A really interesting discussion on wrier Hari Kunzru’s Facebook page over the weekend, with contributions from Salil Tripathi, Manick Govinda, William Dalrymple and others on Hari’s changing view of cultural sanctions on Israel since the start of the assault on Gaza.
Hari wrote how he had been tipped over the edge by a few hideous commentaries in Israeli mainstream discourse effectively calling for some kind of Israeli final ‘solution’, if I can use that agonising reference (Hari didn’t), to the Palestinian ‘problem’.
Drawing parallels between Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Nazi Europe, pogroms, ghettos and genocide used to be, well, beyond the pale, or at the very least, historically disproportionate. But we are running out of historical examples powerful enough to help us contextualise what is happening there.
I still think that despite some of the sentiments voiced in mainstream Israeli media we are nowhere near Holocaust equivalence and never will be; but we are closer to the savagery of the Sri Lankan assault on the LTTE or the first US attack on Fallujah, or more relevantly, the Nazi assault on the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.
Not to be dismissive of the terrible human price paid by the civilians caught up in these battles, but these analogies are really only tools only for personal understanding, to help you decide how and why you morally respond to today’s horrors. They are no practical help in bringing the misery to an end. Nobody can truly honestly think that they can be, and Hari doesn’t. (Anyway: Those who forget the past lack an excuse to repeat it, that’s what I learnt from seven conflicts.)
We are all making personal decisions on the basis that what we do will have very little real effect, without belittling the importance of making a moral stand. Here Hari articulates it perfectly. Like him, I have no standing with Hamas, but I do with Israel. Israel depends on the goodwill of Europeans and Americans to be able to implement its policies in Gaza. By publicly condemning the actions of the Israeli government, we can play a “(tiny) part in delegitimising those actions,” as he says.
To me though, public condemnation of Israel is one thing, and a cultural boycott of Israel is something else. Hari’s well within his rights not to give a damn whether Israeli artists get to play the Edinburgh Festival. It does seem like a horribly callous dismissal of the horrors of Gaza to allow their performances to pass without protest or comment, but we are, at least in part, talking about Israeli hip-hoppers here.
Drawing easy connections between soldiers and artists, like most efforts at drawing moral equivalence, is too easily reduced to mutually degrading ranting to be of any lasting value. (That said, I can be occasionally selective about which victims of censorship deserve honour, protection or public support – and which don’t – which has got me into deserved trouble before.)
Basically, I’m not fundamentally opposed to boycotts or people who boycott, only those who do it in a blanket, uninformed way, which I know Hari would never do anyway. Israeli artists deserve freedom of expression, even to offend, as do any other artists. But audiences and cultural practitioners also need the freedom to decide whether they are going to be party to that offence or how they respond to it.