An Open Letter to An Artist

By Mike Alewitz

I began reading John Berger while working as a third-shift machinist for the General Electric Company and attending art school during the day. His words were compelling enough to hold my attention at 3:00 A.M. in the morning, sitting next to my machine in the noisy factory. One of the worlds foremost art critics and writers, Berger’s work has had enormous influence on generations of cultural workers, artists and activists, including myself.

So I was greatly interested, when, on December 15, the Guardian newspaper carried an appeal from him, calling for a cultural boycott of Israel. The letter was also signed by 93 other artists, musicians and intellectuals, including Brian Eno, Arundhati Roy and Eduardo Galeano—some of the leading voices for social justice of our time. The appeal followed an August 2006 statement by Palestinian artists, urging their international colleagues not to visit, exhibit or perform in Israel. Hundreds of progressive artists from around the world have signed on to the boycott.

In taking this action, the signatories have cited the July Israeli invasion of Lebanon that left a million civilians displaced; the horrific targeting of the infrastructure of that country, which resulted in an enormous death toll and human suffering; the jailing of thousands of Palestinian political prisoners; the brutal occupation of Gaza that has left hundreds dead; and the violations of human rights and war crimes of the Israeli government.

This appeal is an act of international solidarity that fearlessly states the truth about what is unfolding in Gaza and the West Bank. At the same time, the initiative has raised some troubling questions that demand a critical response from all those who are part of the solidarity movement. As artists, we have a duty to follow the example of these individuals by taking action to halt the Israeli war machine. But we have another responsibility as well—to critique our own actions and political views—to discuss and share ideas so we can build an effective and unified struggle.

I learned much about developing a critical way of seeing and thinking by reading Berger, so I hope this critique of the boycott call will be accepted as a complement and contribution from a comrade.

The Target of our demands

Neither the initial appeal, nor Berger’s letter, clearly explains the goal of the boycott. The purpose is ambiguous, with only a vague reference to Israeli violations of international law and the exclusion of Palestinians from “the right to live as they wish on land internationally acknowledged to be theirs; and now increasingly, with every week that passes, they are being excluded from their right to any future at all as a nation.”

But what does that mean? Supporters of Zionism, those who favor a two-state solution or those of us who support the demand for a democratic, secular Palestine could interpret this appeal’s loosely defined generalities about injustice and brutality in any number of conflicting ways.

In motivating this call, Berger cites the example of the boycott of South Africa. But the goal of most organizations that engaged in that international solidarity campaign was clear—the dismantling of apartheid and black majority rule. The only demand that is actually stated in the current appeal is directed not towards the ruling class, but at our fellow artists:

“We call upon you to take a stand in order to appeal to the Israeli people to give up their silence, to abandon their apathy, and to face up to their responsibility in the destruction and killing their elected government is wreaking. To the Lebanese and Palestinians terrorized by this Army’s planes, bombs and missiles, this silence, apathy and lack of action from Israelis, are regarded as complicit in the ongoing war crimes, as for those Israeli artists, academics and intellectuals who continue to serve in the Israeli army they are directly implicated in these crimes.”

The Israeli people are not responsible for apartheid walls, any more than the British or U.S. people are the cause of the Iraqi war. The Zionist government and western imperialist powers are the source of the bloodshed, particularly the U.S. ruling class that plays the central role in propping up the state of Israel.

Almost half of the population of Israel is Arabs. They, plus immigrant and Jewish workers, make up the overwhelming majority of the people. Workers in Israel, just as anywhere else in the world, are the victims of, not the source for, racism and xenophobia. Jewish workers have been taught to be chauvinist and racist. They have been fed a diet of fear that has left them alienated and confused. To overcome that backward way of thinking, we need to educate, organize and build solidarity with our fellow workers—regardless of how difficult that may be.

The same holds true for artists. Inaction is not the same as apathy. Artists are torn between two poles. In order to survive, there is pressure to conform, adopt ruling class ideology and flatter those in power. On the other hand, there is a powerful desire to find genuine meaning in their art—something that can only come from joining with those fighting for social justice.

Demanding that artists and intellectuals change their consciousness is fruitless—such transformation can only come through their own experience in collective action. We can, however, provide a way to create such collaboration by involving artists in a movement that makes demands directed at the Israeli and U.S. governments: Immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all military forces from the occupied countries. By showing the links between their own tenuous situations with that of other workers, we can win artists to our movement. This concept is embodied in demands like “Money for Art, Not for War.”

South Africa and Palestine

When Berger refers to the international movement against apartheid, he states: “The challenge of apartheid was fought better. The non-violent international response to apartheid was a campaign of boycott, divestment, and, finally UN imposed sanctions which enabled the regime to change without terrible bloodshed.”

Leaving aside the dubious assertion that the revolution was accomplished “without terrible bloodshed,” UN sanctions are not what brought about the downfall of the apartheid regime. The victory came about, in part, because of the international solidarity movement, including boycotts. Most importantly, however, were the mass actions and rebellions of South African students and workers, sustained over decades, which wrested power from the racist regime!

Similarly, it is the ongoing Intifada of the Palestinian masses that has placed them at the center of world politics. Their heroic struggle has galvanized international solidarity, revealed the ugly truth about Zionism and inspired revolutionary struggles the world over. It is they—and workers throughout the Middle East, including within Israel—that offer the only solution to ongoing exploitation, impoverishment and violence. No election in the U.S. or Israel, no liberal politicians, no Arab regimes, no charitable acts can win. Only the workers can do it—just as we did in South Africa.

Boycotts or direct action

By themselves, boycotts do not have the power to create fundamental change. Even if a cultural boycott were to involve a significant percentage of artists, something that is highly unlikely, it would have little or no effect on stopping the Zionist death machine.

More often than not, boycotts draw working people into activity that takes them away from where they can be effective. Union bureaucrats in the U.S. understand and use this process to diffuse rank-and-file militancy. When workers go on strike, instead of shutting down production, union members are directed into boycott activity. Eventually the boycott dissipates, production continues unabated and the strike is broken. At any time there are numerous officially sanctioned boycotts of the AFL-CIO—none of which has ever accomplished anything.

There have previously been academic boycotts of Israel—including a 2002 appeal signed by over 700 academic figures and a selective 2002 boycott called by the Association of University Teachers (UK.) The Arab league and others have initiated numerous political and economic boycotts with little or no effect.

Ultimately, the only power that workers have is at the point of production. It was when workers began to consider direct action, (such as longshoremen in the U.S. symbolically refusing to ship goods to South Africa,) that the U.S. began to change its approach to apartheid. They saw the writing on the wall, and began to rehabilitate Nelson Mandela, until then characterized as a terrorist, similar to Bin Laden. The imperialist powers decided to be flexible and seek an accommodation in South Africa—they feared that international support, along with the rebellion in the country itself, would threaten the very existence of capitalism.

In order to end the occupation and bring down Israeli apartheid we need to exercise working class power. Our class is more centralized and has more potential than at any time in history. Any number of unions, even very small ones, could bring the Israeli war machine to a halt. We can also fraternize with, and win over, Israeli soldiers—that is how we ended the war in Vietnam. Even the threat of such events would cause a historic setback for imperialism.

A boycott that worked

All that being said, the use of a boycott, as an adjunct to direct action, can be an effective tactic. An example of this is illustrated by a chapter from the history of the civil rights movement in the U.S.: the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The boycott occurred while the U.S. was still emerging from the conservative period of the 1950s. Taking place in the Jim Crow south, threatened by lynching and violence, having to face the employers, cops, racist courts, white citizens councils and the Ku Klux Klan—despite all that, the Black minority community was able to win an historic Victory—in part by the successful use of a boycott.

This important event has been sanitized—rewritten as the story of the courageous action of a lone woman, Rosa Parks, and the non-violent vision of Martin Luther King, awakening the conscience of a racist nation to question and reject segregation. But the reality was very different.

In 1955, E.D. Nixon, an African-American civil rights activist and railroad union leader, led the organization of the black community into the Montgomery Improvement Association. After careful planning and lengthy preparation, the arrest of Rosa Parks, for refusing to give up her seat in a segregated bus, sparked the campaign that became a pivotal victory for the civil rights movement.

On Dec 2, 1955, following the arrest of Parks, the boycott began. The Black community had been prepared so that the boycott was solid. Carpools were organized to transport people to work. When the city forced insurance companies to cancel the policies of those drivers, the MIA and the NAACP were prepared to get protection from Lloyds of London. Black cab drivers were organized to provide transport at the same cost as the bus. Many were Korean War veterans who had the confidence to withstand pressure from the authorities. When protestors were arrested, there were highly visible defense campaigns. Workers in other cities provided vehicles and funding.

At every step of the way, it was the direct action of the Black community that advanced the struggle. When local ministers and Martin Luther King were reluctant to proceed, the Montgomery Improvement Association organized a meeting of 4,500 people that compelled them to act. The movement turned the tables on the segregationists, and was able to divide and conquer the racist authorities. That was an effective boycott—not an act of moral witness, but the exercise of power. If African Americans could win under such difficult circumstances, it is also possible to win in Palestine—by using working-class methods of struggle.

Art is a weapon

Ancient rockets and obsolete rifles are no match for the powerful arsenals of the imperialist powers. No number of suicide bombings or roadside explosive devices can stop the war machine. There is no military solution to the problems of the oppression of working people in the Middle East.

But the imperialist powers face a quandary: You cannot defeat a people from the air—you must occupy the country. The Vietnamese proved the difficulty of that strategy. This is the same problem that Israel faced in Lebanon and the U.S. confronts in Iraq. To occupy, you need troops, and that is the Achilles heel of imperialism. Human beings are unreliable for the war makers—they become neutralized as fighters, or even begin to forge bonds of solidarity with the enemy. That potential solidarity is the only weapon that working people possess, and it can be far more powerful than guns. We need to build powerful links of solidarity by organizing, educating and agitating for peace and justice.

Art can be an important tool to advance that process, and for that we need the vision of our best artists, writers and critics. Art is not of marginal importance for working people—it is essential to develop the theoretical tools that can provide analytical skills and a framework for effective organizing. We need to perform and attend conferences to confront the ideas of Zionism, demoralize their ideologues and inspire the forces of change. We need to engage, not abstain from the ideological struggle. Why should we leave the field of ideas to reactionary forces?

Berger cites an example of how the boycott might work: He has a request to have three of his books published by an Israeli publisher, and he will refuse the offer. That is too bad—Jews and Arabs in Israel need to hear the voice of John Berger. It may be argued that, due to the stature of some of these artists, there would be significant press and repercussions. Possibly—but what about the rest of us? For the thousands of artists who are marginalized, our abstention would be of little note.

Agitprop art or cultural boycott

Agitprop (Agitation-Propaganda) artists embrace a strategic approach that is more effective than a boycott. Here is one small example:

In 2003, Christine Gauvreau, a former oil refinery worker, organized a project for the Labor Art & Mural Project (LAMP), a small cultural group with virtually no funding or resources. Our goal was to paint a series of murals in Israel and the Occupied Territories that would help build labor solidarity against the apartheid walls and opposition to the occupations of Palestine and Iraq. We painted three murals: The first was in the Beit Jibrin refugee camp in occupied Bethlehem. The second was in an Arab village in Israel, Kfar Qara, painted in collaboration with Palestinian construction workers organized by the Worker’s Advice Center. Finally we painted a mural at the newly constructed Rachel Corrie Peace Center in Anata.

It is worth reviewing what this modest initiative accomplished: In preparation for the trip we held discussions about the situation in the Occupied Territories with numerous labor officials, community and political figures. In the Beit Jibrin refugee camp we met with Palestinian youths and discussed the Vietnam GI anti-war movement and how they might consider that experience in reaching out to Israeli troops. Slideshows were held with Israeli and Palestinian artists about agitprop art. Artists from the U.S., Israel and Palestine worked together on murals and shared their experiences. Discussions were held and relationships were made with hundreds of individuals while on the scaffold—about art, revolution, feminism, socialism and a host of other topics.

There was important coverage of the projects in the Israeli print and electronic media, allowing us to denounce the U.S./Israeli campaigns of terror. There was also press coverage in the U.S., including radio call-in reports from the Middle East. Dedication ceremonies involving hundreds of people were held upon the completion of each mural, where we were able to demand an end to the occupations and express our solidarity. In conjunction with the project, a labor delegation came from the U.S. and met with Palestinian trade unionists. They returned and gave numerous talks about their experiences before church, community groups and unions.

Sean Geary, a filmmaker, used the trip to create a video “On the Ground,” exposing the housing demolition policies. Video 48, an Israeli collective, produced Breaking Walls, an award-winning documentary about the construction workers relationship to their mural—the film has been seen by thousand around the world.

The art of the mural included imagery that facilitates the rediscovery of workers history. Question: Why are there railroad tracks in the mural? Answer: Because there is a hidden history of labor solidarity that existed between Arab and Jewish unionists in the railway unions of Haifa.

This small project, organized by rank-and-file workers and artists, was able to reach thousands of people and make an important contribution to building the organic process that is necessary to create a genuine international solidarity. How much more could be accomplished if a hundred well-known artists and performers, with access to far greater resources, were to follow this model!

Iraq and Palestine

Steve Biko once said, “The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Whether a Catholic/Protestant divide in Northern Ireland, or a Sunni/Shia divide in Iraq or a Jewish/Arab divide in the Middle East—the source of conflict is always the same: employer attempts to divide working people and get us to fight each other instead of uniting against our common enemy. Our art can be an important weapon in helping to overcome these divisions.

Arab, Jewish and immigrant workers face increasing impoverishment as global competition and warfare increases. In such a situation, we need to let workers know that there are alternatives to competition, racism and sectarianism. We need to reveal the progressive and revolutionary traditions of both Jews and Arabs. We need to convince Jewish workers to support the right of Palestinians to self-determination.

We cannot expose the lies of the U.S. and Israeli war makers if we abstain from public discussion. If we boycott, we leave ourselves open to unfair charges of anti-Semitism, being undemocratic and lacking confidence in our ideas—all of which gets in the way of focusing on the central political questions of the nature of Zionism, the conditions of the occupations and how working people can strengthen the unity of our class to win power.

The struggle to end the occupation of Palestine is closely tied to the fight against the war in Iraq—the central challenge that faces working people today. By posing as antiwar, the Democratic Party has raised the expectation of American workers that there will be peace, and that the vast resources of the war machine may be redirected to human needs. But it has all been a lie. As the war continues or escalates, the profound antiwar sentiment of the American people, and the people of the entire world, will find expression in the streets.

Many of the signers of the boycott appeal have been clear voices for social justice. The purpose of this letter is not to diminish their accomplishments, stop the boycott or ask people to un-sign their names. We should support any and all actions against the occupation, even if we disagree on tactics or strategy.

Artists and intellectuals have a fundamental responsibility to be with our fellow workers—and to wield the weapon of our art—not keep it sheathed. We need to take our art to the people, to use this powerful tool in the arsenal of struggle. For that reason, if asked, my brushes and I will always be available to paint holes in the apartheid walls—to paint and speak out in Israel or anywhere else we can find a hearing. I urge others to do the same.