressed colonial population, not one between two equal sides. The point is made that Israelis never have to learn anything about Palestinian history, culture or daily life. Segregation and urban planning means there are few shared spaces or experiences. Palestinians are unseen. This became clear to me when I was departing Ben Gurion airport after a trip to the West Bank in December 2017. One of my companions a young woman from a British Libyan background was subject to abuse from the border authorities. When she spoke to Israelis about it, their response ‘we have never experienced this’, ‘we have never witnessed it’. Israeli Jews live in a bubble, just as white South Africans did.

But still Erakat’s piece concludes with a call for dialogue, albeit one based on breaking through the lies and collaborative resistance between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. This seems to me to be missing the point. The allies of the Palestinians will never be Israeli Jews, apart from a tiny minority. The allies of the Palestinians reside in the people supporting BDS around the world, and especially the mass of Arab workers in the Middle East who have a vested interest in breaking Zionism and their own rulers who cooperate with the Israeli regime. In the context of the defeat of the Arab revolutions this seems far fetched but the sheer weight of repression particularly in Egypt and Syria indicates the fear amongst the ruling classes of the whole region.

Erakat’s piece is followed by a great interview with Eyal Weizman, the radical Israeli architect. He argues that for people living in Israel/Palestine, BDS cannot be what it is elsewhere, where it is a civil action aiming to rupture ties with Israel and with those western governments who support the settler state.

For people living closer to the ground the movement must be about breaking with institutions that serve the apparatus of domination such as Israeli universities. They are not simply seats of learning, they exclude Palestinian students, and their research and development projects mean they build on and benefit from, the violence against the Palestinians. But they also function as legitimisers of injustice, as head fixers for Israeli colonialism.

But just as important is the need to ‘find new forums for solidarity and cultural production’. Weizman argues that the movement inside Israel needs to create its own universities and art spaces that can become ‘sites of co-resistance’, that can open-up roads to self-expression and cultural production. Far from BDS being about shutting things down, BDS needs to be a mechanism for opening arguments and debate. This must be on an egalitarian basis despite all the barriers placed in the way by the Zionist state.

For Weizmann BDS isn’t just a weapon against Israeli colonialism, but a challenge to all Western governments and their political classes. At the same time the US and Europe are starting to mirror Israel. Israel now looks like a ‘pioneer in the management of unwanted refugees, the poor and the dispossessed’. Its leaders are now saying to Europe ‘you can do what we have done.’ And, of course, we see the rise of right wing movements in Europe and the States some of which are in government that emulate just that. It is in this sense that we can interpret the cartoon (painted on the Wall in Bethlehem) where Trump is telling the Israelis that he is building them a brother on the Mexican border.

Weizmann too insists that the demand for the refugees’ return is a demand for decolonisation. The coming home of the displaced will mean the demography of Israel will be utterly upended, it will no longer be an ethnocracy. People, both Palestinian and Israeli Jews will have to find a new way of living and working together. That is why the Israelis and all their friends are so utterly hostile to it (ironically, a later piece by Yazan Khalili unconvincingly suggests the Zionist state could coexist with the refugees’ return).

There is also a short but valuable piece by Nasser Abourahame which deals with objections to BDS by some pro-Palestinian activists such as Norman Finkelstein. It is then followed by a rather perverse essay by Joshua Simon who sees the BDS campaign as a capitulation to neoliberalism. He applies Naomi Klein’s notion of ‘disaster capitalism’ seeing the settler state as a ‘war state’ whose means of money making is dependent on ‘military occupation, siege, separation, and surveillance, with regular outbreaks of war’. BDS for him, is aiming to merely shame investors and business into pulling out of Israel reflecting the weakness of Palestinians. I think this is way too pessimistic and doesn’t have purchase on the way BDS is felt and experienced by activists. The call for BDS came from the heart of Palestinian civil society. It also underestimates the strategic goals of BDS. Rather than making big business suddenly go cuddly, the power in the BDS movement lies in shifting the public debate and pointing out the institutional and economic support that global capital is providing Israel. Its greatest success has been among trade unionists, students and faith groups. This gives confidence to Palestinians to keep resisting and to feel less isolated. Further Joshua mourns BDS as the collapse of a common Jewish-Arab political project. But this never existed, the Israeli Jewish working class is dependent on the Zionist state for its sheer existence and standard of living. It is a settler working class just as white workers in apartheid South Africa were or the French Algerian working class before independence.

Ariella Azoulay’s piece (which strangely opens the Palestine section) is about Jewish Israelis and BDS. She accurately describes Jewish citizens of Israel as thoroughly implicated in the oppression of Palestinians. Their very state was created on the destruction of Palestinian society, its villages, towns and through ethnic cleansing. And this did not stop in 1948 but has continued into the present necessitating Israeli Jews to live in a state of collective blindness.  She argues the call for BDS, allows Israeli Jews to have ‘the right not to be perpetrators’, to reject the myths and massacres the state is built on and to begin the process of finding a new way of living together, a new citizenship. But other than wishful thinking she does not provide a way that this could happen (other than for the tiny minority of anti-Zionist Israeli Jews), since Jewish Israelis’ stake in the system is a result of the deep integration of ideology and material interests that has taken place. The tissues of lies and myths they inhabit, reflects their real existence and their comfortable lives as settlers in a colonial society.

Later on in the book there is another gem on Israel/Palestine in Ann Laura Stoler’s speech to the American Anthropological Association in 2014. It is unfortunate that this has been tucked towards the end of the book as it would have made a fitting introduction to the whole section on BDS today. 

This excoriates those who have ‘learned ignorance’ when it comes to the oppression of Palestinians. It is too dangerous, you might cut yourself off from friends and family, or lose your job as well as suffering relentless abuse from trolls. You end up believing that to give Palestinians rights means betraying the victims of the holocaust. [She is addressing anthropologists, a discipline that began as an agent of colonialism but has developed a stronger self-critical approach since the 1960s and Vietnam.] Yet for Palestine. we suspend ‘our’ “analytical tools [that] we have honed in our craft”. That is still off limits – we are ‘progressive except on Palestine’. 

 By pointing out how tools of analysis honed in other struggles against imperialism are dropped in the case of Palestine, Stoler provides an effective starting point for the whole debate.  As a reader  I couldn’t help but think about Syria, because the title of the speech ‘why we say we don’t know enough’ is the line you get from even some supporters of Palestinian rights when it comes to Assad’s onslaught on the Syrian revolution.  It shows the pervasiveness and continued vigilance against ‘contrived ignorance.’

Wider Debates 

The third part of the book moves on to wider debates. Is free expression in the highest interest of society? How do structural inequalities impact who can speak? How do we consider historical and current power dynamics in the context of free speech? How does silence, or refusal to participate, play into this analysis? Can privileged groups hide behind arguments of free expression to supress other voices? Who can speak for whom? Who determines what must be protected as free speech, and what must be rejected as hate-speech?

Tania Bruguera, a Cuban artist writes illuminatingly about her stormy relationship with the officialdom of this surviving Stalinist regime. She then discusses cultural boycotts suggesting a world of difference between a rock star who goes to perform and an artist who through her work challenges the regime and opens a debate with the audience. But if you take this argument and apply it to Israel, it doesn’t have legs. Exhibiting in an art space in Israel, in however critical a manner, will do nothing to provide solidarity with Palestinians, many of whom would not be able attend because of the complex pass laws. It would reinforce the notion that Israel is part of the ‘western liberal world’. 

Svetlana Mincheva accepts that many ‘progressive’ cultural institutions still suffer from persistent institutional racism and discrimination. However, she is critical of boycotts because institutions panic, resulting, she claims, in the shutting down of controversial events rather than allowing a debate to flourish. She suggests it is those with the loudest voices who get their way, suggesting there is a ‘mobocracy’ operating through social media. Online petitions are the same – just undemocratic ‘cybermobs’.

Now she is correct that demands for censorship at the level of symbols are a far cry from changes to reality, or that cultural appropriation is a very grey area. But there are times when direct action is necessary. The case of the LD50 Nazi-run art gallery in Dalston, London was a case in point. This was a threat to the local community.  It had to be shut down – and was.

The final chapters of the book deal with recent campaigns against art institutions. Naeem Mohaiemen, Chelsea Haines, and jointly Mariam Ghani and Haig Alvazian in separate essays deal with the lengthy struggle of the artist led Gulf Labor Coalition (GLA) and of its direct action spinoff the ‘Global Ultra Luxury Faction’ (GULF). These organisations have effectively forced the Guggenheim to provide decent wages and conditions for its workers building its Abu Dhabi franchise. The defenders of the Guggenheim repeated all the tired clichés that we know so well from supporters of Israel. ‘You don’t know the realities on the ground’, ‘Why are you only speaking about the gulf when labor exploitation is a problem at building sites around the world?’. ‘Why aren’t you out protesting about Tibet or Darfur?’. As Naeem says ‘defiance is welcome when it is sanctioned and staged as art’ but not when it takes the form of agitation for workers’ rights. Suddenly arguments about abhorrent labor conditions, substandard housing, poor wages and exorbitant recruitment fees become ‘Orientalism’ – imposing western conceptions on very different societies.

Chelsea Haines in what is one of the most useful and interesting chapters discusses other artist boycotts too. These include partially successful campaigns against the Sydney Biennale (also the subject of an essay by Nathan Gray and Ahmet Ogut) over its links with Transfield Holdings, the company that runs Australia’s horrendous offshore detention centres for refugees and the boycott by the vast majority of artists and collectives showing at the San Paulo Biennial over sponsorship by the Israeli consulate in the city. The predictable response of the institutions  is that art is intrinsically progressive, but Chelsea Haines dwells on Azoulay’s concept discussed above of the ‘right not to be a perpetrator’ – we don’t want to be complicit in systems of abuse, ‘acts of refusal are necessary’. 

Concluding comments 

Acts of refusal and not wanting to be complicit pretty much sums up the best aspects of this collection of essays. But there are limitations. This stems from the fact that the two sorts of boycotts debated: those against states and those against art institutions are very different. The former is a long-haul fight against an enemy that has billions of dollars at its disposal as well weapons of mass destruction, whereas the latter is a targeted campaign confronting an institution which, whatever defenses it does have, does not have bombs and assault weapons. Nowhere in the book are these qualitative differences compared. Instead they are presented simply as a ‘series’. 

In the end, despite some excellent articles, the book is less than the sum of its parts. There are way too many essays and often they are far too brief. The only real dialogue is through page proximity rather than direct engagement between writers and artists. So as a handbook or strategic guide for staging cultural boycotts it is flawed despite several terrific and helpful texts within its pages. 

Somehow it seemed fitting that the collection ends with a delightful discussion of the transformation of the Indian telephone system since independence. I think its meant as a metaphor but it also testified to the incoherence of the book when taken as a whole.

Neil Rogall has been a pro-Palestinian activist based in London for half a century. He is an activist with London Palestine Action and is rediscovering his roots with the radical Jewish diaspora group Jewdas. He recently had a pamphlet, Israel: The Making of a Racist State, published by rs21, of which he is a member.