March 29, 2010

The WEDO controversy – Hard Cases deployed to make Bad Laws

Omar Barghouti and PACBI are in an unenviably vulnerable position as the people pushing for academic and cultural boycott of Israel. This has proven to be the most controversial part of the boycott, divestment, sanctions campaign, and attacks on the campaign invariably are expressed as attacks on PACBI. The latest controversy concerns Daniel Barenboim’s orchestra (or West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - WEDO). PACBI was accused of fanaticism because of its position that this orchestra facilitated ‘normalisation’ and should be boycotted. They’ve responded here, but their critics still run with the publicly aired accusations.

This overlong (you’ve been warned) blogpost is less about the rights and wrongs of this fairly insignificant case, and more about the actions of the critics – I ask why has the WEDO case been aired with such enthusiasm.

Let us be clear about one thing. Boycotts hurt people, just as strikes do. And more than that - if boycotts didn’t hurt people, they wouldn’t be effective. If what you are doing is so bad that it causes people to boycott you – maybe you should change? This is the aspect of boycott as learning modification behaviour. There is also the even more important aspect of a boycott, in that if you damage Israel’s cultural and economic standing you impede its ability to oppress the Palestinians. If you support Palestinian resistance (non-violent resistance to boot) you force Israel to do what it has tried to avoid doing – negotiate with these Palestinians.

Nevertheless, some left-wing friends of mine argue against an economic boycott, since for these boycotts to bite, workers in Israel will be hurt somewhat. I respect this though argue against them, saying that any short-term pain that workers in Israel experience must be counterbalanced by the horrors of occupation and the urgency of the Palestinian call for boycott, the necessity of helping Palestinians fight for justice, and so on. It’s roughly the same language I use to justify strikes – sure if workers in one area of the economy strike it will damage workers in another area of the economy, but the long term gains for all outweigh the short-term pain, not to mention the need to stand in solidarity with people trying to fight for justice.

However, there is no such pain, real pain, involved in an academic and cultural boycott. This is primarily a symbolic boycott. Some Israeli musicians mightn’t have foreign gigs to go to, some academics mightn’t get the coveted invites to prestigious conferences, some universities won’t get partnership funds. But there won’t be any real hardships caused by this boycott. And yet, ironically, this might be the most effective arena for the boycott in that it affects the lifestyles of privileged elites within Israel, rather than ordinary workers. This boycott campaign is directly experienced by the decision-makers in Israel and those close to the decision-makers. For my money, prioritization of the academic and cultural boycott is obvious – it combines minimum harm with maximum effect.

Yet, this aspect of BDS also affects the lifestyles of those of us in the West privileged enough to be able to make the decision on whether or not to take part in academic links with Israel, those of us with the cultural capital to go, or not to go, to watch an Israeli orchestra or dance troupe. The academic and cultural boycott doesn’t just affect Israelis in the political field; it affects people in the West involved in the political field. This is why there has been such a push for these symbolic, cultural boycotts, as well as why there has been such resistance to this aspect of the boycott. While academics and cultural workers who support Palestine have little problem about supporting an economic boycott, as soon as the boycott comes closer to home, the excuses mount.

The most common way that I’ve found people use in order to wriggle out of the academic and cultural boycott is to come up with ‘hard cases’ – examples whereby there is some moral dilemma involved. We know the example – the noble liberal Israeli academic is wheeled out, the imaginary Israeli doctor with the cure for cancer, the orchestra that brings together Palestinians and Israelis. What I find interesting is what is not discussed – the everyday Israeli academic shrugging his shoulders at everyday apartheid in and out of academia, the actual Israeli doctor involved in torture, the way that the Israeli government increasingly uses its cultural workers as ambassadors for their apartheid country. Nor are the Palestinian experiences and their considered responses to these academics and cultural workers discussed. Instead the exceptions are wheeled out, thrown around like sand in people’s eyes.

As the old legal expression has it, ‘hard cases make bad laws’. Of course there will be de facto exceptions in a boycott, of course there will be fudge and disagreements, and of course there will be bad calls made. (For example, one issue I’m totally unclear about myself is the area of films made in Israel). The boycott is a tactic after all, not a religion. Myself, I don’t think that the WEDO decision by PACBI was a bad call, especially in light of the use by Israel of this orchestra to forward normalization (of course there are elements in Israel who oppose WEDO – but by the same argument we should all support Binjaman Nethanyahu, since there are elements in Israel who see him as a soft leftist sell-out).

More than this, I am very very wary of publicly opposing Palestinian resistance, particularly when this resistance is as effective as PACBI’s campaigning has been. Others however, are not so wary. Far from it, it is disturbing how the WEDO case, as with all the other exceptions and ‘hard cases’ are seized on delightedly both by supporters of Israel and also by those who oppose Israel, but stop short of supporting Palestinian resistance to Israel.

I do accept that some people think in total good faith that WEDO should be supported, not boycotted. It is not an obvious thing to do - to boycott an orchestra which the late Edward Said set up. I don’t want to make this some article of faith – you are with PACBI on this case, or you are against the Palestinian people. (Neither if you read their statement, does PACBI wish for this).

There will always be hard cases that people disagree on, and should be allowed to disagree on. But the highlighting of these hard cases is what interests me – I’m arguing that for some there is an element of deliberate bad faith in focusing on these hard cases. They are doing it, maybe not to make bad laws concerning boycott, but to ensure there will be no laws – that there will be no coherent boycott campaign beyond what cultured concert-goers in the West are comfortable with. This is a recipe for disaster, and if we believe in Palestinian ownership of their own struggle, it is something we can’t accept.


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