Alice Walker refused to have “The Color Purple” published for a second time in Hebrew. The Irish band Dervish withdrew from a three-gig visit after a social-media campaign against its concert.
Indian musician Zakir Hussain, who has collaborated with George Harrison, postponed his July concert in Israel, concerned for his group’s safety after he received threats and a petition signed by 85 Indian artists urging him to cancel.
With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations frozen for almost two years, activists seek to increase pressure on Israel to give up the West Bank through cultural and economic boycotts, much as they did three decades ago against South Africa.
“These boycotts make Israeli artists feel isolated,” said Bernard Avishai, author of “The Hebrew Republic” and a professor at Hebrew University and Dartmouth College.
Walker, in a letter to Israeli publishing house Yedioth Books, cited as motivation for her decision the “devastating testimony” she heard about Israel during a tribunal in South Africa in 2011.
“I grew up under American apartheid and this was far worse,” she wrote. South Africans, including Desmond Tutu, feel “the Israeli version of these crimes is worse even than what they suffered under the white supremacist regimes,” she added.
Palestinians’ movements in the West Bank are restricted by roadblocks and permits are necessary to enter Israel. There is no free travel between the West Bank and Gaza. Israel says the restrictions are necessary to prevent Palestinian militants from attacking civilians or setting off bombs.
Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry who supports boycotting products made in the Jewish settlements, said Israel needs a wake-up call given the “unprecedented situation” created by the so-called Arab Spring where protests have toppled leaders throughout the Middle East.
“It is world consensus that we are wrong about the settlements,” Liel said, “therefore if we can do something significant that Israel takes to heart, it should be about the settlements and not a cultural boycott of universities or artists.”
The United Nations and other international bodies have said Israeli settlements in the West Bank violate international law against construction on occupied territory. The U.S. has asked Israel to freeze such construction.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is something you shouldn’t be doing to any democracy in the world, even if it is a country that you extremely dislike,” Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein said of the boycotts. “As long as there is a democratic process, as long as this is a country that you can change from the inside or influence, you should try everything except boycotting.”
A year ago, the government passed a law that allows Israelis promoting a boycott of Israel or its West Bank settlements to be sued for civil damages. It also disqualifies companies that participate in a boycott of the settlements from eligibility for government contracts.
Among the motivations for the law was a boycott by Israeli actors and artists of a cultural center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. The sponsors also condemned Israeli companies working to build the new Palestinian city of Rawabi that signed an agreement not to do business with settlements.
Palestinians say the cultural boycott is a tool to get their message across, both to Israelis and the world.
“What’s important is to make clear that opinions, research, lectures and art can help change the Israeli public opinion and stop the Israeli government from taking action that changes facts on the ground,” Salah Al Khawaja, a member of the Palestinian National Initiative, said by telephone.
Netta Gurevitch, editor-in-chief of the publishing house Yedioth Books turned down by Walker, said that she has been rejected before by authors including Christos Tsoliakis, who wrote “The Slap,” and Egyptian Alaa al-Aswany, who wrote “The Yacoubian Building.”
“This is regrettable, primarily because art in general, and literature specifically, can be a significant tool in building cultural bridges, in presenting the other and in creating a climate of tolerance and compassion,” Gurevitch said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor played down the impact of cultural boycotts. “It’s all buzz, no sting,” he said, citing major stars who did perform in Israel this year.
Madonna opened her most recent tour in Tel Aviv on June 1 for what she said was “a very specific and important reason.”
“If we can all rise above our egos and our titles and the names of our countries and our religions, and treat everyone around us with respect, then we are on the road to peace,” she told the audience.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers plan to play Tel Aviv in September, unless the band decides to cancel at the last minute like other musicians, including Elvis Costello in 2010.
On June 10, Punks Against Apartheid urged the Chilis to stay away. “No support for criminal occupation, ethnic cleansing and racial apartheid!’ the group said on a post on the website of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
“The people who advocate for cultural boycott think they are punishing Israel, but what they are doing is discouraging, undermining and isolating the people in the country most likely to carry the conversation into the public realm and make a change through the electoral process,” said Avishai.
“There are all kinds of ways to make Israelis feel uncomfortable about the occupation, but for writers to cut themselves off, to have cosmopolitan, progressive, democratic radicals in the rest of the world cut themselves off from the same in Israel, that is adding insult to injury,” he said.
Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on auctions and Craig Seligman on art.