To begin with, I want to thank Joshua Cohen for actually responding to my piece in Dispatches. Despite the apparently polemical nature of some of what appears on the site, the intention is to get people to actually stand behind what they write: to discuss, debate, convince, disagree, and generally engage out in the open, not behind some cryptic social façade in which everyone seems pleasant enough but it becomes harder and harder to gauge what people actually think and how far they might be willing to go to uphold their convictions. At the same time, I feel like this response has completely sidestepped my original concern: why hasn’t the circle of BDS activism widened to more grass roots involvement and consciousness among poets and writers whose positions of prominence and influence could give some of these campaigns a tremendous boost, and why would that be important? Is it because of the concerns Joshua voices about “the universal humanities dilemma” and the fight between “the state” and “the humanities”? I think not…

But before getting to that a few details are in order because I think there is either a mistake here or a misrepresentation of how BDS actually operates. The examples brought up in the response, that of Gideon Toury and the Batsheva Dance Company, do not at all fulfill the criteria delineated, of the uninstitutionalized or the deinstitutionalized artist, presented or implied as idealistic and long suffering, the light of “secular” society, the last great hope for Israel. This vocabulary might inadvertently trivialize Israelis who actually are taking risks, the soldiers who go to jail instead of serving in the army, those who serve witness at checkpoints or bring relief through blockades, the Arab and Jewish Israeli citizens who have chosen to support BDS by creating Boycott From Within.

The case of Gideon Toury, a very prominent academic and translator, actually occurred in 2002, prior to any formalized BDS movement, and was considered controversial at the time, even among some supporters of a cultural boycott. There’s no need to go into details as they’re readily accessible from various points of view, but it simply doesn’t fit the bill for the criteria Joshua is claiming as relevant. In addition, I’m not sure which incident Joshua references regarding the Batsheva Dance Company but, back in 2012, Batsheva was on tour under the auspices of the very pernicious Brand Israel campaign, a specific PR effort aimed at countering the increased levels of publicity the BDS movement was eliciting in the cultural sphere. In a vigorous campaign in Edinburgh targeting the appearance of Batsheva, artistic director Oded Naharin actually initiated contact with BDS campaigners at a debate prior to the performance and stated that he would be ready to publicly disassociate himself from the Brand Israel campaign and declare his opposition to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. As Naharin was about to make a statement, Batsheva general manager Dina Aldor stepped in to prevent him from speaking.

Why would she have done this? Could it have been because the Israeli Minister of Culture was in attendance, letting reporters know that “the Batsheva Dance Company is one of our flagship cultural institutions” or that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on its website that the company is “the best known global ambassador of Israeli culture?” Apparently, protesters greeting theatergoers in a by then half-filled venue with the chant “Your tickets were covered in Palestinian blood” saw the connection. The point here is that, were it not for those protestors, business would have gone on as usual. Their presence not only sparked awareness and debate, it also exposed how cultural activity cannot shield itself from the political realm and political liability, a key point in driving a wedge between the propagandistic projection of Israeli culture as a bastion of democracy and freedom of expression, and the actuality of conditions on the ground.

But why would these protesters have disrupted a lovely evening of dance? Well, because in 2005, close to 200 Palestinian civic organizations—ranging from the General Federation of Trade Unions and the General Union of Palestinian Teachers to the Khalil al Sakakini Cultural Center and the Ghassan Kanafani Forum, with agricultural workers, human rights organizations, lawyers, dentists, hydrologists, environmentalists, prisoner associations, doctors, medical relief workers and everyone in-between—called upon people the world over to respond to the political impasse with action, creating a widespread and well thought out non-violent, civic campaign that might, for once, put Israel on the defensive.

The typical targets of action have never been individual Israelis for being Israeli, as Joshua claims, but those supported by institutions complicit in the occupation. In the recent BDS action aimed at the PEN American Center, the point was not to ban the Israelis invited from participating but to ask PEN not to accept official Israeli government sponsorship and/or funding. In fact, people signing onto the protest suggested raising money to pay for the Israeli participants coming over but PEN American Center was adamant about not deviating from their position. A number of the signatories, Russell Banks included, stated that they were against a cultural boycott but were in support of this action. The point here is that, rather than pitting “the humanities” against “the state,” BDS remains situational, using actions and campaigns to bring to light various forms of complicity and force discussions into the open that have remained in the shadows far too long, particularly through US lock step media propaganda in which public support for Palestine or criticism of Israel has been made tantamount to treason. Of course, the logic behind such an extreme position is always in direct and inverse proportion to what is being hidden or obfuscated, and there is much in the US / Israeli relationship kept hidden or spun in the most fantastic manner, ranging from the obscene amounts of money US taxpayers shell out for military aid, the refusal of the US to acknowledge Israel’s nuclear capability (despite the heroic efforts of former political prisoner and nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu), to the cover up of the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in which 34 crew members were killed and 171 wounded, or the professed projection of the US as a “fair broker” in the conflict, to mention just a few bigger ticket items.

To say that the BDS movement has had spectacular victories would be an understatement, and this can be gauged not only by the cancelation of tours by various artists as well as disinvestment by various corporations and groups but, perhaps, just as accurately by local and global reactions. At the City University of New York where I teach, the largest urban public university in the United States, an institution that has graduated more students of color than any other in the country, $436 million, close to half the university’s operating costs, was recently held up by Governor Cuomo and the state legislature until the “rampant anti-semitism at CUNY campuses” was investigated. While these allegations were quite vague and the students charged were quickly exonerated, the reams of publicity generated in the mainstream press remained. The first person called in to the newly formed “CUNY Task Force on anti-semitism,” headed by two lawyers making $1000 an hour, was Distinguished Professor and novelist Sarah Schulman, a highly visible activist for Palestinian rights. Apparently no one else has been asked to appear before this august body. In effect, withholding the budget, charging the students without basis, creating the task force and vilifying a prominent supporter of BDS was all an orchestrated reaction to the widespread activism, visibility, and success of Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as the Doctoral Students Council decision to endorse BDS. And anyone who thinks that support for BDS or Palestine does not have “professional” repercussions, is simply naïve or misinformed. In the larger sphere, the outright vilification of BDS by Hillary Clinton, the flap about Labor and the former Mayor of London’s position on Palestine in the UK, and US policy decisions as well as possible false flag operations in France are all moves to instill fear in citizens, politicians, parties, and even countries having the audacity to try and deviate from US Middle East policy regarding Israel/Palestine.

So: what does all this have to do with poets and writers? At the end of his statement, Joshua proclaims:

“The true fight is, and forever will be, between the humanities and the military-industrial race state—not between, or within, the humanities.”

This sounds like a noble sentiment on the face of it, but a little history provides us with more accurate antennae to hear where, exactly, the news and nature of the fight is located. The ability of a popular, civilian, non-violent movement to define itself, gain allegiance, and garner attention must, by definition, concentrate on the arts, on the image and rhythm makers: writers, poets, musicians, journalists, photographers, visual artists, dancers, theater ensembles, and all manner of public performers. When has this not been the case? For those who care to remember or find out, look at the debates between the “humanist” Albert Camus and his former friends novelist Mouloud Feraoun and poet Jean Sénac, both ultimately assassinated for their support of the Algerian revolution. Examples of this kind are legion, from many different countries, languages, and political situations. Here is an excerpt from a very recent interview with Israeli musician Ohal that appeared in BOMB; in answer to a question posed by writer and photographer Jesse Ruddock (“earlier this year you collaborated with Brian Eno on an article published in Vice, urging musicians to boycott Israel in support of Palestinians. It’s a conversation the American media actively resists, so how did it go?), Ohal responds:

“It was good to address this on a popular platform. Palestinian civil society issued the call for a boycott over a decade ago, but many artists and cultural workers are still unaware of it. If they are, they usually try to steer away from talking about it as fast as possible…Israel pushes the idea that the conflict is rooted in religion, that no one really knows how it started or how on earth we ended up here. People hear the words “Palestine and Israel” or “Israel and Palestine,” and they think it’s a big epochal mystery, when really it’s a very clear human rights issue. Israel, with help from the US, has done a great job marketing its systematic oppression of Palestinians as a symmetrical conflict between two peoples. But there is an oppressor and an oppressed. Israel still holds millions of Palestinians under martial law in the West Bank, it still holds a siege on Gaza, and there are fifty discriminatory laws against Palestinians in Israel.”

When queried about “the myth that music and performance can only be a good thing by nature, no matter the circumstance,” a sentiment very much rooted in the amorphous way “the humanities” has been relied on in Joshua’s argument, Ohal responds:

“It’s mind blowing to me that someone can think that bringing their music to Israel will help Palestinians, instead of listening to what Palestinians are calling for. No civil rights struggle in world history shows that an oppressed group won equal rights because their oppressor had a sudden change of heart. Are the Palestinians supposed to wait around for all the Ben Frosts and Macy Grays to show Israelis their life-changing art so that their hearts will open for peace? Social change has always stemmed from struggles enacted by oppressed groups. How can a musician living in Iceland say that boycotts are restricting, when a Palestinian fan won’t be able to come to his show in Tel-Aviv because her freedom of movement, even within her own village, is restricted by the Israeli Army? It’s ridiculous.”

And why would poets and writers themselves somehow be immune to atrocities? Are they, by definition, part of “the humanities”? Can they not also be part of the “military/industrial/race state”? Bosnian Serb nationalist and war criminal Radovan Karadzic fancied himself a poet and propagated a whole mythology spun by other poets and novelists while Russian novelist Eduard Limonov looked over the genocidal activities from the hills above Sarajevo with glee, actually taking a few shots himself at the civilians down below. Yes, examples of this kind are also legion, from many different countries, languages, and situations. We do, after all, have the 20th c. behind us. No one is immune.

As Ed Dorn once so cogently quipped in 1965, in the context of American Indians: “I’m not talking about the “Ugly American” or going to Europe and being loudmouth and insisting on water when people don’t have it or all the crudenesses that we know do exist. That’s not it; that’s another situation altogether. This is simply a matter of how trustworthy can you be if you come from this context. And I assure you, you can’t be very trustworthy. Nobody trusts us. You don’t have to talk about Vietnam. You don’t have to talk about South America. You can talk about Nevada. That’s much closer to home.” Many years later, Dorn’s lifelong friend Amiri Baraka wrote: “We might go back to a particular tradition that upholds a Rexroth, or a Ken Patchen, or a Langston Hughes, or a Henry Dumas, we might understand who a Zora Neale Hurston is, or a Gertrude Stein, but that is not what America is being advertised as around the world. You’re being advertised as the good manners of vampires—so, you don’t kill, you write poems. You don’t bring democracy to Iraq by blowing it up, by killing the children and starving them. You’re the good manners of vampires. You will bite me in the neck, in a poem.”

In order to gain some trust, in order to fight back against “the good manners of vampires,” you have to act in solidarity. Again, I ask, why are not more American poets and writers responding to the call from Palestine?

BOMB Interview with Ohal can be found here: