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Umberto Eco does not understand the cultural boycott

Everywhere you look the boycott debate is in the news. Last week, acclaimed British writer Ian McEwan captured headlines for refusing Palestinian calls to boycott the 2011 Jerusalem Book Festival. Instead, McEwan accepted this year’s award with a sharp speech denouncing Israeli behavior towards the Palestinians and visited the weekly Shiekh Jarrah demonstration. Today, the Italian writing legend Umberto Eco caused more BDS controversy with statements denouncing the cultural boycott call as a ‘form of racism.’

Eco told reporters today at the Jerusalem Book Festival that, “I consider it absolutely crazy and fundamentally racist to identify a scholar, a private citizen, with the politics of his government.” Eco’s strong comments reflect the depth of ignorance that is populating the BDS debate. According to Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural boycott of Israel (PACBI):

We, Palestinian academics and intellectuals, call upon our colleagues in the international community to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid, by applying the following: Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions; Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions; Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;  Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations; Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.

Notice that nothing is mentioned about individual Israeli academics in these points. The boycott is designed to target Israeli institutions that benefit from, assist and entrench the occupation. Individual Israelis and Jews are not included in this call. PACBI recently released a statement saying that, “our campaign has consistently targeted Israel and its complicit institutions, not individuals.”

Soon, the Israeli government will make public support of BDS illegal for Israelis. The time to have an honest and serious discussion about the movement, its aim and its effectiveness is now. Pandering to fears by using false accusations will achieve little other than enliven supporters of extremist Israeli policies. Enemies of Palestinian nonviolence have painted the BDS movement as an attempt to de-legitimatize Israel and Israelis. What BDS does, increasingly effectively, is draw attention to Israeli occupation, conquest and aggression using nonviolent tactics. Leaving us with a simple question: Does the Occupation de-legitimize Israel or do nonviolent efforts to stop it?

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    1. Raed Kami

      I think that Mr Dana needs to go further. The entire existence of “Isarel” is predicated on the theft of 1948. Therefore supporting its existence on any level pre 1967 or today corrupts ones creative efforts. Therefore, it is absolutely illegitimate to say that there is a distinction between the government and so called progressive intellectuals in israel. Only by disavowing israeli citizenship can oneregain cultural integrity. Only by following the efforts of Ilan Pappe and Mona Baker (who wouldnt accept the efforts of so called progressive israelis) in her journal can the correct change be made. I actually view “israeli academics” who cry “dont boycott me, but boycott my country” as worse that settlers, because they coat the theft of Palestine in a sneaky ethical gloss

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    2. Aron T

      If theft is used as a criterion for legitimacy, then few states would be able to sit in the UN. Unlike Israel which had some Jewish residents and land ownership, every inch of the US is token land, but no one owed think to question it’s legitimacy. In fact, from a moral perspective, the very concept of state is suspect, so talking about injustice in the context of a state’s legitimacy is neither helpful or very meaningful. For good or bad, legitimacy for a state is based on international recognition.

      In 1948 the world community agreed that the solution to the land conflict in the region would be the creation of two states. The fatal flaw and the source of conflict is that only one of those two states came into being. Two states still is the international consensus and so is the only legitimate solution to the conflict. What Eco is saying essentially is:any form of BDS that is not about giving Palestinians the State they deserve but rather about taking from the Jews the State they have is morally indefensible.

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    3. Philip

      I’m sorry Joesph but this is completely disingenuous. You and PACBII can’t use a linguistic solecism and pretend that the boycott would only affect institutions and not individuals. Institutions are made up of individuals, who may or may not agree with specific government policies, even if they receive government funding.
      You know full well that there are plenty of Israeli academics who do not support the occupation, and yet according to this theory they are entirely complicit with the occupation.
      It’s one thing to support non-violent resistance, but what would you have these scholars do? Emigrate and find work overseas in western countries that are without moral blemish?

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    4. “…our campaign has consistently targeted Israel and its complicit institutions, not individuals…”

      Totally agree with Philip.

      What a hypocrisy, childish hypocrisy, disrespect to other people’s life and work. For becoming a scientist or an artist or any other professional, one needs to work hard. It’s not like being a journalist. There is a huge difference between people who make things and those who tell stories about those who make things, with all due respect to our profession.

      And again, targeting scientists/artists is so easy. Go fight Bibi – yourself, without a help from a big and strong friend from the neighboring yard.

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    5. PS. Joseph, with all due respect, don’t you think we all should take ourselves with some sense of humor? Do the words “Umberto Eco does not understand” sound OK with you?

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    6. Joseph Dana

      Dear Maxim,

      I think it sounds find. Eco has shown that he does not understand the boycott call with his misinformed statements. That was shown in the post. He is entitled to be against the boycott but should at least understand what the boycott is before attacking it. That being said, humor is always a good thing. Finding ways to include humor in titles is a spooky craft that I am working on.

      By the way, I am also a big fan of classical music and apprentice your blog. Thanks for your comments.



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    7. Thanks.
      Great to find a common ground. But I’m against cultural/scientific/sports boycott. You know, I grew up in the “Cradle of Three Revolutions”, as the Bolsheviks dubbed Petersburg. I hate destruction. Many years ago in my early Soviet youth I could not understand why my mentor (whose place was in a Soviet jail for his views and actions) was against Reagan led boycott of Moscow Olympics. He said it ruins a sportsman’s career, taking from him/her once in a lifetime chance to become the Olympics winner. And the USSR was the Empire of Evil, mind you, unlike Israel. At least, not to that extent.

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    8. Piotr Berman

      There are two somewhat separate issues.

      One is if BDS is a good idea. On the positive side, exactly by affecting individuals in conveys the message. Here one can dispute how deeply individuals can be affected while we can still call it a “message” rather than “punishment”. At least in part, the yardstick can be formed using policies conducted in the name of that individual, by the democratically elected government. One can site repression against cultural activity during the year of “Jerusalem as Arab cultural capital”. Exhibitions and theatrical performances were dispersed by police. The second yardstick is the punishment of Gazans. What about their sport carriers, one can ask? Or academic carriers? Or ability to attend concerts with invited artists?

      Mind you, part of the rationale of Israeli democratically elected government in inflicting a punishment on Gaza, punishment by many orders of magnitude more severe than BDS concept, is that they elected bad people. And Israeli freely elected people who are not particularly nice.

      I would say that applying standards and methods professed by Israel to Israel itself is simply Golden Rule, and not racism.

      But reasonable people may differ. But then we have the second issue: is BDS concept a form of racism. I think that Eco is guilty of a dishonest and demagogic hyperbole.

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    9. Yes Piotr, yes. A left wing – or whatever – scientist, which is denied a grant as a result of the BDS activities emigrates to somewhere else. Gazans are great winners here, right?
      NIS 30.000 fine for BDS activists is a good idea.

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    10. LG


      If an academic wishes to deliver a paper at an academic conference in, say, the UK, and that academic is employed by TAU, how would the individual be able to deliver the lecture if BDS is not targeting individuals but institutions. Can you talk me though how it would work in practise?

      I’ve asked the BDS people here and they say that no, the academic would not be able to speak and when asked how that ties in with the non-targeting of individuals they say, well, the individual would be affected by virtue of his or her academic affiliation not as an individual. But they still would not be able to attend the conference.

      Most of us who don’t support BDS agree that this is semantic difference designed to wiggle round universities’ equal opportunities policies which are laid down by the EU. By denying academics access to UK universities on the basis of nationality, you would be attempting to challenge equality legislation. Universities will take a strongly combative view of any attempts to discriminate on the basis of nationality.

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    11. Piotr Berman

      Given a chance to vote for something like that, I would be against applying BDS to participation of Israelis in conferences (and journals etc.) abroad. Given a chance, I would write a paper with Israeli scientists.

      But I do not think that my opponents in the hypothetical vote (very hypothetical in northern America) would be racists. A just, or even, merely workable solution would be a calamity to Israelis compared with the status quo. Only a calamity, or, hopefully, perceived calamity, can convince them otherwise.

      I actually did not get a joke “Gazans are great winners here, right”. Because Israel denies Gazans “access to UK universities” at plenty other things besides. For two years shoes were on proscribed list. And for BDS for cultural activities, read about activities of Israeli police during the year of “Jerusalem as Arab cultural capital”.

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    12. Maxim Reider

      Are these the Israeli scientists, who block Gazans from reaching UK universities? Are these the artists, who put block posts in the territories? What are you talking about? You dislike the Gvmnt policies – fight the politicians, and not those who in a way are their victims, too.
      The BDS thugs in London disrupted the concert of Israeli musicians – active members of Barenboim – Said East West Divan project, and even Said’s widow’s intervention did not prevent it. For me, this is their true face.

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    13. sh

      Why do there always have to be only two options: fry or freeze? To shower, it’s helpful to have at one’s disposal hot water and cold water and the possibility of mixing the two according to ambient temperature, right? You drive like that, you walk like that, you work like that, arguably that’s the way the world goes round.

      Unfortunately the proponents of occupation and settlement understood this all too well and used it to their advantage while the rest of us hung on to the blind – so-called moral high-ground – spot that put us where we are today. They’re going to have to be worked on, outwitted; and if we don’t learn to calibrate too we won’t see justice here.

      Umberto Eco understands the blanket cultural boycott concept alright – it’s not exactly difficult to grasp. He just doesn’t agree with it. Draw attention to Israeli occupation and non-violent tactics artists can and will continue to do, but their way.

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    14. Ben Israel

      It was Jimmy Carter who organized the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, not Ronald Reagan.

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    15. LG

      In 2003 a professor at Oxford was suspended for three months and required to do equal opportunities training when he rejected a doctoral student because he was Israeli. BDS will have great difficulties trying to separate the individual from the institution when it come to putting the boycott into practise. And of course artists are not part of any institution so it will look like straight discrimation..


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    16. Piotr Berman

      “Are those scientists who block Gazans…”

      Yes. At least, something like 95% of Jewish votes in Israel was for the parties that support those policies. Beside, how do you “go after the politicians”.

      And I would like to repeat: the concept of BDS may be wrong in details, but it is not racist. The boycott of Moscow olimpic games was not racist. The boycott of South Africa was not racist. Umberto Eco was raving because some people questioned his God given right to have expenses paid for a trip with nice meals etc. funded by a government that conducts monstrous policies.

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    17. Raed Kami

      I echo Mr Berman’s comments. As long as scientists, authors, artists, etc retain israeli citizenship, they are not creating anything and therefore should be boycotted because they are fraudulent. One of my good friends with multiple sclerosis wont take copaxone because it was invented in ziostan

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    18. Piotr Berman

      No Raed, you put words in my mouth. I do not practice BDS, and I can work with Israeli scientists. They are not frauds by any means. Based on past conversations, I know that many detest occupation etc. I can work with Iranians too. Science has no borders.

      It is merely a practical observation that the status quo of subjugation, dispossession and discrimination is very convenient for the majority of Israelis, so it is not reasonable to expect any change until it will not be convenient anymore. The question is what type of inconvenience would do the trick.

      So what is preferable? BDS or looming military debacle?

      Reply to Comment

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