By Julie Holm
Boycott of Israel is a very controversial subject in Europe, especially when it comes to academic and cultural boycott. You cannot propose the issue publicly without being accused of anti-Semitism or worse. Boycott is regarded as something very personal and at the same time it is highly politicized. The decisions of companies and supermarkets to boycott Israel are met with vast criticism. When a Norwegian cosmetics chain announced that it was going to stop selling Israeli products from the Dead Sea, a boycott of the chain was suggested as a counter move. Further, the idea of excluding Israel from cultural events like the Eurovision Song Contest (disregarding the oddity of Israel participating in the first place) is unthinkable to many, their argument being that we should maintain interaction and communication with Israel through this kind of events.
This in mind, I was very surprised last week when the headlines in European newspapers were filled with the word ‘boycott’. They were, of course, not concerning boycotts of Israel but rather about European leaders boycotting the Euro 2012 soccer championship and cultural events leading up to it in Ukraine. The reason for this boycott is the ill-treatment of former prime minister of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in October on charges she denied and which European Union leaders view as politically motivated. Protesting ill-treatment inside prison and alleged beatings by prison guards, Tymoshenko went on a hunger strike on April 20. After pictures of her, bruised and visibly affected by the hunger strike reached the press, European leaders reacted strongly and threatened to boycott events in Ukraine, which is co-hosting the Euro 2012 with Poland.
Reading this I could not help but compare it to what is going on in Palestine these days. It is, no doubt a very different situation politically and the diplomatic relations between European governments and Palestine and Israel are also very different, which is highly significant in such cases. Taking it down to a people-level however, it is hard to see why a cultural boycott of Ukraine is carried out while a boycott of Israel is almost unthinkable.
As we know, right now about 2,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are on hunger strikes, some of them for more than 70 days, protesting against the ill-treatment they receive in prison. Using their bodies and their lives in the protest is a last resort to resist and try to communicate to the world the horrible and unjust treatment they experience in Israeli jails. However, the unjust treatment of Palestinians does not stop at the prison walls, not by a longshot. The Palestinians have been systematically displaced, oppressed and occupied for more than 60 years and the way they are treated by Israel is increasingly becoming more violent and atrocious. The Israeli state is occupying Palestinian land and denying the Palestinian people their basic human rights. Israel is refusing to adhere to UN resolutions and international law and have so far managed to stay clear of international sanctions.
An end to the occupation is essential to the future of the Palestinians as well as the Israelis. As history has shown, this will not happen without pressure from the rest of the world. Furthermore, Palestinian and Israeli scientists, students, artists and culture workers who are openly resisting the occupation need international support. Boycott is a very strong weapon and if used correctly, sends a very clear political message; we do not accept the systematic oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli state. Cultural and academic boycott is a political tool and does not mean ending all dialogue with Israelis in these fields. On the contrary, it is an unambiguous way of letting them know that the Israeli occupation and apartheid policies towards the Palestinian people must come to an end.
Controversial as it is, one could ask whether mixing culture and politics is right, but for the people who are really affected by this, everything is political. People in Ukraine are complaining that they are not getting the support they expected for the sports event of the decade and the Israelis complain when a band cancels a concert in Israel for political reasons or when students at a European university do not wish to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions. For Israel, it is very political even when the subject at hand is cultural or academic.
Right now, I don’t think cultural exchange and dialogue is a top priority of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike. Sometimes, there are more important issues, such as an end to over half a century of occupation and unjust treatment of an entire people. However, Palestinians, and prisoners included, understand the significance of boycotting Israel. So, let us hope that the next time a European boycott is in the headlines, the object of the action is Israel and its occupation of Palestine.
Julie Holm is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at [email protected]