When BDS Means Boycotting Israeli Palestinians

Criticism of Jordanian singer Aziz Maraqa, who recently performed in a Galilee Arab village, shows how boycotters of Israel dictate the bounds of political-cultural discourse – and expect Palestinian citizens living in the country to unquestioningly obey it

Singer Aziz Maraka. Was accused of normalization, collaboration and whitewashing the occupation.

In late December, Tunisian-Jordanian musician Aziz Maraqa performed in the Israeli Arab village Kafr Yasif, in Galilee, before an audience of Palestinian Israelis. As a result, he was accused of normalization, collaboration and whitewashing the occupation, and was attacked in every way possible in the Arab press and on social media. It’s nearly impossible in such a case to separate the artistic from the political. It is difficult to consider Maraqa’s visit to Israel without taking into account the political factors that influenced, directed and shaped the event and the way it's been perceived.

Before I get deep into a discussion of this thorny issue, I want to clarify that I do not question the legitimacy of the existence or the activities of BDS – the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel – as a means of fighting the occupation in a nonviolent way. On the contrary: I think that it is our right as an occupied people to fight the oppression that's exerted upon us on both sides of the Green Line. But at the same time, it is our duty – my duty as a Palestinian and as a journalist – to stop, ask, question, challenge and point out the many political, national and moral failures in the actions of BDS, a movement of Palestinian origin that grew and expanded to the point where it has drawn many supporters worldwide.

For me, Maraqa’s visit raises many basic political-moral issues. When he arrived in Israel, Maraqa went to a “non-occupied” Palestinian city – in the view of the BDS movement. If he would have headed instead to Ramallah, that would have passed part of the political-cultural "test," since it is an occupied city, as far as BDS is concerned.

Supporters of the boycott movement essentially make the twisted argument that someone who goes to Ramallah is visiting the West Bank, while someone who visits towns and villages within Israel proper enters through a border crossing that's under Israeli control. But in fact, entry to Ramallah is also made via a border crossing controlled by Israel. Politically, BDS is thus basically saying that Palestinians in Israel are not under occupation, and that the occupation exists in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As I see it, this type of discourse is the most dangerous and also wrong.

Student activists at Leeds University protest on the UN Solidarity Day with Palestine, in 2017.
Ryan Ashcroft/SOPA Images/LightR

BDS has sketched the geographical, political and cultural boundaries of the occupation as it sees fit - without being in dialogue with the Palestinian citizens of Israel - and expects locales like Kafr Yasif to meekly obey them. The implications of this decision are very dangerous, I believe, because this discourse has created two types of Palestinians: “kosher” Palestinians in the West Bank, before whom it is okay to perform, and “un-kosher” Palestinian citizens of Israel before whom it is forbidden to perform.

When Maraqa was labeled a normalizer of the occupation, the entire Palestinian entity existing within Israel was also marked out as normalizing and whitewashing the occupation and is therefore dismissed as a collective. On what basis? Because of the blue ID cards that these Palestinians hold? What about their collective national affiliation, which they are fighting to preserve?

What’s really infuriating is not just this assertion, but the unquestioning acquiescence to it. How can we, as Palestinians living in Israel, fail to see that this constitutes national disqualification even before cultural disqualification? Isn’t this a continuation of the talk of “betrayal” that's directed at us as Palestinians who live in Israel? How is it not perceived as cultural and national exclusion? Maybe because this time it was done in a clever way, through the prism of a performance by Aziz Maraqa.

Political targeting is also cultural targeting. BDS, which decided that there are two separate cultural arenas, sent a clear message to artists from the Arab world: The Palestinian cultural arena within Israel itself is illegitimate and anyone who dares to challenge that will pay a high price. Now they’ve learned a lesson and won’t dare consider performing in Palestinian cities inside Israel.

This is mainly a political distinction with cultural ramifications. And anyone who thinks that BDS truly considers the implications of the pan-Arab cultural disconnect for the Palestinian cultural scene in Israel is mistaken. It is busy implementing and using the tools of the boycott – without any examination of the impact of this practice in reality.

And if we’re already talking about hypocrisy and double standards: Why was Maraqa pulverized because of his performance in Kafr Yasif, in stark contrast to the reaction to appearances by Mahmoud Darwish, the late Palestinian national poet, in Nazareth and Haifa in 2008? This is not a call to denounce Darwish or others. I only cite this example to illustrate the lack of thought and of any decision in principle concerning artistic interaction with the Palestinian scene inside Israel; instead, there is chaos and petty personal calculations. The borders BDS has set for Palestinian artists and writers within Israel are borders that change in accordance with the artist’s identity.

When Maraqa wrote on Facebook that he would perform before Arab and Palestinian audiences anywhere and that he would not let BDS silence him, he wasn’t trying to put his art above Palestinians’ suffering. He tried to stretch the political-artistic boundaries and make the debate about the cultural boycott more complex. And that is precisely the role of an artist today – for one who is afraid to make waves or upset anyone can hardly call himself an artist.

We would be wrong to think that the assault on Maraqa derives merely from his refusal to bow to BDS demands. I believe the core of the issue lies elsewhere. He indeed exposed the hypocrisy and double standards and so on, but what really provoked the sledgehammer treatment he got from the boycott movement is that his visit forced it to see with its own eyes problems, tensions and failures for which it has not been able to find any solution thus far.

Maraqa placed on the table the issue of the cultural boycott that affects the Palestinians living in Israel. His attempt to widen the bounds of the discourse is what triggered the need to silence him. Moreover, his visit to Israel to perform before a Palestinian audience that is yearning for contact and a connection with the culture of the Arab world had to end this way so as not to create a precedent in which other Arab artists will continue to stretch the limits of political-cultural discourse and also begin coming in droves to perform in Palestinian cities inside Israel. This is the boycott movement’s nightmare scenario – and thus it’s a small leap from denouncing the visit to stifling any discussion of the issue.

As noted, you can’t set criteria for an economic and cultural boycott while ignoring the internal discourse of Palestinians in Israel and expect Kafr Yasif to just go along with it. The criteria for any boycott must be determined through cooperation and open dialogue with the Palestinians who reside in Israel. For yes, they are the ones who will pay the price of the artistic-cultural boycott, and they are the ones who will be impacted by its ramifications, whether immediate or long-term.

Maraqa’s visit only showed us all that we agree and continue to blindly agree to BDS’ dictates without uttering any criticism, asking any questions or having an authentic discussion. This visit was a window of opportunity that was unfortunately missed, by BDS first of all, but also by us Palestinians who live in Israel under an occupation of a different kind. This could have been an opportunity, at last, to address fundamental questions, but instead, not only was the singer himself silenced and crushed – we were all forcibly silenced.