The complexity of boycotts

by tobybee

John Greyson, a film director, has decided to pull his film ‘Covered’ from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) because of the involvement and promotion of the City of Tel Aviv, in the Festival. As he writes in his letter to the directors of the festival,

“Let’s be clear: my protest isn’t against the films or filmmakers you’ve chosen. I’ve seen brilliant works of Israeli and Palestinian cinema at past TIFFs, and will again in coming years. My protest is against the Spotlight itself, and the smug business-as-usual aura it promotes of a “vibrant metropolis [and] dynamic young city… commemorating it’s centennial”, seemingly untroubled by other anniversaries, such as the 42nd anniversary of the occupation. Isn’t such an uncritical celebration of Tel Aviv right now akin to celebrating Montgomery buses in 1963, California grapes in 1969, Chilean wines in 1973, Nestles infant formula in 1984, or South African fruit in 1991?

You’re probably groaning right now — “inflammatory rhetoric!” — but I mention these boycott campaigns because they were specific and strategic to their historic moments, and certainly complex. Like these others, the Israel boycott has been the subject of much debate, with many of us struggling with difficult questions of censorship, constructive engagement and free speech. In our meeting, for instance, you said you supported economic boycotts like South Africa’s, but not cultural boycotts. Three points: South Africa was also a cultural boycott (asking singers not to play Sun City); culture is one of Canada’s (and Israel’s) largest economic sectors (this spotlight is funded by a Canadian Ministry of Industry tourism grant, after all); and the Israel rebrand campaign explicitly targets culture as a priority sector. Many will still say a boycott prevents much needed dialogue between possible allies. That’s why, like Chile, like Nestles, the strategic and specific nature of each case needs to be considered. For instance, I’m helping organize a screening in September for the Toronto Palestinian Film Festival, co-sponsored by Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and the Inside Out Festival. It’s a doc that profiles Ezra Nawi, the queer Israeli activist jailed for blocking army bulldozers from destroying Palestinian homes. Technically, the film probably qualifies as meeting the technical criteria of boycott — not because it was directed by an Israeli filmmaker, but because it received Israeli state funding. Yet all concerned have decided that this film should be seen by Toronto audiences, especially Jews and Palestinians — a strategic, specific choice, and one that has triggered many productive discussions.”

Jewish Peace News has his full letter here. I highly recommend reading it.

I post this because I appreciate the complexity that he draws out in his explanation of why he is boycotting at this particular movement. It makes it clear that the boycott is a tactic, and one that has no clear boundaries and methods of application. And that, in these situations, to not do anything is to support the status quo, which is the Occupation. But also that the boycott is hard, and that its application requires so much of everyone. The strength of his political statement written with the complexity of his analysis is, I find, moving.