Padraig Reidy: What is the alternative to boycott?
07 Aug 2014

First, the inevitable throat clearing and hand wringing. The most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas has been beyond horrendous. As I type, the ceasefire is holding. Over 1,800 Palestinians have lost their lives, more than 300 of them children. Dozens of Israelis, mostly young conscript soldiers, are also dead. There is an enormous imbalance, in firepower and in defensive capability. Better men than I have gone mad attempting to imagine a way to stop this happening again. Even that statement, I realise, reads like a cop out, but a particular sense of despair looms over this latest manifestation of a war that is only ever dormant at best.

Some clearly feel that the horror has gone too far. Author Hari Kunzru, for example, has decided to join calls for a cultural boycott of Israel. Writing on his Facebook wall, Kunzru cited an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post which suggested the “dismantling” of Gaza and the “relocation” of its non-humanitarian population. Kunzru also cited “”the targeting of schools and hospitals, the picture of a child my son’s age being dug out of rubble that reduced me to helpless tears, the total disregard of the Netanyahu government for international laws and norms…”  as signs that Israel was a country that had “lost its moral compass”.

This is notable not because Hari is a well-known figure in the arts world – there are enough of those willing to sign up to any cause that comes along, and more than enough already willing to tell us exactly what they think about Israel/Palestine, or Cuba, or any other issue to which sections of the left are drawn to, like particularly verbose moths to the flames of revolution, or, worse, the great unspecified “resistance”.

No, this is notable exactly because Hari Kunzru is not one of those people. Hari is thoughtful and unshowy. And Hari has actually put in real work for free speech. I recall, in 2012, scrabbling to find a local sympathetic lawyer who would represent Hari when he faced serious risk of prosecution for reading from the Satanic Verses at the Jaipur Literary Festival, in solidarity with Salman Rushdie. He has made himself available for organisations such as Index and English PEN well beyond the call of duty. So when someone such as Hari Kunzru identifies with a cultural boycott, it means we have to take the question seriously.

The concept of boycotts, and particularly cultural and academic boycotts, have for a long time been problematic for people engaged in the promotion of free expression. Most criticisms of censorship are based on a fundamental assumption that communication of ideas is, in and of itself, a good thing. Some vague belief abounds based loosely on the Hegelian triad of thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

This can sometimes sound naive, but it  does lead to useful perspectives on any argument: 1) that there are entirely sincere, well-meaning people, who may hold views completely anathema to your own, and 2) following from that, in formulating any position on proscription of certain attitudes or beliefs, or people, one must imagine being on the wrong end of the argument – a kind of categorical imperative crossed with the “golden rule”, that can end up making the certainty of others unsettling.

Boycotters often carry that absolutism and conviction that brooks no argument: a simple righteousness anchored in the belief that their view of the world is so self-evidently correct that anyone who is unconvinced by them is either deviant or deficient.

Then there is always the question of who benefits from boycotts? And who is hurt? The traditional, free expression view on cultural boycotts is that they punish precisely the people who are most outward looking and also most likely to seek change in their own countries. Is it fair to punish the artists for the actions of the government, as we have seen with the cancellation of Israeli show The City at the Edinburgh Festival following protests by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign? Or to request that the UK Jewish Film Festival should ditch Israeli government funding before it can use a venue, as Kliburn’s Tricycle Theatre has, in the name, it says, of attempting to depoliticise the event?

It is argued that theatre companies, dance troupes etc are legitimate targets for boycott if they benefit from state funding, but in truth, there is hardly a theatre company in the civilised world that does not take funding from government agencies: indeed, most western liberals see state agency funding of arts as a sign, even a crucial part, of a healthy democracy, and it is rare that state-funded companies engage in Red-Army Choir style propaganda tours – though Venezuela’s Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, decked out in baseball jackets in the colours of the national flag, can sometimes feel a little too Potemkin for comfort.

Writing on the subject (£) of anti-Israel boycotts back in 2012, Irish Times literary editor Fintan O’Toole drafted these five rules for artists and writers invited to perform in countries with dubious records:

1) Don’t take money, directly or indirectly, from governments that systematically abuse human rights, or from oligarchs who benefit from those abuses.

2) Give a significant part of your fee to human-rights defenders or oppressed artists in the relevant country.

3) Don’t accept any restrictions on your own freedom of expression when you’re in that country.

4) Don’t perform to audiences forcibly segregated on lines of race, gender or ethnicity.

5) Don’t let yourself be used for propaganda purposes.

This was very much the approach used by Sweden’s Loreen during and after the Eurovision Song Contest hosted by Azerbaijan in 2012. The singer made efforts to meet opposition figures and voice their concerns in press conferences and TV interviews, and was widely praised for it.

In fact, O’Toole’s rules are not a million miles from the boycott pledge signed by Hari Kunzru, which states: “We support the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality. In response to the call from Palestinian artists and cultural workers for a cultural boycott of Israel, we pledge to accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding from any institution linked to its government until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.”, though there is a crucial difference in that the boycott statement punishes both state and non-state entities, thus preventing signatories from accepting invitations from, say, a hypothetical human rights group.

And this is the problem I will continue to have with boycotts against nations, particularly nations’ cultural endeavours. They seem too blunt, too broad and flawed. Even the much-cited cultural boycott against South African apartheid went awry, with the bizarre irony of Paul Simon being criticised for technically breaking the boycott by travelling to the country to work with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the black acapella singing group that was far from a friend of the regime.

But the problem is that for many seeking to register their disgust at the actions of foreign governments, boycott seems the only option. Perhaps it’s time for those of us uncomfortable with the idea of shutting down free speech to figure out new avenues of expression.

This column was posted on August 7, 2014 at

Padraig Reidy

4 responses to “Padraig Reidy: What is the alternative to boycott?”

  1. Tec15 says:

    Lol. So it’s only because Hari Kunzru entertained one of your hobby horses in the grave (snort) threat to Rushdie’s “FREEZE PEACH!!!!” rights, that you’re even entertaining the concept of boycott? So if he hadn’t said a word, you’d have gone on ignoring the whole issue while smugly looking down on those who cared as “dumb leftists jumping into an issue without any understanding at all, unlike wise, temperate intellectuals like Nick Cohen”? Not surpised.

    BTW, speaking of your buddy Neocon Nick Cohen, at least you’re not going down his path of screeching “Antisemitism!!!!” despite your tendentious account of the boycott attempts against Israeli state agents and the Paul Simon case (Newsflash: He wasn’t an innocent naif cruelly set upon for merely collaborating with Black artists, as is your framing; He was a soft apologist for the regime who defended himself and opposed the boycott by calling Mandela a filthy Commie and Soviet stooge. See here: Baby steps, I guess.

  2. Padraig’s parting shot, that ‘for many seeking to register their disgust at the actions of foreign governments, boycott seems the only option’, is really the issue that needs unpacking here. As someone who has been on the left for a long time, I’m aware that today, whatever counts itself as ‘the left’ lacks much of a coherent stance on international politics, particularly in those situations where western governments have a geopolitical hand in the affairs of states and peoples in conflict. Registering one’s disgust about the actions of foreign governments doesn’t actually sound life a very left-wing attitude – it speaks more of a passive, individualised sense of moral censure, which is really about making a public gesture that you are not ‘one of the bad people’, but is entirely to do with telling those ‘bad’ foreign governments what we think of them. But since when was the western left in the business of policing ‘bad foreign governments’?

    Rather than develop either an contemporary analysis of current international politics, and mobilise popular opinion to support it, I’m struck by how what counts itself as ‘the left’ is neither organised nor very thoughtful: a left for which certain issues are dealt with in rote, unthinking terms, and in which certain subjects have degenerated into a emotionally-charged form of absolutist non-debate. Israel and the Palestinians is one of these, in which disgust at the actions of the Israeli state has become an opportunity for moral grandstanding, and which appears entirely heedless and naive to any more complex understanding of the conflicts of the middle east, and certainly does not extend to any serious consideration of the West’s part in those conflicts. Rather, all eyes are on Israel, as if it nothing else mattered.

    The fact that there seems to Padraig and others no other option to cultural boycotts tells us more about the problems facing people who think of themselves as ‘on the left’. What it suggests is that we remain, as individuals, disoriented and disorganised, and that in response, there is a tendency to reach for high-profile solutions, which are more about ‘signing up’ to declare your own moral stance and sense of outrage than actually dealing, in any systematic political way, with the situation at hand. The powerful sense of pressure that those who are convinced boycotters, whose first line of attack is that we should ‘do something’, attempts to make us feel guilty that we are not ‘doing something’. But as Padraig points out, those convinced boycotters are often deaf to discussion or argument. We should feel no guilt in rejecting their version of ‘doing something’.

    As I see it – as someone on the left who has always stuck with the tradition of anti-imperialism which is a cornerstone of the radical left – when western leftists and liberals start shouting for boycotts, they inadvertently risk becoming the tool of western foreign policy, contributing to the process of demonisation of particular regimes that in turn paves the way for intervention by the western powers. There is an unwitting colonialism to the finger-wagging, better-than-thou gesturing of the boycott movement, even if it clings to the worn-out lefty rhetoric of ‘solidarity’ with oppressed peoples. That the left cannot get its head round the dangers of such unthinking complicity, that it seems not to have noticed that the distinction between ‘the left’ and ‘the west’ seems nowadays hazy and unclear, should at least give us cause to be very wary of the coherence of its motives. Crucially, the rhetoric of the left is always goes silent when it comes to arguing systematically against the west’s involvement in global conflicts. On nothing but that failure, those of us who maintain an unconditional stance on freedom of expression should refuse to be dragged into the moral blackmail and guilt-tripping of the boycotters.

    On that point, the mixture of hypocrisy and naivety that characterises the boycott debate needs to be called out and forced to account for itself. Wretched as it is, it is not clear to me what is so uniquely dreadful about Israeli action in Gaza that must eclipse every other conflict going on in the world right now. Where were all the shrill calls for cultural boycotts when the military deposed Morsi in Egypt, and began slaughtering pro-Morsi supporters? There were none, nor are there for boycotts against all the many instances of regional and ethnic conflict around the globe. In short, what is so special about Israel, that it should incite such fury, and such attention? Boycotters refuse to have those arguments, preferring to shout down their questioners and opponents, or accuse them of complicity or special interest. In those circumstances, when it is clear that their arguments and their politics are so full of holes, we should not sacrifice the principle of free expression to the political confusion and contradiction of the boycotters.

    • jmgreen says:

      Entirely missing from your comment is the call from Palestinian civil society asking for international solidarity in the form of boycott: The current high profile of the struggle for Palestinian rights, ongoing since the creation of Israel in 1948 and before, is the result of much hard work and organisation. So no, the fact that other atrocities are occurring throughout the Middle East and elsewhere does not a justify shifting attention away from Israel’s crimes.

  3. René Gimpel says:

    Padraig Reidy raises good points about problems which arise with boycotts, although I tend to align myself with boycott movements, because I think that they remind both targeted governments and their electorates (if the government is democratically elected) that there can be no ‘business as usual’.

    When boycotts are applied to goods and services outside of the cultural sphere, there is less opprobrium. Cultural practitioners who emulate such boycotts are much more visible, both to their supporters and critics. The Irish Times literary editor’s suggested rules are one avenue for dealing with the issue, even if outright refusals can be equally effective and can be justified in their own right.

    Calls for academic boycotts of Israel are not made with a view to censoring ideas, so much as for reminding the Israeli government that its interventions in the running of higher institutions in the Occupied Territories, its obstruction to the free movement of Palestinian scholars in and out of such territories, are themselves acts of censorship. That many Israeli academics condemn their own government’s actions on such issues, is not a reason to suspend the academic boycott, since the government is as unresponsive to them as it is to the wider world at large.

    Nevertheless, as Padraig Reidy suggests, maybe we can think of other ways of expressing our displeasure. Padraig is a columnist for Index and I am a keen supporter, so we do share an abhorrence of all censorship.