15 September 2021

The Cultural Boycott of Israel: Everything you need to know

Just like the cultural boycott of South Africa, the cultural boycott of Israel is being called for by the oppressed people who live there, in this case, Palestinians. Learn more about the boycott and why it matters. 

The cultural boycott of Israel is a global campaign that asks artists and consumers of art not to support Israel until it complies with international law. It does not target artists according to their nationality, ethnicity, beliefs or art. Its goal is to not allow Israel to use art to help people forget about the atrocities taking place in its occupied territories. 

This explainer gives a quick summary of key questions you might have about the boycott. Read on to learn more. 

What does “cultural boycott” mean (and why does it matter)?

Boycotts are a voluntary, non-violent way for regular people to hold powerful people, companies and countries accountable for their actions. Boycotts usually include intentionally avoiding products, services and events because of moral reasons or as an act of solidarity. 

A cultural boycott is when artists and cultural practitioners of all kinds refuse to take part in any activity in the country that is being boycotted. It also calls consumers of art not to support events or consume art that is sanctioned by, or furthers the goals of, the state being avoided.

A well-supported cultural boycott sends the message that the behaviour of a state is not okay. It refuses to normalise human rights abuses, and forces those in power to acknowledge their actions, even when international organisations refuse to. 

What was the cultural boycott of South Africa?

It’s easy to forget that the apartheid government of South Africa once enjoyed the support of many international governments. Yet by the 1980s the world’s governments turned against apartheid and imposed sanctions.

Normal individuals across the world drove this turnabout by supporting (South Africa’s liberation party) the ANC’s calls for a boycott of cultural institutions. By 1980, the United Nations accepted that “the racist regime of South Africa [was] using cultural, academic, sports and other contacts to promote its propaganda for the inhumane policies of apartheid” (source). 

Read: Boycotts and sanctions helped rid South Africa of apartheid – is Israel next in line?

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How Israel weaponises culture 

Cultural exchange is about sharing traditions, ideas and art with someone that is different from you. At the heart of cultural exchange is the assumption that both groups and their culture are equally important. However, this is not the case with Israel and Palestinians.

Erasure of Palestinian Culture

Israel does not want cultural exchange. Instead, it wants to systematically destroy Palestinian culture through the suppression of cultural activities and the destruction of books, art and structures. 

The cultural erasure of Palestinians is part of Israel’s wider campaign of ethnic cleansing: through the erasure of the Palestinian past, Israel can further the myth that the region was a “land without a people for people without land”. 

Read: Undoing Erasure: What the 4,000-Year History of Palestine Tells Us

Here are a few examples of actions committed by Israel to erase Palestinian heritage:

Image of quote by Israeli scholar Git Amit. The quote reads "The ruin of Palestinian culture is the birth moment of a new Israeli consciousness, based not only on erasing the Palestinians’ presence, but also on erasing their culture".

Quote by Git Amit from “The Looting of Palestinian Culture”.

Brand Israel and Mythmaking

Israel uses art as a tool to hide its war crimes and rehabilitate its image. This is a formal strategy of the Israeli government known as “Brand Israel”. The campaign uses well-known artists to reposition Israel as a progressive Western democracy rather than a occupying settler state guilty of crimes against humanity. 

Examples of Brand Israel’s actions to change its image are:

  • Gifting celebrities like Demi Lovato  and NFL players all expenses paid trips to Israel
  • Israeli artists who receive funding from the state must work as cultural ambassadors that promote a positive image of Israel, but must also keep this fact secret. 
  • Launching a $1million campaign in Toronto promoting Israeli medical research and innovations

Why single out Israel?

Infographic designed by Al Jazeera detailing the loss of Palestinian land from 1917 - 2020.

Image courtesy of Al JazeeraYou might ask yourself, “why single out Israel”? Many other countries are built on the backs of genocide, are occupying land which is illegal under international law, or are guilty of egregious human rights violations. The answer? Because Palestinians are asking us to. Because unlike many other countries guilty of gross human rights abuses, Israel’s crimes against humanity go unacknowledged by western powers. 

Did you know: During apartheid in South Africa, people argued South Africa shouldn’t be singled using the same arguments Israel uses today. Take a look at this op-ed from 1989 to see the parallels.

Is the boycott Anti-Semitic? 

Anti-Semitism is a real and serious problem that is growing in some countries. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is an anti-racist movement that stands against all forms of discrimination. We distinguish between Jewish people and Israeli institutions: all we ask is for the state of Israel to follow international law and stop violating the rights of Palestinians. Demanding that a state observe human rights is not Anti-Semitic. 

Some critics of the cultural boycott cite the Holocaust as a reason to support the Israeli state. The unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust should never be forgotten. But no amount of pain and suffering justifies oppressing someone else. 

The argument that boycotting Israel is Anti-Semitic relies on the assumption that Israeli state and Jewish people are interchangeable. BDS does not support this idea. The cultural boycott of Israel is the cultural boycott of institutions, not of Jewish culture. 

Do cultural boycotts work?

There is no way to know if cultural boycotts really work because it’s difficult to measure. Even now, scholars can’t agree if the cultural boycott of South Africa helped change the course of history. 

However, there are other intangible benefits of cultural boycotts that should not be overlooked. Cultural boycotts:

  • Bring awareness to people who otherwise might have remained ignorant.
  • Help change hearts and minds. 
  • Stigmatise the institutions the institutions being boycotted
  • Are an act of solidarity with the oppressed group

Examples of cultural boycotts

The most famous example of a cultural boycott was the “Don’t Play Sun City” campaign against the South African apartheid regime. Sun City was the premiere location for concerts in South Africa, hosting international performers like Frank Sinatra and Queen. To stigmatise playing in South Africa, several artists, including U2, Bruce Springsteen and Miles Davis joined forces to record a song with lyrics including “Our government tells us we’re doing all we can / Constructive engagement is Ronald Reagan’s plan / Meanwhile people are dying and giving up hope / Well this quiet diplomacy ain’t nothing but a joke / We’re gonna say / I Ain’t gonna play Sun City”.

The song was successful in bringing awareness to the cultural boycott of South Africa. Following its release, other artists penned their own songs and concerts were held to support anti-apartheid efforts. 

Notable examples of supporters of the cultural boycott of Israel are:

  • Elvis Costello,singer-songwriter 
  • Lorde, singer-songwriter
  • Nigel Kennedy, violinist 
  • Iain Banks, author 
  • Emma Thompson, Oscar-winning actress 
  • Eyal Sivan, Israeli film director
  • Seth Rogen, comedian and actor

How to support the cultural boycott of Israel

The cultural boycott of Israel does not target individual artists according to their nationality, beliefs or art. You should boycott events sponsored by institutions supportive of Israel, e.g. the Israeli state, Israeli institutions and companies that benefit from the occupation like Puma and HP

As an artist, here are steps you can take to support the cultural boycott:

    • Not performing for exhibiting in Israel. This includes not performing in any Israeli institution for any reason. 
  • Rejecting any prize, commission, or residency offer in Israel
  • Supporting individuals and organisations that are explicitly opposed to Israeli occupation. 

Further Reading

To learn more about cultural boycotts, check out these resources:

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