Israel: on music, the Academy and the cultural boycotts

“A revolution is not just the one carrying the rifle, it is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer... Everyone struggles for their cause in the way they see fit. Today I represent Palestine.”

25 June 2013

Palestinians Celebrate the victory Mohammed Assaf in Gaza City. Demotix/Nameer Galal


Palestinians Celebrate the victory Mohammed Assaf in Gaza City. Demotix/Nameer Galal

This weekend Mohammed Assaf, a young man from a refugee camp in Gaza brought cause for celebration throughout not only his native Khan Younis, or even the rest of Gaza, but throughout the West Bank and even Jerusalem, Nazareth, and here in Haifa. Assaf, the 22 year old honey-voiced young man from Gaza won the Arab Idol competition, outbeating the two other finalists, Ahmed Jamal of Egypt and Syrian Farah Youssef of Syria in an event that drew millions of viewers from across the Arab World.  The Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas even declared Assaf, "The pride of the Palestinian and Arab nation."

I am reminded of another Arab singer, this one a young woman from Accre, named Lina Makhoul who only three months ago won a similar Israeli vocal competition, this one called the Voice. In the weeks leading up to the finalists, there was much speculation and doubt surrounding whether the hundreds of thousands of viewers in Israel would vote for a non-Jewish singer as the winner of a national competition, despite her obvious talent. When she did win with 62% of the vote over Ofir Ben Shitrit, it was met with great pride on the part of the Arab Israeli community, 1/5th of the population (1.5 million people.) Makhoul's victory carved out a space for reinvigorated discussion of the relationship between Jews and Arabs in the state and though a big element of the discussion's tone sounded a lot like the discourse in the United States when Barack Obama was elected ("Look at how far we've come"), there was also a little more room to talk about other instances of inequality, the types of stratification that made it a big deal that Makhoul is an Arab in the first place.

Her time spent volunteering for Magen David Adom (who provide emergency medical assistance) was often invoked to demonstrate her patriotism, in ways not always discussed in the context of, or implicitly demanded of other Jewish contestants. In her acceptance speech, Makhoul discussed the fact that she faced her share of racism from the general public during the season's filming, and said so in the last episode of the show, then adding, "But the majority rules, right?" to immense applause. Clearly there was a segment of the Israeli population, perhaps broader than they receive credit for, willing to accept an Arab woman as the 'voice' of the Jewish state, at least for one season.

Mohammed Assaf, following his victory on Saturday night, was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador by PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and granted a diplomatic passport - meaning he'd enjoy freedom of movement unheard of in the refugee camps. For Makhoul, however, the response was lukewarm, certainly more restrained, outside of Israel, perhaps because a lot of them didn't speak Hebrew and weren't privy to what was happening. Perhaps comparing Assaf's story with Makhoul's can tell us something about a growing cultural alienation as well. Cultural boycotts fall under the umbrella of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and are applied in the interest of putting pressure on Israel, and to bring awareness to its treatment of Palestinians, as PACBI writes, “Based on the premise that [Israeli academic and cultural] institutions are complicit in [this] system of oppression.”

It is true that culture cannot be divorced from the political circumstances in which it was created, but I don't think it's the right thing to do to artificially empower politics over cultural and academic production. At its most dangerous, the intended deafening silence by activists instead can facilitate an echo chamber of the hegemonic voices that they intend to disrupt, and this wouldn't be so important if the playing field was equal, and these voices didn't carry the hegemonic weight that they seem to internationally.

It's not to say the Israeli universities are better by virtue of their nationality, but rather a few foundational political theories used here (at the University of Haifa, where I'm studying) implicitly help turn Israel's policies towards Palestinians invisible, by placing the blame on a clash of civilizations. If the intentions of the boycotts are to bring attention to Israel's treatment of Palestinians, it stands to reason that these theories would benefit from a more critical engagement, and here is one by the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said.

They deserve to be debated, not have would-be engagers effectively silence themselves. Teaching, as one professor wrote in UC Santa Barbara, can be a revolutionary act in itself, it can illuminate the unquestioned answers that are all too often taken at face value. It is precisely because teaching, art, and culture can be political in their own way that their agency as actors of change should not be undermined by the boycotts that tend to conflate them with the status quo.

Mohammed Assaf said upon winning, “A revolution is not just the one carrying the rifle, it is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer... Everyone struggles for their cause in the way they see fit. Today I represent Palestine and today I am fighting for a cause through my art.”  Hamas, for their part, never quite warmed up the more secular cultural ambassador Mohammed Assef, but walking around Haifa (in Northern Israel) over the weekend, it was common to see people at bus stops and cafes huddling around a friend's smart phone watching his winning performance. As Mati Shemoelof and Ophir Toubul write, you never know which unexpected allies you might be attempting to shut out.

"Israeli society today cannot see its place between Beirut, Amman and Cairo. But anyone who listens to the many versions by some of Israel’s best singers (Sarit Hadad, Omer Adam, Maor Adri and many others) will discover that they regularly release covers of Arabic songs in Hebrew. There exists today a contemporary Israeli culture that is effectively in dialogue with a contemporary Arab culture, but no one speaks about it openly."

Instead of attempting to quash the dialogue, let's recognize cultural production for its transformative potential.

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