The Quiet Boycott: When Israeli Art Is Out

A conference in Tel Aviv will explore the impact of the BDS movement on the country’s contemporary art scene.

Shany Littman
Shany Littman
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A frame from one of the works of Israeli video artist Yael Bartana.
A frame from one of the works of Israeli video artist Yael Bartana.
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

For most Israelis, the cultural boycott of the country is felt mainly when a famous singer or a movie star decides not to come here to perform or attend a film festival. But the boycott, which has been in place officially since 2005 as part of the wider campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions, also exists in the field of art, and Israeli artists and art institutions are strongly affected by it. It is practiced overtly as well as covertly, officially and unofficially, and by a variety of groups within the art world.

The boycott includes the refusal of Arab and Palestinian artists to take part in exhibitions abroad that include the works of Israeli artists and the refusal of foreign artists to show their work in Israel. The purpose of the boycott is to raise awareness about the Israeli occupation and Israeli violations of human rights.

Chen Tamir.Credit: Eve Daher Paradowski

On Thursday, a conference, organized by seven curators working in Israel, will be held at Tel Aviv’s Leyvik House, titled Dalut Hacherem: The Cultural Boycott of Israel and What It Means for Israeli Contemporary Art. The organizers — Chen Tamir, Leah Abir, Hila Cohen-Schneiderman, Joshua Simon, Omer Krieger, Udi Edelman and Avi Lubin — will discuss the manifestations of the cultural boycott as it relates to Israel’s contemporary art scene.

Noam Segal.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

In a report summing up her year-long study of the issue, Tamir notes that the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, the main organization behind the effort, focuses mainly on artists, curators and institutions abroad that deal with the Foreign Ministry and other official bodies and much less on what happens within Israel. PACBI, as the organization is called, “recognizes that Israeli artists, Jews and Arabs alike, are allowed to receive funding from the Ministry of Culture and Sports, the same way they are allowed to receive water if they pay taxes,” Tamir says, adding, “They don’t want to do PR for Israel. That is why the boycott is directed outward, and attempts to recruit actors from outside to put pressure on Israel.”

Tamir, who was born in Israel and raised in Canada, holds a Master’s Degree in Curatorial Studies from the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; a B.F.A. in Visual Art; and a B.A. in Anthropology from York University in Toronto. She returned to Israel two and a half years ago and is the curator of the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. She also works with Artis, a nonprofit organization based in New York that supports and promotes artists from Israel internationally. She says that when she meets people in her field abroad, the issue of the cultural boycott against Israel always comes up.

Tamir’s report began as an internal document for Artis, and only later was a decision made to organize a conference around it.

“Many people in the field asked me about it, so I realized that people need to know more about it. That is also the purpose of the conference, since it’s something that greatly affects the art world but it doesn’t have a lot of visibility,” Tamir says.

That lack of visibility stems in part from the fact that artists who choose not to cooperate with Israel do not always admit this openly. Sometimes they simply fail to respond to emails or cite other reasons not to show their work in Israel. Because there is no active protest in such cases, says Tamir, “It’s very difficult to concretize because it’s actually the absence of something.” For the same reason it is difficult to determine how many Israeli artists have not been invited to events abroad as a result of the boycott.

But for some cultural events overseas the boycott’s impact is tangible. That was the case for the 2014 Sao Paulo biennial. “It was right after the [Gaza] war in the summer, relations between Israel and Brazil were tense,” explains Tamir. “The biennial is one of the biggest art events in the world, and [last] year it was curated by a group that included two Israeli curators, Galit Eilat and Oren Sagiv. The biennial requested support from the Israeli Embassy in Brazil, along with all the other embassies, and Israel gave money. A few days before the opening, objections were raised. A compromise was reached, according to which the money from the Israeli Foreign Ministry would be used only by Israeli artists taking part in the biennial. That way the foreign artists would ostensibly not be benefiting from money that came from Israel, Tamir says.

Another example of the cultural boycott at the height of Operation Protective Edge was the cancelation of Belu-Simion Fainaru’s participation in the International Canakkale Biennial, in Turkey. In a letter to the Israeli sculptor, the artistic director of the biennial, Beral Madra, explained that given the cultural-political-social situation in Turkey Fainaru’s presence or the display of his work at the event would be inappropriate. She noted that even though the message of his work was pro-peace, it related to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and that the organizers of this biennial were determined to avoid the inclusion of any work containing national or religious symbolism.

Noam Segal, who in the past several years has curated a number of exhibitions that have included artists from abroad, says the refusal to show in Israel can take many forms. “I wanted to invite Laure Provost, the winner of the 2013 Turner Prize, to participate in an exhibition I’m working on, but she is a signatory to the boycott and won’t come. The same goes for Mark Leckey, who said it in a different way. Other artists have not officially signed on to the boycott but don’t respond to the invitation and it’s clear they don’t want to come. In September an exhibition I curated opened in Los Angeles and most of the artists were Israeli. There were a few journalists who wrote me to say they were impressed by the exbibition, but due to the current situation they preferred not to write reviews of exhibitions that were identified as Israeli.”

One of the goals of Thursday’s conference is to raise awareness about the existence of the boycott. “It’s a very sensitive subject that gets people fired up, for good and for ill,” says Tamir. “Within our group, some people support the boycott and some oppose it, and there are those who are aware of the contradiction, since it’s difficult to boycott yourself. We ask ourselves how is it possible to work in the field of art, that tries to be international, and at the same time to deal with a boycott from outside.”

Tamir draws a connection between the boycott and the threats to freedom of expression within Israel. “Israel is already a kind of an island. On the other hand, within Israel there is more hostility toward freedom of expression. What the war in the summer showed us was very scary. A boycott is a type of freedom of expression. Whether or not you agree with it, people have the right to practice it and to call for it. To discuss the issue of whether it’s justified or not is a different matter, but even if people have controversial views they have a right to express them.

“It’s very difficult for someone who supports both freedom of expression and freedom of action. There’s a contradiction. That’s the main issue of the boycott. If we remain completely alone here, with only our own voices and no international artist agrees to exhibit here, what would that tell us?”

One of the speakers at the conference, Hila Cohen-Schneiderman, a curator at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art who also works independently, plans to offer a proposal she calls “utopian.” She argues that Israel is already disconnected from the Arab world, preferring to “think that we belong to Europe or the United States.” The Arab boycott only reinforces this tendency. Instead she proposes that “if Arab artists were to exhibit here and make us see the place we belong to, it would be much more effective.” In that spirit she wanted to include in an upcoming exhibition a piece by Rabia Mroue,a Lebanese artist, about the civil war in Syria.

“I asked him for permission to show the work and never got an answer. In the end I came to understand in a roundabout way that the answer was negative. I see it as vital for the Israeli audience to see what is happening in Syria. If an artist like James Turrell were to boycott Israel but an artist like Rabia Mroue were to show his works here, we would benefit much more.”

Udi Edelman, a curator at the Israeli Center for Digital Art who also works independently and is one of the conference organizers, says he finds it difficult to either support fully or reject fully the idea of the boycott.

“Going all the way with it means deciding that we will no longer invite international artists, but that is a very difficult think and it isn’t necessarily the right decision. On the other hand, it would be interesting to have international artists consider these questions more deeply. If they boycott, they should do it openly or go deeper into the questions of our existence here.”

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