Nov. 6, 2009

When BDS gets personal

No Israelis or journalists welcome at Al-Quds Underground theater event

by Gil Zohar

JERUSALEM -

There aren’t too many English-language journalists who have covered Arab Jerusalem as I have for The Jerusalem Post in recent years – from a home in Anata built and demolished four times and now facing a fifth demolition order to build the first shopping mall along East Jerusalem’s main drag Salah ad-Din Street which got a building permit after 42 years of bureaucracy, and from the al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art inside the Old City’s New Gate to a conference on Palestinians refugees at al-Quds University in Abu Dis – all scoops which I covered in an objective manner sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative.

Thus it was with considerable anticipation that I RSVPed to a guests-only invitation to last weekend’s Al-Quds Underground – being touted as an “unconventional festival with more than 150 small shows in private spaces in the Old City. Performances include music, storytelling, dancing, short acts and food. Locations are living rooms, a library, courtyards, gardens and more unique places.” (In reality thought the event was quite public, having been posted at http://www.jerusalemdigest.com/home/event.php?id=667)

Alas my hope for a “Make art, not war” celebration of Jerusalem’s diversity was dashed when I arrived late Saturday afternoon at the Damascus Gate meeting point. Politely asked in English by Jamal Goseh - the director of the a-Nuzha Hakawati Theater near the American Colony Hotel, “Where do you live?,” I responded in Arabic that I live in Jerusalem. From my accent and appearance he discerned correctly that I am an Israeli.

Perhaps embarrassed to do the dirty work himself, Goseh sicked al-Quds Underground’s artistic director Merlijn Twaalfhoven of Amsterdam to tell me and the other Israeli peace activists who had arrived that we were not welcome. Period.

My reply that I had been invited was to no avail, nor was my guarded threat that instead of writing a favorable review, I would pen an excoriating expose of their racism.

And so here it is.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven

But first, for the sake of fairness, I met Twaalfhoven the next day to allow him an opportunity to explain – or dig himself a deeper hole. (Goseh declined my request for an interview.)

“We want to bring art in the world,” he naively began. “I sometimes break through the boundaries between art and life. That is the core of my work.”

A visionary creator of art happenings (such as a dance performance at the Jalazoun refugee camp near Ramallah and the “Long Distance Call” concert on the rooftops of the Turkish half of the divided Cypriot city of Nicosia), Twaalfhoven said he had vaguely heard that the Arab League had chosen Jerusalem as al-Quds 2009 Capital of Arab Culture, and that the Israeli government had banned the festival as a political event forbidden under the Oslo Accords. “I don’t know the details. I thought it was a good idea to bring people together,” he confessed.

But naiveté can only go so far as an excuse.

Twaalfhoven then added, “The local people told me months ago ‘Israelis cannot go’. Our team (of 12 Dutch activists and eight artists) had to promise that we would not allow peaceful Israelis to come.”

Apologetic over what had happened, he then spilled the beans. The €50,000 project was funded by the European Union through the Dutch charity Cordaid and the Alexandria, Egypt-based Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures. To have said ‘no’ to racism would have meant to scuttle the budget.

Al-Quds Underground’s no Israelis rule parallels the policy set by the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions National Committee. This BDS movement, founded in 2005, can take credit for the cancellation of Leonard Cohen’s September concert at the Ramallah Cultural Palace.

Similarly in 2007 BDS activists succeeded in getting fellow Canadian rock ’n roll star Bryan Adams to pull the plug on back-to-back concerts in Jericho and Tel Aviv. Organized by the New York-based One Million Voices, the concerts were intended to promote a two-state solution to resolve the festering Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

BDS activists in Europe and elsewhere aim to isolate and discomfit Israel just as South Africa’s apartheid regime was targeted in the 1980s. This rejection of normalization of relations is a historic and strategic mistake based on the false analogy between apartheid and Zionism.

Never mind the insulting and hurtful snub I personally received Saturday – which I will not easily forget. On a larger level, the BDS movement is missing the point that peace is best promoted at a grassroots level, person to person, Jew to Arab, and Arab to Jew.

Those who think Israel can be pressured into co-existence are mistaken. Two states for two peoples will be embraced when enough people demand it. BDS fosters the illusion that Palestinians can achieve their goal of statehood without ever accepting Israel and Israelis.

Boycott, divest and sanction? I respond, “Embrace, invest and encourage.” Peace starts between people. Anyone unprepared for honest dialogue with the other is suffering from acute xenophobia. As Eldridge Cleaver once famously remarked, “You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem.”

BDS will come back to haunt the Palestinians as yet another mistaken and chimerical idea which will only harm their long-term interests.

And as for Merlijn Twaalfhoven, I can only say the road to Hell is paved with good, even artistic, intentions.