On the legitimacy of cultural boycott

The 25th edition of the International Film Festival in Haifa kicked off on October 6th. Haifa is the 3rd largest city in Israel, with a mixed population of Jews and Arabs which is often portrayed as  an example of peaceful co-existence. Of the 260,000 inhabitants, 10% are Arabs, a percentage which jumps to 30% among the student population if the University of Haifa.

The festival has grown to be an important rendezvous for film lovers and the film industry alike, gathering a public of more than 60.000 in the last edition. The number of Israeli films on the program increases every year. Israeli cinema is enjoying a sort of Re-naissance, crowned with many critical successes, last of which the Golden Lion for Lebanon (by Samuel Maoz) at the Venice film festival this year.

President Shimon Perez’ s opening note for the festival, acknowledged that “the Israeli cinema is successful despite the world’s cultural boycott“. In fact, cultural boycott  has weighed on past editions of the Haifa Film Festival. In 2002, the producers of the English documentary Sunday (inspired by the events of the Bloody Sunday) were withdrawing their film from the festival, in an attempt to express solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Oddly enough, the Palestinian film directors and producers did not follow the trend themselves, preferring to keep their movies in the competition. Beyond any political claim, the festival represent a privileged meeting place for everyone, including Palestinians, who have a legitimate thirst to tell their stories, to see and to be seen. The Haifa Film Festival committee has recognized and formalized this necessity in 2004, with the creation of a dedicated section of the festival.

It is saddening to see how the wish to express solidarity, if mislead, can end up harming the intended recipients of solidarity. Activists, in their rush do “do-good”, may not want to reconsider the meaning and consequences of a cultural boycott on Israel. In this case, it seems that the boycott ultimately boycotts the possibility for a dialogue between the parties. Here is the link to an inspired article from the pages of the Haaretz newspaper, entitled “The cowardice, the vanity, the sin of boycotting Israel“, by controvert writer Bradley Burston.

The article stirred up a big fuzz among the readers, providing an insightful overview of public opinions on the legitimacy – or not – of cultural boycott. Scrolling down the over 120 posts which have followed the publication, we found the one of Mark B. , who reminds us rightfully that “a true boycott is economical, and not cultural“. An anonymous “doubter” points out to the fact that “boycotting Israel will eventually harm the West Bank too, since they are dependent from Israel in terms of medicine, oil, food“. Another anonymous defends the importance of cinema as a cross-cultural platform: “the shame of the protest was that people would have missed a movie that could have helped their understanding of the conflict and paved the way towards reconciliation.” As it is customary when the subject is Israel, no comment is a-political; the debate stretches as far as to encompass the legitimacy of the Israeli state, the necessity for a wider scope of boycott, the reciprocal accusations and blames. An English activist living and working in Israel, sums it up by reminding that “the main enemy of peace here is paranoia (on both sides)“. Which better antidote then, than seeing Israeli and Palestinian revealing themselves on the big screen?

The festival, which continues up to October 10th, hosts quite a few movies touching on the Arab-Israeli relations: Zahra, by Mohammed Bakri, which follows the story of Arabs living in Israel and Palestine since the 20th century; Chronicle of a present absentee by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, who portrays the semi-biographic life of those Palestinians who remained in Israel and were labeled “Israeli Arabs”; Rachel, a French documentary dedicated to the life of the 22-old American activist Rachel Corri who died trying to prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes in the Gaza strip.

However you want to put it, I think it is crucial not to miss out on what this festival has to offer: an opportunity for the Israeli and international public to reflects on the intimacy of stories which are humanely powerful and politically neglected. Let the cranky criticize, the boycotters boycott, let the art be art and, above all, let us go out and see the movies!

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