When, in 1963, Samuel Beckett endorsed “Playwrights Against Apartheid,” a statement instructing the signers’ literary agents to refuse performance rights in segregated theaters, he made public his recognition that a contract with the agency Curtis Brown Ltd was directly related to the oppression of Black South Africans. In addition to their financial and reputational effects, boycotts shorten the perceived distances between moral actors.
“Opportunities to collectively refuse are not unfair burdens but continuations of collective resistance,” wrote Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett in their call for artists to boycott the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Their article mapped how tear gas—a key product of Safariland, owned by Warren B. Kanders, the museum board’s (now former, thanks to the authors’ efforts) Vice Chair—had choked protestors from Sudan to Tijuana to Ferguson. It was published on Artforum.com under the tenure of David Velasco, who was recently fired by the magazine’s parent company, Penske Media Corporation, for publishing another open letter, signed by several thousand members of the art community, against Israel's genocidal war on Gaza. Velasco’s ousting mobilized his former writers to boycott Artforum and all publications owned by Penske, including Artnews and Art in America; editors resigned in solidarity, and readers unsubscribed. As with the 47 playwrights Beckett joined, writers currently boycotting Artforum, Poetry, and others that repress pro-Palestinian speech are collectively organizing to prevent culture from abetting oppression. These coalitions suggest that even when those involved have little financial or political power, and even when their fields are far from the action’s target, boycotts work.
In 2005, members of Palestinian civil society created the movement known as Boycott, Divest, Sanctions, or BDS—inspired by the struggle against apartheid in South Africa—to mobilize popular support against Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Its cultural arm, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), came first, established by Palestinian academics in Ramallah in 2004 on the grounds that cultural workers and institutions funded by the Israeli government are also implicated in maintaining Israel’s settler colonial control. The PACBI guidelines are simple: they ask that institutions make a public commitment to refuse material support from the state of Israel and to reject projects that normalize Israel’s forced dispossession of Palestinians. The boycott is not interminable. It will end when Israel ends its occupation of Palestine, recognizes the equal rights of Arab-Palestinians, and lets refugees return home.
In the past several weeks––as Israel increases its indiscriminate murdering of civilians as a form of collective punishment for Hamas’s October 7th attack––BDS has received renewed attention, and dozens of cultural organizations have issued public statements endorsing the PACBI boycott. These organizations include venues like Human Resources Los Angeles (HRLA), Small Press Traffic in San Francisco, and The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s in New York City; small-press publishers such as City Lights, Nightboat Books, and Semiotext(e); periodicals such as Parapraxis and Momus; and bookstores like Stories in Los Angeles.
The Poetry Project’s recent PACBI commitment had been in the works for several years now. As Executive Director Kyle Dacuyan explained: “Even though we’re in this broader cultural moment of new attention, for our organization, this was not new reflection.” The staff appreciated that the commitment required a direct action, rather than a statement of mere solidarity: “We felt called to this campaign because we realized that it would call us to actually materially change our work.” The Poetry Project canceled, for example, events that had been scheduled in partnership with New York University, which has a campus in Tel Aviv, and with 92Y; they pulled from the latter before the announcement that 92Y had canceled Viet Thanh Nguyen's reading because of his public criticism of Israel. Dacuyan hopes that “organizations across all artistic fields begin to seriously reflect on the case for this campaign.”
This momentum has also encouraged organizations like Queer|Art and Wendy’s Subway to issue statements reaffirming their prior commitment to the tenets of BDS. Queer|Art noted that arts organizations need to catch up to the artists they represent, who “have long been on the frontlines of movements for Palestinian liberation.” These organizations must resist the Israeli government’s attempts at “artwashing” their war crimes, using culture to cloak its atrocities against Palestinian people. “We suggest organizations and individuals begin thinking about such acts of solidarity as a step towards community building,” said Gelare Khoshgozaran of HRLA, describing it as “an opportunity to put your decolonial framework and commitment to social justice into practice, and to follow a model of resistance that is both completely nonviolent, and follows a historical model which led to the end of apartheid in South Africa.”
Nightboat Books endorsed PACBI in a unanimous vote of board and staff on November 15. This decision followed much internal discussion as well as editorial attendance at a Poetry Project teach-in. Stephen Motika, the press’s Director and Publisher, stressed that the question of small press editorial decisions “does not touch the magnitude of the genocide happening in Palestine,” but that the teach-in helped them see the value of working in coalition with other institutions to meet the longstanding request from Palestinian civilians. Since then, Motika noted, the question has only felt closer to home, especially with Israeli police’s kidnapping and beating of poet Mosab Abu Toha as he attempted to cross into Egypt with his family.
Like other cultural boycotts, PACBI reveals intentionally obscured ties—in this case, between the recent massacre of children in Gaza hospitals to the operations of even the smallest-scale cultural institutions abroad. But other connections between Zionism and non-Israeli cultural institutions are more obvious, including the speed with which individuals are punished for solidarity (real or presumed) with Palestine. In what he described as “among the most deeply distressing days of my life,” Ranjit Hoskote—who does not himself support the boycott—resigned from Documenta after being accused of anti-Semitism for having signed, four years ago, a petition against a far-right event on “Zionism and Hindutva.” His letter described the repressive state of discourse in Germany at the moment, where it is illegal to protest in support of a ceasefire, and where lawmakers are considering a bill that would make “commitment to Israel’s right to exist” a precondition of citizenship. In the UK, the87press is under investigation from the Arts Council for its statement in support of Palestine. New York State’s Executive Order 157 effectively boycotts the boycott by forbidding State agencies from investing in organizations that support BDS.
These financial and cultural connections are so manifold, in fact, that the boycott requires participants to focus on collective, strategic targets. The point is not for every artist, administrator, curator, editor, or agent to become a part-time researcher of financial statements, but to make a public, material commitment to refuse to be complicit in the ongoing genocide.
The more difficult question is what like-minded organizations should do when they rely on relationships with donors or partner institutions who would sever ties in response to any public commitment to the liberation of Palestine. Jennifer Doyle, President of HRLA's Board of Directors, had not anticipated finding, at their first organizing meeting, a team already at consensus. But she encourages organizations with less agreement to push ahead, and to consider rethinking the board and funding structure where necessary: if “you feel you cannot say publicly what you know to be true—that is a real problem.”
Similarly, organizations should address the concerns of otherwise supportive members who worry that their anti-Zionism could be conflated with anti-Semitism, or that boycotts suppress speech. “To write critically about Zionism in Palestine has therefore never meant, and does not mean now, being anti-Semitic,” wrote Edward Said in “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims” (1979). Said goes on to describe how the intentional conflation of the two positions made it possible for the same person to “thus oppose South African or American racism and at the same time tacitly support Zionist racial discrimination.” In working towards endorsement, one should return to the core principles of the BDS movement, which clarify that organizations, rather than individuals (and never identities) are the boycott’s target. Statements can also explicitly refuse this confusion. For example: “Queer|Art rejects antisemitism in all forms and recognizes it as a co-constitutive part of white supremacy. We oppose any conflation between advocacy of, on the one hand, Palestinian rights and opposition to the apartheid policies of the state of Israel, and on the other, racism, hatred, and discrimination against Jewish people.” PACBI statements can also affirm the BDS’ National Committee’s explicit support for freedom of expression.
In our own work with Writers Against the War on Gaza (WAWOG), we’ve spoken to organizations that were able to endorse PACBI with one or more “abstaining” members of the board, and to others who have quietly but meaningfully divested from collaboration with Israeli institutions—refusing to promote events in Haifa, say, or to publish work that normalizes the occupation—but who feel a public endorsement of these practices would pose an existential threat to the work they do.
But existence is precisely the issue. “In the case of PACBI, you are refusing to sustain yourself at the cost of normalizing settler colonialism and apartheid in Palestine,” commented Khoshgozaran, describing how PACBI commitments are an opportunity for institutions to evaluate the “hidden” cost of the support they receive.
At this stage, it is smaller presses, venues, and publications who are offering a model of cultural support for Palestine that we hope can extend far beyond its current scope. At the same time, we are reminded that financial independence also affords relative editorial and creative freedom. While a total absence of major donors might prevent reaching the large audiences some artists want, it also means those donors cannot bribe you into pretending you lack a conscience.