According to theater maker Alain Platel, artists and cultural houses, ‘who sell themselves as the people with whom and the places where real social engagement takes place’, must dare to take a position on what is happening in Gaza and in the Israeli-occupied territories.
For more than twenty years, many have been warning with me about the horror scenario that is unfolding before our eyes in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied territories. Anyone who has been there in recent decades has seen how mutual misunderstanding and extremism on both sides slowly increased day by day.
This is partly due to the increasingly right-wing, ultra-nationalist and violent policies of successive Israeli governments and the illegal violence of settlers, supported by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), against the Palestinians.
Now that we are inundated with figures and images from Gaza and the Israeli-occupied territories, the call for decisive action to stop the violence is becoming louder. My mind has become too small to understand that anyone still dares or can defend that Israel has the right to protect and defend itself in this way.
First of all, it is incomprehensible that it took hours on October 7 for the IDF to respond to the Hamas massacres on the Gaza border. Let me be clear (I may have to repeat this loud and clear 1,405 times first): I condemn the horror committed by Hamas on October 7, 2023. That defies all imagination and will be difficult to erase from our visual and mental memory.
But how can one then defend the 10,000 dead, more than half of whom were children and women, 30,000 injured and more than a million civilians on the run and without a home, as ‘proportionate revenge’?
Taking to the streets, hanging out flags, organizing information evenings and benefit performances… These actions all have their value and meaning, of course. But isn’t it urgently time that artists and cultural houses, who always resell themselves as the people with whom and the places where real social engagement takes place, dare to take clearer positions? Such as unconditionally supporting the (cultural) boycott against Israel, for example.
If anyone still doubts that Israel has become an extremely violent apartheid state, then they have been living on Mars for the past decades. It is the first time that a Belgian Prime Minister, namely Alexander De Croo (Open VLD), has dared to use the words ‘disproportionate violence on the part of Israel’ and that our Minister of Development Cooperation Caroline Gennez has dared to talk about sanctions against Israel. In any case, those are small boosts.
I don’t know if there are many other artists or cultural houses in Belgium that support the peaceful boycott campaign BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) openly support. In any case, I have tried to convince many along the way to get involved. Because it is the only nonviolent but clear and compelling action one can take. And because it would be a strong signal if many of us openly supported the initiative.
Avi Mograbi, Jewish-Israeli filmmaker, once responded to a question about his views on BDS as follows. “I will support any action that can put heavy pressure on the Israeli government to stop its violence against the Palestinian people, even if that means boycotting my own work.”
Let me repeat clearly: BDS is not a contract that one signs, nor an organization from which one purchases a membership card. It is about joining a non-violent citizen movement (mainly supported by artists and academics) that supports and applies the (cultural) boycott of Israel.
How you do this and how far you want to go, you decide as an individual or organization. As for myself? I have declined invitations to present my work in Israel for the past twenty years. Just before October 7, we had to explain to the people behind a film festival in Tel Aviv that they were showing our film Why we fight? was not allowed to show. Furthermore, I do not work with organizations supported by the Israeli government. However, it has never stopped me from continuing to collaborate with Jewish and Israeli artists here locally.
We can indeed make a difference.
Along the way I wanted to understand the doubts of many artists and houses about supporting that (cultural) boycott. Because the consequences of such a decision are serious: you are targeted and criticized, accused of anti-Semitism, in certain cases threatened and certainly censored and canceled… I know a lot about that now.
In 2020 it became C(H)OERS invited as an opening performance in the Rührtriennale (Germany), but the local minister of culture, Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen, put a stop to that. She put heavy pressure on the intendant of the Rührtriennale C(H)OERS because her administration learned that I support BDS.
At first I found it difficult to believe that a performance in which around a hundred people participated would be canceled because of the personal (political) conviction of one individual and I asked for an interview with the minister. This took place after much insistence and became a particularly unpleasant meeting in which, among other things, it turned out that one of her employees had created a file on me. During that period, a resolution was adopted in Germany urgently requesting cultural institutions to screen individuals or organizations for their participation in BDS. If they subsequently cooperated, they risked sanctions or the withdrawal of their subsidies.
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At the time, we considered filing a lawsuit against that decision, as a number of other organizations did (successfully). But in our case, no written agreements had yet been signed between the Rührtriennale and Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, so we had no legal leg to stand on.
The internationally known and highly regarded Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe met the same fate. He was scheduled to give the opening speech at the same Rührtriennale, but was also canceled by the ministry of culture because of his support for BDS. He did counterattack.
Besides wiping out Hamas – and planting the seeds of the next generation of extremists in the process! – there is apparently no future plan on the table for Gaza, the Israeli-occupied territories and the Palestinians tout court. Or it should be the occasionally leaked messages in which members of the Israeli government insist on expelling all Palestinians to Egypt’s Sinai desert or neighboring Jordan.
People are not thinking about how to rebuild the incomprehensible material destruction, let alone repair the mental destruction of this and future generations of Gazans. What irreparable damage this situation is causing to the long-decreasing confidence of many in the region and here locally in the moral authority and ethical choices made by ‘the West’ is not an issue for the time being.
Personally, I have believed for a long time that finding a good solution for… the situation (as the Palestinians locally call the conflict) could positively influence global tranquility and peace.
No matter how powerless we as individuals feel in the face of such an immense problem, we can certainly make a difference. Uniting voices and taking clear positions so that we can put pressure on both the Israeli government and our own politicians is one of our options.
Alain Platel is a theater maker and director.