The University of Cape Town recently held a panel discussion debating whether South African artists and academics should heed the call to boycott Israel. It was part of the Great Texts/Big Questions seminar series hosted by the Gordon Institute for the Performing and Creative Arts.
The Israel, Palestine and boycotts talk was supposed to have happened earlier this year, but was postponed, according to the moderator, Paula Ensor, for it to be positioned appropriately. That’s the thing about this topic, isn’t it? Merely bringing it up is controversial, and daring to take it on requires same the finesse as diffusing a hair-trigger bomb. So it was probably a good move for Ensor to warn the audience to maintain order even if they did not like what they were hearing.
South Africa and Israel are linked in ways that go beyond the contentious comparison of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the apartheid regime’s treatment of blacks.
American academic, Sasha Polakow-Suransky, uncovered documents that included secret minutes of a 1975 meeting between apartheid-era defense minister, PW Botha, and Shimon Peres, who was Israel’s defense minister at the time and is now its president. Polakow-Suransky was doing research his a book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.
The secret minutes revealed that Botha asked to buy Jericho missiles from Israel provided that the correct payload was available. Peres is said to have offered the payload in three sizes: conventional, chemical and nuclear.
The documents also revealed that the year before, in 1974, Peres had said in a letter that cooperation between the two countries was “based not only on common interests and on the determination to resist equally our enemies, but also on the unshakable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and our refusal to submit to it.”
Despite having fought to keep the documents classified, Israeli authorities told The Guardian newspaper in May 2010 that Israel has never negotiated the exchange of nuclear weapons with South Africa.
On the other side, continuing the parallel, the liberation movement in South Africa empathised with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. During a 1990 visit the United States, Nelson Mandela said, “We identify with the PLO because, like ourselves, they are fighting for the right to self-determination.” Today, however, the fates of the ANC and the PLO could not have turned out more different.
UCT’s panel discussion came after the University of Johannesburg cut formal ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University earlier this year, citing the former’s ties to the Israeli military. But UJ, despite cutting ties, announced last month that it’d be working with the Israeli university on a water-treatment project.
The panelists — artist William Kentridge, academic Andrew Nash, activist Zackie Achmat and judge Dennis Davis — disagreed on the value of a boycott, but agreeed that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories was unjustifiable.
Kentridge said that during the academic and cultural boycott movement against apartheid South Africa, “art was reduced to its most pragmatic form. Making art became a political tactic where [the artist asked], was this going to be useful for the revolution?” In this way, Kentridge said, the art disappeared.
Being part of the boycotts of the apartheid-era government has led Kentridge to believe that the best tactic for an artist is to work from within and through their craft to expose the contradictions already apparent in Israeli and Palestinian society.
The panel tried to stick to debating boycotts, but doing so without discussing the occupation proved impossible. Nash, a professor of political thought at UCT, said that the Israel-Palestine situation concerns social justice on a global scale. He said what makes it different from other situations is that the oppression of Palestinians is happening “within the auspices of democracy and due process making the version presented to the world significantly different from the reality. ”
Cape Town high court judge Davis disagreed, saying that what makes the Israel-Palestine situation different from other conflicts is that Israel faces a very real existential threat. But he said he refuses to give up the idea that Israel can live up to the Torah’s values of “justice, justice, shall you pursue. It is repeated twice because it is justice for us and justice for the other”. Davis said that if an academic boycott were to go ahead, Netanyahu and others would celebrate because gives them the opportunity to put forward legislation to shut people up.
On that Davis may have a point. Recent legislation in Israel has appeared decidedly right-wing and totalitarian. The widely criticised anti-boycott law is one such example. Under it, Israelis who participate in boycotts against Israel could face lawsuits, a $10,000 fine or both.
Davis said a boycott would isolate progressive Israelis, many of whom are found in the arts and in academic institutions. He added: “There is a moral equivalence [where] far more time is spent debating Israel and too little time debating places like Syria and Libya.”
Achmat countered, saying that the targets of the boycotts should be right-wing Israelis and institutions of the state of Israel, not progressive individuals. He said any South African academic institutions with formal collaboration agreements with Israeli institutions linked to the military should terminate the agreements.
Achmat said that individual artists and academics were free to associate with whomever they wanted. But that, Ensor said, begs whether such a boycott is effective.
Other than some heckling during Achmat’s turn, the talk, and even the lively Q&A session, was heated but orderly. Despite that, the question was not decisively answered. Kentridge and Davis stuck to their ‘no’ to boycotts, and Nash and Achmat to their ‘yes’.
Kentridge, asked on practical alternatives to boycotts, was relieved not to be in charge of having to think up of alterntives. But, he said, there is a space where alternatives evolve, where they are turned into books, music or art. And though they in themselves may not be practical alternatives, they should be defended and spread.
– Why Boycott Culture?, debate at 2011 London Literature Festival