Demotix/Mark Kerrison. All rights reserved.Recently 150 authors, artists, academics, journalists and politicians signed a letter which appeared in The Guardian (22 October) announcing an initiative to foster “dialogue about Israel and the Palestinians in the wider cultural and creative community”.
The Culture for Coexistence campaign was established in response to a letter which previously appeared in The Guardian (13 February) signed by some 700 artists which called for a complete cultural boycott of Israel, “until Israel respects international law and ends its colonial oppression of the Palestinians”. So while one side argues for “open dialogue and interaction (to) promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance”, the other rejects this business-as-usual approach opting instead to isolate Israel in order to force political change.
Within days a similar rift opened up within the academic community. On 27 October some 330 UK academics took out a full page advertisement in The Guardian stating they would not participate in any way with Israeli academic institutions although they would continue to work with Israeli colleagues in their individual capacities until Israel complies with international law and respects universal principles of human rights. In response Jewish Human Rights Watch took out a full page advertisement in the same newspaper deploring the move (30 October). Under the heading, “An Academic Boycott of the Jews is Not a New Idea” JHRW point to what it evidently sees as a similar move, beginning in 1933, to boycott and ultimately purge Jewish academics from German universities with the help of intellectuals like Martin Heidegger and others.
Boycotts, it seems, can only buy political effectiveness at the cost of discriminating against Israel by singling it out for sanction with all the attendant dangers this seems to pose. On the other hand, by abandoning discrimination altogether and thus forfeiting any realistic prospect of meaningful change we condemn the Palestinians to an endlessly deferred future. If the Culture for Coexistence campaign is likely to go nowhere in the short and medium term, are there grounds for justifying boycotting Israel and even subjecting it to a programme of disinvestment and sanctions (BDS)?
Boycotts demonstrate, in ways that no other form of non-violent action is able to, that Israel cannot be isolated or exempted from the consequences of its own actions.
BDS has been a live issue for some time provoking considerable discussion and debate both for and against. Objections have centred on what appears to be an essential inconsistency in singling Israel out in this way although I have to say that these objections have been effectively answered by Lorna Finlayson, Martin Shaw and others. My purpose here is not to continue this debate or evaluate the case for cultural cooperation, which is anyway quite weak in my view and even counter-productive. Even those initiatives that agree to disagree about politics in the vain hope that something better will come along as a result of their actions only make a bad situation worse by providing tacit support to the regime. What follows is an attempt to make a case for BDS by other means.
When Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed in an address to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem on 20 October that the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini had suggested the genocide of the Jews to Adolf Hitler in 1941 it was noteworthy not because it has no basis in fact, but because it tells us about the centrality of Jewish history to the mind-set of the political leadership in Israel.
For the Israeli writer David Grossman, the traumas of Jewish history and the Holocaust figure so significantly in Netanyahu’s mind and consciousness they dam up the present behind the past, causing it to become stagnant, fetid and looming with danger as a consequence. For Grossman, “Skilfully, with sharp flashes of rhetoric and overwhelming powers of persuasion, (Netanyahu) has learned how to snare the majority of the Israeli population within a labyrinth constructed of echoes and the true facts of reality”. When Netanyahu recently compared the EU’s modest proposal to label products from illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories to Nazi-era policies—“We remember history and we remember what happened when the products of Jews were labelled in Europe”—it illustrates very well his ability to mix and stir, “the true dangers facing Israel with the echoes of Holocaust traumas”.
Netanyahu has become trapped by a past which always offers him a route to the moral high-ground as a kind of bargaining tool in his dealings with the rest of the world. As the admonishing tone of his pronouncements make clear—one only needs to think about his various addresses to the UN General Assembly over the years—the habit of speaking almost exclusively from the position of moral rectitude represented by his superego has become second nature. But since the superego is a voice which haunts the subject and finds it guilty, so Netanyahu, as with all those who think as he does, cannot escape feeling somehow implicated in and responsible for the traumas of Jewish history which otherwise act as a moral yardstick in every assessment of the present.
Netanyahu even admits this guilt when he refers to the heavy price of silence in the days when the Jewish community (ostensibly) remained passive in the face of genocide. Slavoj Žižek recounts those survivors of the Holocaust who were driven to suicide by unbearable feelings of guilt because they believed they had survived at the expense of others and were thus in some way responsible for their deaths. For Žižek, “This displays the agency of the superego at its purest: as the obscene agency which manipulates us into a spiralling movement of self-destruction”.
Caught up in the guilt and shame of a superego bent on self-destruction, Israel, in a rage, can only displace this self-destructive urge and turn it outwards onto the hapless Palestinians. According to the logic of Lacan’s account, in a world of unlimited guilt which has consequently nothing to do with moral conscience, the superego becomes an anti-ethical agency which generates an excessive and properly traumatic form of sadistic jouissance. How else could we explain the grotesquely disproportionate attacks on a virtually defenceless Gaza—referred to sickeningly by the Israeli military as, “mowing the lawn”—except in terms of what Žižek describes as, “a violent intrusion that brings more pain than pleasure” carried out, “as a kind of weird and twisted ethical duty”?
In any assessment of BDS’s justification and efficacy we have to understand that Israel is an internally divided society that conforms to Žižek’s distinction between two groups: those whose innocence with regard to the obscene criminal power that has been exercised over them in the past is proof, they believe, of their guilt in being complicit with this power; and those dissident artists, writers, intellectuals, and human rights activists who, because they have thrown off the burden of history, refuse to confine their reasoning to the cloistered and inward-looking domain of the nation-state. In the absence of effective international law (long ago commandeered by the US for its own strategic purposes), boycotts organised from within civil society together with disinvestment and sanctions demonstrate, in ways that no other form of non-violent action is able to, that Israel cannot be isolated or exempted from the consequences of its own actions. BDS will strengthen the hand of the dissidents and the Palestinians who first proposed the initiative.
It may be a tendency of states to submit the crimes of their enemies to detailed critique and high-minded condemnation while steadfastly refusing to turn their gaze upon themselves, as Noam Chomsky has argued, but it is the extent of this one-sidedness in Israel’s case that requires further explanation.
For Israel the world has ceased to exist except as a projection of its own superego view of it. Factual reality has become so much ‘stuff’ to be processed by a mechanism that can then, as Grossman says, “change…the condition of occupation and oppression to one of persecution and victimhood”. Palestinians have become players in a drama of someone else’s making. In this drama whatever can be offered in their defence cannot be prevented from being manipulated into its opposite. The more the Palestinians are innocent the more they are guilty, because their innocence itself with regard to the obscene criminal power of the superego, is proof of their guilt.
It then remains for the state to blindly rationalise what has always already been decided. We need hardly comment on the rationalisations themselves—always flimsy and sometimes ludicrous and even comical, they convince no-one. In these circumstances only BDS can open the door to that other world beyond the parallel, hermetically-sealed universe that Israel has become.