Opinion //

What’s in a boycott?

Cultural boycotts play a fundamental role in anti-colonial struggles.

Last week, acclaimed Irish author Sally Rooney made headlines when she refused to sell the translation rights of her latest novel Beautiful World, Where Are You to an Israeli publisher, citing the Palestinian-led movement Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) as the reason. The controversial decision attracted criticism and outrage from Zionists.

Pro-Israel advocates and many media outlets accused Rooney of being “anti-Semitic,” framing her decision as a refusal to publish the book in Hebrew. A statement released by Rooney, however, clarified that she would be ‘honoured’ to have it translated into Hebrew, but with a publisher compliant with BDS. According to Rooney herself, the Israeli publishing house Modan which offered to translate Rooney’s novel “does not publicly distance itself from apartheid.”

Political boycotts have historically been utilised as a popular strategy to advocate for political and humanitarian causes. A successful example was the political, economic and cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, modelled on the South African anti-apartheid boycott campaign, was created in 2005 as a call by Palestinian civil society to exert international pressure onto Israel to end its occupation and human rights abuses against Palestinians. While many support BDS in principle, it still holds a controversial position amongst those who support Israel.

Many liberal supporters of Israel tend to be supportive of economic boycotts of settlements in the occupied West Bank but oppose non-economic boycotts against Israeli institutions. They often argue that boycotting the state itself is counter-productive and does not help Palestinians. This argument fails to understand that a state’s power extends beyond economic means, and cultural institutions often serve as an arm of the state, producing effective propaganda which whitewashes its crimes.

Much like political and economic boycotts, cultural boycotts play a fundamental role in anti-colonial struggles. First and foremost, they demonstrate international solidarity with oppressed and marginalised groups. Secondly, they fundamentally seek to prevent the normalisation of relations with states who commit human rights violations, placing responsibility on the international community not to continue business as usual with states like Israel. They also dispel the myth that politics and art do not mix and challenge the idea that culture is about “bringing people together.” 

The anti-apartheid boycott campaign in South Africa demonstrated solidarity with black South Africans and sent a clear message to the Apartheid regime from the international community that racial segregation was unacceptable. In 1985, a group of artists called Artists United Against Apartheid famously boycotted the Sun City resort, with many artists refusing to play shows on the grounds of not legitimising apartheid. Like South Africa, many notable public figures and celebrities have also refused to perform or hold events in Israel on similar grounds. 

The wider BDS movement is often criticised on the misleading and false notion that it targets Israeli or Jewish individuals. Such posturing can obscure how Palestinians and their allies are often censored and punished for speaking out on Palestine. Several states in the United States have proposed or enacted laws that seek to criminalise those who boycott Israel; in Australia, self-censorship is common amongst journalists and media outlets who attempt to report on Palestine in a truthful manner.

Those who voice their opposition to boycotts fail to understand why Palestinians have called on the international community to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel in the first place. As Rooney acknowledges, Israel is not the only human rights-violating state, but it is not, as is often described, a conflict between two equally positioned sides. While boycotts are decried because they “don’t advance peace” or “do nothing to help Palestinians,” they have contributed greatly to the Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination. Economic boycotts, for example, have resulted in companies refusing to operate in illegal Jewish-only settlements, while academic and cultural boycotts have helped to isolate Israel internationally. They ultimately set a precedent that violating international law and maintaining an illegal military occupation is unacceptable.

As we witnessed almost three years ago in the campaign to boycott Eurovision in Tel Aviv, international boycott campaigns have the ability to draw attention to causes and drum up significant international solidarity. Events this year have attested to the fact that Israel continues to deny Palestinians their basic freedoms and rights without being held accountable by international leaders and institutions, and this is why boycotts continue to remain a necessary tool in the fight against the occupation.

Earlier this year, thousands of Palestinian and non-Palestinian artists, writers, and arts workers, including Rooney, signed an open letter against apartheid to call for an end to Israeli violence, an end to the global support provided to Israel, and for governments to “apply sanctions, to mobilise levers of international accountability, and to cut trade, economic, and cultural relations.” The letter also called on activists and arts workers to “exercise their agency within their institutions and localities” to support the Palestinian struggle for decolonisation.

In a time where major public figures are reprimanded for expressing their solidarity with Palestine, Rooney’s decision is ultimately a courageous one.

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