“Before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived…We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house.”
— Moshe Dayan, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, speaking at the funeral of an Israeli farmer killed by a Palestinian in April 1956
The public debate over the Israeli Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign was reignited recently with the news that the illegal West Bank colony of Ariel would soon be opening its newly-constructed, multi-million dollar cultural center and would host performances by several of Israel’s leading theater companies in its auditorium, built — tragically — by the very Palestinian construction workers that Israel has occupied and dispossessed. The announcement marked the first time these notable Israeli drama groups would be performing outside of the 1949 Armistice Line in Israeli-occupied Palestine.
Within days of the report, over 50 Israeli actors, directors, playwrights, and producers had signed onto a letter addressed to the boards of Israel’s repertory theaters declaring their refusal to perform in Ariel, which is the fourth largest settlement in the West Bank. The letter stated:
We wish to express our disgust with the theater’s board’s plans to perform in the new auditorium in Ariel. The actors among us hereby declare that we will refuse to perform in Ariel, as well as in any other settlement. We urge the boards to hold their activity within the sovereign borders of the State of Israel within the Green Line.
Condemnation and outrage were quick to come from the Israeli government, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticizing what he called the “international delegitimization assault” on Israel through academic, cultural, and economic boycotts and stating, “The last thing we need now is an attempt of boycotts from within.” Other ministers chimed in with their own, often fascist, statements, all implicitly (some explicitly) treating the militarized and messianic Jewish communities in the Palestinian West Bank as part of Israel, which they are not. (Though, this should hardly be surprising considering that Netanyahu himself referred to Ariel — with a straight face and utter contempt for international law — as the “capital of Samaria” and an “indisputable” part of Israel during a visit to the colony early this year. Additionally, Israel’s racist, child-beating Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who openly calls for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, lives in the illegal West Bank settlement of Nokdim.)
Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz called the boycott letter “unthinkable” and “a case of unfounded hatred,” before suggesting that the government withdraw funding from theater companies which refuse to perform in Ariel. He also expressed his desire for the dissenting performers to be fired. “I hope that those who fail to fulfill their contracts will be removed from the theater,” he said, continuing, “There’s a limit to everything.” Everything, that is, according to Steinitz, except decades upon decades of land theft and apartheid.
Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz, regretful of “the fact that people mix culture with politics,” called the boycott “inappropriate” and scolded one of the signatories for not serving in the Israeli military. It can be assumed that Hershkowitz doesn’t find it inappropriate for Israel to use its science and technology to harvest and traffic human organs and spy on the telephone calls and emails of “governments, international organizations, foreign companies, political groups and individuals” in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Europe.
Echoing Hershkowitz, the mayor of Ariel, Ron Nachman claimed, “Culture has nothing to do with politics. If the actors and artists want to deal with politics, let them go to the Knesset. The vileness, baseness and hypocrisy of those who work in culture and call on a boycott of us, is intolerable,” while Naftali Bennett, the Director-General of the Yesha Council which speaks collectively for the municipal organizations of illegal West Bank settlements (which is all of them), blamed the motion on the “unfounded hatred and factionalism” that have historically affected the Jewish people. A counter-campaign by a group called Our Land of Israel declared that the “liberals and enlightened” are “always on the Arabs’ side,” called the letter’s signers “traitors,” and suggested these enemies of Israel should perform in Gaza.
In one of the more ironic condemnations, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai opined, “Those who work in a theater financed with public funds cannot refuse to perform in places decided by the theater’s management,” and expanded on his broader belief that, “A person who is part of the public system and works must respect the management’s decisions.” One wonders if Huldai extends this responsibility to Nazi soldiers and concentration camp guards who were “just following orders.” Perhaps he should bone up on his knowledge of the Nuremburg Principles, the fourth of which affirms,
The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.
The Israeli signatories of the boycott letter are clearly better versed in international law than the mayor of Tel Aviv. Citing both Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (“The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”) and the very first Nuremberg Principal (“Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment.”), Israeli dramaturgist Vardit Shalfi, one of the letter’s initiators, clearly explained,
Ariel is not a legitimate community, and as such, is against international law and international treaties that the State of Israel has signed. This means anyone performing there would be considered a criminal according to international law. The theater’s boards should inform their actors that there are apartheid roads for Jews only that lead into the settlement of Ariel. The moment we perform there, we are giving legitimization to this settlement’s existence.
Despite the aggressive condemnation (including the heckling of two actors who signed the letter by an Israeli parliamentarian and his aide during the performance of a play in Tel Aviv), the boycott quickly received support from influential sectors of Israeli society, as well as internationally. By the following week, over 150 Israeli academics, including professors Zeev Sternhell, Shlomo Sand, and Neve Gordon, signed a letter in solidarity with the Ariel boycott which states, “We will not take part in any kind of cultural activity beyond the Green Line, take part in discussions and seminars, or lecture in any kind of academic setting in these settlements.” In another supportive statement signed by several dozen noted Israeli authors David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua, and Amos Oz, the signatories warn that “legitimization and acceptance of the settler enterprise cause critical damage to Israel’s chances of achieving a peace accord with its Palestinian neighbors.”