Cultural boycott of Israel counterproductive to peace efforts

by | Nov 6, 2015 | Opinion

Ali Amad
Arts and Entertainment Editor

It isn’t every day that a children’s fantasy writer weighs in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But then again, not every children’s fantasy writer is Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling.

Rowling got in hot water two weeks ago when she signed an open letter opposing a cultural boycott of Israel that was supported by hundreds of artists in February.

The open letter also advocates for peace and dialogue on the conflict in the wider cultural and creative community. It was signed by writers including Niall Ferguson and Hilary Mantel, as well as several British MPs, but it was Rowling who found herself in the crosshairs.

Rowling received an avalanche of emails and letters from her fans, some even using examples from her own books to justify why a universal boycott of an oppressive Israel is right.

This comes during a time when violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis are again on the rise, with every day bringing news of further stabbings and assaults in Jerusalem and throughout the region.

Rowling defended herself last week, deploring the actions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but citing Harry Potter character Albus Dumbledore as her own illustration of one who chooses open discourse over violence.

Many of Rowling’s fans, especially Palestinians, felt shocked, even betrayed, by her position on the boycott, but her stance is a noble one.

As a Palestinian myself, I will come to the defense of Rowling.

Keeping my own rage at Israel’s actions aside, actions that have impacted my family and continue to impact them, a boycott of “culture” is objectively never a good idea. It’s as cut and dry as that.

Any kind of indiscriminate blanket boycott must be opposed by those who cherish freedom of expression. A cultural blockade of a single nation is wrong, even if that nation is Israel, and even if you oppose its belligerent use of violence and oppression like I do.

It does more demonstrative harm than any kind of perceivable good. It polarizes people and pushes them towards extremes. It transforms the diverse and numerous views of the Israeli people (of which a significant minority are against Netanyahu’s policies) into an illusory and false monolithic force of persecution.

Regimes across the world engage in this sort of practice. They censor, discriminate and boycott at will. They suffocate artistic expression in their own countries. Whether it’s North Korea, Saudi Arabia or Iran, opposing or contradictory views are stamped out and deleted.

Muslim countries already typically boycott Israeli films, television programs and books. This leaves their citizens ignorant of who the average Israeli is; it strips his humanity and turns him into whatever the regime’s propaganda desires him to be.

For those who argue that Israel has shown its own instances of suppression in throttling Palestinian culture and freedom of expression, their position is a detrimental one.

“If they’re doing it, then we’re going to do it too” is the kind of callous playground logic behind the endlessly protracted violence in the region. It is also the rationale behind countless atrocities perpetrated by both sides in that conflict and many others.

So I say no to cultural boycotts, no to censorship, no to picking and choosing which art is permissible and which art isn’t. Freedom of expression means nothing if it’s conditional on who expresses it.

Open dialogue to help understand and unite one another is the path to overcoming hatred and discrimination. Rowling took a brave position when she signed that open letter, and she probably realized she would take a hefty backlash for it.

But she believed it was the right position on the subject. Her courage to join the voice of reason is one we should all find in ourselves too.