Artists’ Ariel stand is right; company is wrong – part 2

September 27, 2010 by

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I’m augmenting my original op-ed piece of last week in an effort to better characterize my experience of coming to support the protesting Israeli artists refusing to perform at the Ariel Cultural Center, while better explaining my decision not to sign the letter of support signed by hundreds of American actors and writers in a campaign sponsored by the American group Jewish Voice for Peace.

It is the right of Israeli artists to choose how and where they wish their work to be presented. The protesting artists’ decision not to perform deep in the West Bank is a principled political stand made by patriotic Israelis within Israel, fighting for the geographical and demographic integrity of their land and protesting the government’s attempt to use them as political pawns, scheduling them against their will to perform in a newly constructed art house in a hitherto illegal settlement.

As such, their actions are fundamentally different from the actions taken by organizations outside Israel who would boycott Israeli products, even if the boycott is a targeted one, like that of the Jewish Voice for Peace.

In my original article, I described how I chanced upon the Jewish Voice for Peace website for the first time after being approached by what seemed to be an unnamed coalition of theater artists organizing a collection of actors and writers to stand in solidarity with “our Israeli counterparts for their courageous decision.”

In fact, the Jewish Voice for Peace letter initiative had gone viral, and had been copied over and over by people encouraging their associates to join in the cause. After being asked to send my “signature” to another e-mail address, I noticed in the confirming reply that the collector of signatures was a board member of JVP. As I went to the JVP site for the very first time, I was shocked to see arresting graphics for “Campus Divestment” and “TIAA-CREFF: Divest From the Occupation Campaign.”

Would all of us American artists be associated with this other content on the JVP website?

In my original article, I indicated that I felt “tricked.” But having now spoken at length with several organizers and the director of JVP, as well as a prominent co-signer of the letter, I recognize that the JVP never intended to disguise nor “trick” or make use of a hidden agenda in approaching the American artists. While the solicitation I received was denuded of any mention of JVP sponsorship or links to its site, JVP does seem to have been forthright with everyone who signed the letter and stressed that many of the signers may have been coming from different points of view pertaining to other issues related to Israel-Palestine, but on this issue of supporting the protesting Israeli artists, all the American artists and JVP were united. I accept this absolutely and regret any inference to the contrary.

Further, I initially mischaracterized the JVP position on boycotting Israeli products and their targeted campus divestment campaign. While I have strong negative feelings about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and differ from JVP in our respective viewpoints about BDS, I have come to a better understanding of the limited nature of JVP’s anti-Occupation initiatives.

Here is JVP’s unambiguous statement, online for everyone to see if they sufficiently click through, about what the boycott is not:

“It is NOT about divesting from companies that do business in Israel or with the Israeli government.

“It is NOT about divesting from Israeli companies. It is NOT about academic or cultural boycotts of Israel.

“And here is what it is: Divesting from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation (including) companies operating in the occupied territories, exploiting Palestinian labor, providing material or labor for the settlements, etc.”

As part of a recent exchange with JVP executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson, I wrote of the difference between Israeli artists making a decision not to perform in the West Bank, and the dangers of imprecision when Western artists and activists begin boycotting Israel as a whole in the name of the occupation.

“The recent decisions by Western performers and filmmakers not to present in Israel – within the Green Line – as a way of protesting the Occupation and the sustaining and expansion of settlements BEYOND the Green Line – is really a kind of litmus test as to whether a selective boycott and divestment campaign – the kind that JVP wishes to endorse – can accomplish its goals. I’d much rather see the estimable energies of JVP supporting the Obama administration’s efforts at driving toward a two-state solution, a settlement freeze, and ultimate disengagement from most of the West Bank, and seek a unified approach to supporting a workable peace framework – and dismantling of settlements – rather than risk what the BDS movement actually does, which is not make a distinction between Occupation and Israel’s right to exist; supporting Israel as a democratic base.”

I continued, “From our exchange, I don’t at all see Jewish Voice for Peace as the enemy or the problem; it’s truly a question of tactics and perhaps even of shock value as to the impact of words and image. Your campaign is professional, effective, and will obviously be growing in numbers as it does pick up more radicalized proponents on campuses.

“I’m not going to go over to the divestment camp. I support the choice not to perform in or legitimize the West Bank Occupation. I think there are many more eloquent and less damaging ways to demonstrate that position rather than smearing mud on a bikini clad body and boycotting Ahava products. I can only take the JVP-endorsed partner organization, Code Pink at their word about the West Bank kibbutz that manufactures Ahava. I have read differing accounts of its derivation. The Dead Sea itself, drying up though it is, supports legitimate business within the Green Line as well. There may be ecological reasons for protesting companies that remove potash from the sea, but these companies may operate on either side of the Green Line. I’m uncomfortable supporting a selective product boycott, mostly because of how it can extend to encompass legitimately produced Israeli products.

“But I do understand the attempt to present a laser-beam focus on the Occupation. What I appreciate about the approach of other Pro-Israel Pro-Peace groups is that they recognize the need not to demonize Israel in the process of being critical of its occupation. Does Jewish Voice for Peace give off that same assurance? I will take your sincere word that it does, and that the text is there on the website to support that dialectical messaging. Or perhaps further clarifying text early on in the web-viewers experience would help position JVP for its broader introduction to the mainstream Jewish community. I believe that JVP is positioned to galvanize a portion of the left-wing community ready to mobilize against Israel and its Occupation, but in the process, unless there are refinements to the way it presents itself to the broader public, it may be seen as part of the “illegitimacy” movement, and less the peace movement. But I could be wrong.”

Rebecca Vilkomerson responded, “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the whole tone of our exchange. And, even more, how much I appreciate your prompt and thorough revision of your piece.

Clearly we have differences of opinion on tactics and politics, but i believe we are part of the same movement and care about the same principles.”

Such was my dialogue with the American Jewish left – while contemplating the actions of the Israeli artistic left – during these Days of Awe.

Ari Roth is the Artistic Director of Theater J in Washington DC

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