MORE THAN EVER!
For more than 20 years now, many people have joined me in warning about the horror scenario presently unfolding before our eyes in Gaza and the Occupied Territories. Anyone who has visited the area in the past decades could see how mutual incomprehension and extremism on both sides slowly increased, day by day. The increasingly right-wing, ultra-nationalist and violent policies of successive Israeli governments and the violence of illegal settlers, supported by the Israel Defence Force (IDF), towards the Palestinians, is part and parcel of this escalation.
As we are inundated with figures and images from Gaza and the Occupied Territories that are blowing us away every day for the past month, the call for resoluteness to stop the violence is getting louder and louder. My mind is too small to understand how anyone can or dares defend Israel's right to protect and defend itself in this way. For starters, it is incomprehensible that on 7 October it took several hours before the IDF reacted to the Hamas massacres on the Gaza border (and let me be clear, and perhaps I should repeat this loud and clear 1405 times first: I condemn the atrocity perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October 2023, it defies all imagination and will be hard to erase from our visual and mental memory). But beyond that, how can one defend the 10,000+ dead ‒ more than half of them children and women ‒ 30,000 wounded and more than a million civilians fleeing and without homes, as proportional "revenge"?
Taking to the streets, waving flags, organising information evenings and fundraising shows, … they all have their value and significance as actions, of course. But isn't it time that artists and arts centres, which always present themselves as the people with whom and the places where genuine social engagement takes place, stand up and take a firmer position? Unconditionally supporting the (cultural) boycott of Israel, for instance. If anyone still doubts that Israel has become an extremely violent apartheid state, they have been living on Mars for the past decades. Mind you, this is the first time a Belgian prime minister, notably Alexander De Croo, has dared to utter the words "disproportionate violence by Israel" while our development minister Caroline Gennez had the audacity to talk about sanctions against Israel. At least these are small but important boosts.
I don't know if there are many other artists or arts centres in Belgium that openly support BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions), but I have tried to convince many of them to join. Because in my opinion BDS is the only non-violent but clear and compelling action one can take and because it would be a powerful signal if many of us would openly support this initiative.
Avi Mograbi, a Jewish-Israeli filmmaker, when asked what he thought of BDS, once replied "I will support any action that can put the Israeli government under heavy pressure to stop its violence towards the Palestinian population, even when that would mean the boycott of my own work".
Let me reiterate clearly: BDS is not a contract you sign, or an organisation you buy a membership card from, it is joining a non-violent citizens' movement (mainly supported by artists and academics) that supports and implements the (cultural) boycott of Israel. How you go about that and how far you want to go is up to you as an individual or organisation. As for myself: for the past 20 years, I have refused invitations to present my work in Israel (just before 7 October, we explained to a film festival in Tel Aviv that they were not allowed to screen our film Why we fight?, selected for that festival). Also I do not collaborate with organisations supported by the Israeli government. However, it has never stopped me from continuing to work together with Jewish and Israeli artists here on the ground.
Along the way, I wanted to understand the hesitation of many artists and arts centres and culture houses to support this (cultural) boycott: the consequences of such a decision are onerous: you are targeted and criticised, accused of anti-Semitism, in some cases even threatened and definitely censored and cancelled ... I know a lot about that by now.
In 2020, for example, C(H)OEURS was invited as the opening performance in the Rührtriennale (Germany) but the local minister of culture, Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen, put a stop to it. She exerted heavy pressure on the Rührtriennale's intendant to cancel C(H)OEURS because her administration had found out that Alain Platel supports BDS.
At first I found it hard to believe that a performance, in which about a hundred people were participating, would be cancelled because of a personal (political) conviction of one individual and so I asked for a meeting with the minister. After insisting for a long time, this meeting took place and was particularly unpleasant, all the more when it turned out that one of her staff kept a file on me. That was also the time that a resolution had been passed in Germany urging cultural institutions to screen individuals or organisations for their participation in BDS. If such was attested, the ‘culprits’ risked sanctions or the withdrawal of their subsidies.
At the time, we considered taking legal action against that decision ‒ as a number of other organisations did (successfully). But in our case, no written agreements had yet been signed between the Rührtriënnale and Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, so we had no legal leg to stand on.
The internationally renowned and highly respected Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe met the same fate. He was supposed to give the opening speech at the same Rührtriennale but was also cancelled by the Ministry of Culture because of his support for BDS. He did go on the counterattack.
Apart from eradicating Hamas ‒ and thereby planting the seeds for the next generation of extremists! ‒ there is apparently no future plan on the table for Gaza, the Occupied Territories and the Palestinians tout court. Or it should be the occasionally leaked reports in which members of the Israeli government commend the expulsion of all Palestinians to the Egyptian Sinai desert or neighbouring Jordan.
How one is going to rebuild the indescribable material destruction, let alone repair the mental devastation in this and future generations of Gazans, is not what one is thinking about right now. What irreparable damage this situation is causing in the long-diminishing confidence of many people in the region but also here, in the moral authority and ethical choices made by "the West", such appears not to be an issue for now.
Personally, I have long believed that finding a good solution to ‘the situation’ (as the Palestinians on the ground call the conflict) could positively affect global peace and calmness. And however powerless we feel as individuals in the face of such an immense problem, we can indeed make a difference. Joining voices and taking clear positions from where we live and work, so that we can put pressure on both the Israeli government and our own politicians, is one of them.
Alain Platel - theatre maker - 9 November 2023