We all have our blind spots: Thoughts on Israel-Palestine and boycotts

We all have our blind spots: Thoughts on Israel-Palestine and boycotts

Paul Northup, Greenbelt’s Creative Director, writes here about how the festival is committed to standing with the growing number of artists who are signalling their support for a cultural boycott of Israel (#artistsforpalestine) …

On the eve of making our first wave of lineup announcements back in March this year, we discovered that our headline artist – Pussy Riot – had booked a gig in Tel Aviv, Israel, in May.

Mild panic set in. What would that look like?  We were booking one of the foremost arts-activist groups in the world – Pussy Riot – but they were going to be part of the normalisation of Israeli occupation that’s perpetuated as artists continue to perform in Tel Aviv. After decades of involvement in the struggle for a just peace, and equal human rights, for all those living in Israel-Palestine, this felt incredibly awkward.

Behind the scenes

We exchanged telephone calls and emails with Pussy Riot. We listened and were listened to. We learned a lot from them. We told them how this was a big deal for us – how for years and years we’d staked our mark in the UK as a space that would bring to light and champion the often-overlooked story of Palestine and the Palestinians. And Pussy Riot explained to us how to criticise Israel in their country, Russia, is almost worse than criticising Putin!

The largest proportion of the Jewish diaspora who have moved back to Israel since its establishment in 1948 have come from Russia. The un-reconstructed Zionist narrative there is all-powerful, especially in the context of the shameful history of the pogroms and the continued anti-Jewish sentiment throughout much of the 20th Century there. Just as we in western and central Europe are burdened by the shameful history of what we allowed to be done to Jews on our soil, so too Russia is haunted by its racist past.  This topic is difficult and complicated.

After much deliberation, Pussy Riot cancelled their performance of Riot Days in Tel Aviv. And they took a lot of flak for it. The club they were booked to play in – who had been playing on their progressive and tolerant credentials in booking them (“we have lots of ‘Arabs’ working here”, “this is a ‘mixed’ club”) turned on them and threatened legal action. It wasn’t an easy decision.

Although the full Pussy Riot gig was cancelled, Maria, the writer of the Riot Days book, decided to still speak at the International Writers’ Festival in Jerusalem. A combination of publisher pressure and the invite being wrapped up with images and stories of meetings with Mahmoud Abbas, and so on – the insidious portrayal of normalcy and cooperation – understandably persuaded her that this would be OK. But only days after the Writers’ Festival, the images of the massacre of civilian protestors on the Gazan border laid bare the true nature of the brutalising, occupying force of Israel.

We were privileged to talk with Pussy Riot lots about our involvement and connections with non-violent peacemakers in the West Bank – our support for cultural initiatives like the Bet Lahem Live Festival in Bethlehem and the Palestinian Music Expo (PMX) in Palestine. They were really interested and wanted to see for themselves. We said we would work with them to enable that. We were excited and proud to be playing a role in advocacy and education with the Pussy Riot collective and were impressed by how open they were to listening and to change. We hope we were reciprocating the same respect: listening and learning from them and their experiences.

But then things went quiet.

As the Russian elections drew nearer, Pussy Riot’s founder member and writer of the Riot Days book Maria found herself arrested no less than three times in two weeks for anti-government behaviour – and in court on two occasions. Understandably, we weren’t hearing from the group. They were once again fighting for their rights and freedom on their own doorstep. And so we didn’t formalise arrangements for them to go into the West Bank, meet people and see projects there – to see the ‘facts on the ground’. Sadly, we thought that the opportunity for them to see for themselves might be lost.

Behind the wall

And then, as Pussy Riot were in Jerusalem itself, they realised they had a gap in their itinerary the day before the International Writers’ Festival. Messages began arriving from Alexander, Pussy Riot’s tour manager. They wanted to go to Palestine! What could we do to help?

After a slew of calls, emails and WhatsApp messages, Wisam Salsa, the manager of Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, agreed to host them for a day and take them around Bethlehem in the West Bank. Maria, Alexander and others from the collective were taken to a refugee camp in Bethlehem. They went to the Church of the Nativity and they spent time at the Walled Off Hotel too. They texted us that evening to say how wonderful it had been and how grateful they were to have had the chance to spend time on the other side of the separation wall.

Pussy Riot has also agreed that at the festival we will return to the vexed issue of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). They have agreed to be part of a panel conversation in which we’ll look at the history of cultural boycott, remembering Sun City in South Africa, and we’ll explore its role in campaigning against and resisting the occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza.

Seeing clearly

But before that, it feels like the time has come for us to call things out and get over our collective blind spot when it comes to Israel. As Israel celebrates 70 years of its establishment, the Palestinians mark 70 years since The Nakba (The Catastrophe). It’s time to take our blinkers off and shine a spotlight on the facts on the ground in the Land once called Holy.

And this is not to take sides. In fact, to call this out is as much for the sake of the Israelis as it is for the Palestinians. A growing number of Jews around the world (such as past Greenbelt speaker Robert Cohen) have recognised that a secure Jewish future is now bound up with the need to act in solidarity with the Palestinian people

Neither is this to be anti-semitic. This is not part of that old insidious lie which sees the Jews as secretly having all the power and money in the world and our need to expose this and set them apart because of their conniving. No. This is much more simply a matter of human rights abuses in a particular place at a particular time. It is about the facts on the ground.

What this is about is standing up for equal human rights in Israel-Palestine and against illegal occupation and the inhumane blockade of Gaza.

Israel has just won the Eurovision Song Contest. It is desperate to be considered a European democracy, part of Europe, and would doubtless love to be part of the EU. Europe already has in place lucrative trade deals with Israel. Deals which rightly and importantly have at their head the undertaking that both sides agree to abide by the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. But it’s time to take these pieces of paper seriously and to call Israel out as being in flagrant denial of the convention – and therefore in breach of the trade deals.

Normalisation – and a different story 

We must not allow the actions of the Israeli state to be seen as normal. Because it is this normalising that is so quietly powerful. After all, why wouldn’t you play a gig in a progressive, liberal, European Mediterranean city like Tel Aviv? Why would you not talk to and support Israel – the only modern democracy in a sea of dictatorships and war? Especially when its neighbours are ‘terrorists’ and want to see Israel pushed into the sea. These are the normalised narratives that inform us through our media. It’s no wonder we have a blind spot when it comes to Israel.

But at Greenbelt, with the help of friends like Amos Trust and Embrace the Middle East and many others, we try to tell a different story. The smoke and mirrors, the secrets and lies… whatever clichéd phrase you want to use, we’ve got to get past this. The silencing and shame have to stop.

What we seek to do is to give a platform to the unheard stories of those fighting for peace and justice in the region. And this summer we’ll have teenage Gazan artist Malak Mattar with us, as well as Gazan Ahmed Masoud, with his latest play, The Shroudmaker.  We’re bringing artists over from the West Bank after our second trip to the PMX this spring. There will be a Palestinian flavour to our new food venue and programme at the festival. And, as we said earlier, we’ll hear from Pussy Riot about their experience in Israel-Palestine.

When I first went to Israel-Palestine in 2008, the Greenbelt/Amos Trust group I was with bumped into Mordechai Vanunu. He was under house arrest in west Jerusalem having blown the whistle on Israel’s secret nuclear programme. I was struck by just how pernicious and powerful this seeming democracy was. And I continue to be amazed at how much silencing goes on.

But we can be silent no longer. We must tell a different story. The Living Stones in Palestine have been calling to us for years now. We must do more to heed their cry for justice and human rights.

The images from the Gazan border last week were hard to bear. The most densely populated strip of land in the world has been blockaded on all sides for ten years now. The policies and containment tactics of the Israeli state have created pressure-cooker conditions there – and in the West Bank.

While the world rightly frets (but seems incapable of acting) about the proxy civil war in Syria, worries about what Iran might or might not do with nuclear capabilities, is anxious about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the catastrophe in Yemen, and watches the rise of a seeming dictatorship in Turkey … and so on … there is one state in the Middle East that seems to act with impunity. As if it were under the radar. And we were under a spell.

We – the international community – seem to have a blind spot when it comes to Israel. Or at least we refuse to see and name its actions for what they are: racist and rogue. Which is why images such as last week’s from the Gazan border are a wake-up call to us all – Israel included.

This is not normal.

Pictured: Palestinian band Tootard at GB17, first spotted at PMX in Ramallah.