Russia, Ukraine, Israel and the limits of BDS

Carnegie Hall announces that conductor Valery Gergiev, a friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin, will no longer lead a concert series (MW)

Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss  /  February 28, 2022

Those boycotting Russia with passion should consider using the same means to help Palestinians overcome Israeli apartheid.

I was actually surprised to see the popular mobilization of Danes towards a sweeping boycott of Russia in the past few days.

On Friday, I was in Aarhus, the second biggest city in Denmark. It was quite dramatic. The Ukrainian flag was hanging on the wall of the town hall alongside the Danish flag. In the evening, a gala concert with the star Russian-born soprano Anna Netrebko was cancelled an hour before its start, by herself: She is a known fan of Putin, some of the public campaigned to boycott it, politicians from the municipality got involved in lobbying for it as well. Despite the venue not cancelling (they would have needed a political mandate), Netrebko eventually decided to cancel, citing the “current situation” and ”sad days” as the reason. A day later, the municipality already got the mandate from above, and announced that this week’s planned performance of the Russian ballet would be cancelled. On the news I was hearing about the big supermarket chains removing Russian products from the shelves.

Across the Atlantic, The New York Times reports on the cancellation of musical performances by Russians:

Valery Gergiev, a Putin Supporter, Will Not Conduct at Carnegie Hall… Carnegie Hall and the Vienna Philharmonic announced on Thursday that the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, a friend and prominent supporter of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, would no longer lead a series of concerts there this week amid growing international condemnation of Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine… Carnegie and the Philharmonic also said that the Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, who had been scheduled to perform with Mr. Gergiev and the orchestra on Friday, would not appear. Mr. Matsuev is also an associate of Mr. Putin; in 2014, he expressed support for the annexation of Crimea.”

The European Broadcasting Union recently announced that “no Russian act will participate in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest”, because “the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s Contest would bring the competition into disrepute”. It’s worth reflecting how in 2019, when the contest was held in Israel, the Icelandic broadcaster was fined 5,000 Euros after it showed footage of an Icelandic group merely waving a Palestinian flag in the green room, breaking the supposed “no-politics rule”.

It’s soccer, too. FIFA declared:

No international competition shall be played on the territory of Russia, with “home” matches being played on neutral territory and without spectators… The member association representing Russia shall participate in any competition under the name “Football Union of Russia (RFU)” and not “Russia”… No flag or anthem of Russia will be used in matches where teams from the Football Union of Russia participate.

Let’s now reflect that the Scottish soccer team Celtic’s hanging of Palestinian flags last year was deemed “unacceptable“, and that in 2014 the club was fined over $18,000 by UEFA for the fact that fans waved Palestinian flags at a match. It’s interesting that now, the UK Premiere League and Football Association have reportedly given a green light to fans to wave the Ukrainian flag at soccer matches.

And isn’t it interesting to reflect how in January, actress Emma Watson shared a rather tame picture about solidarity and Palestine – and received a barrage of defamation from Israel apologists, including the former UN ambassador Danny Danon calling her an antisemite?

So there’s this selectivity about what is legitimate to protest against, which flags are legitimate, not to mention which country can and cannot be boycotted. Putting the hypocrisy and double-standards aside for the moment, and relating to the Russia and Ukraine issue in itself, I think there is huge international understanding for this happening, and look how sweeping it is. The outrage goes down to individual persons and their political support of Putin. It is no doubt a very cutting decision on free speech/academic freedom grounds to cancel and boycott individual performers for their presumed beliefs or nationality. Yet there is an understanding not only for this taking place, but also that it’s logical and that there’s a moral justification for it – Russia needs to be rejected.

It’s not just boycotts, it’s also divestments and sanctions – it’s everywhere.

Now, to Palestine and BDS.

The campaign for Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS), a 2005 call from Palestinian civil society as a response to Israeli annexationist aggression, has been met with endless accusations of illegitimacy, called antisemitic countless times, has been outlawed in a majority of US states and in other countries (Canada, France) and has been condemned by many parliamentary resolutions, including in Germany. Germany, which condemned BDS for being antisemitic and thus illegitimate, is now going beyond its policy of not sending weapons to conflict zones, directly arming Ukraine.

It is clear, that when the political cause is considered just enough, not only will boycotting, divesting and sanctioning be natural, but even the direct arming of the party that is seen to be attacked.

Israel is not just invading Palestine, it is not just annexing it– it is conducting a colonialist system of Apartheid, and has in fact been doing so since its establishment (see the recent Amnesty report). Amnesty joined Human Rights Watch, Israeli B’Tselem and a host of Palestinian organizations and others who have been pointing to this reality. While some may disagree upon when this reality started and where it is most apparent, there is hardly disagreement on the fact that Israel is enacting it, except among the diehard Israel apologists.

Russia believes it is returning to the lands it “disastrously” lost to western machinations. Israel believes it is returning to its promised land.

But while boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Russia are met with western understanding and seen as showing moral backbone, BDS in favor of Palestinian rights is framed as bigoted. The worn Israeli hasbara (propaganda) line on this is that Israel is the “only Jewish state”, and therefore such measures against it are singularly antisemitic, singling it out. We already know that BDS is not singling Israel out. Look at Russia. Is Russia being “singled out”? Is it not the “only Russian state”? Why should Israel get a pass because it is the “only Jewish state”? And is the motive of such actions meant to limit Russia a mere sign of “anti-Russian” sentiment? Well, if you’re Putin, it is.

And look how carefully the BDS movement is campaigning, also in the cultural boycott sphere, to make sure that this does not become a personal boycott of individuals for being Israeli:

Anchored in precepts of international law and universal human rights, the BDS movement, including PACBI, rejects on principle boycotts of individuals based on their identity (such as citizenship, race, gender, or religion) or opinion. Mere affiliation of Israeli cultural workers to an Israeli cultural institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott. If, however, an individual is representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution, or is commissioned/recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to “rebrand” itself, then her/his activities are subject to the institutional boycott the BDS movement is calling for… Israeli cultural products (as opposed to public events) that are funded by official Israeli bodies but not commissioned or otherwise attached to any political strings are not per se subject to boycott.

In this sense, the BDS movement takes a softer boycott than what was applied to Apartheid South Africa, and then the one now readily applied to Russia. In Europe, Israeli products are not being banned – Europe managed to take the ‘radical’ step of marking settlement products rather than marketing them as “made in Israel”, for the consumer to decide whether they would, or would not, be directly complicit in financing war crimes. But taking those products off the shelf completely? What, it’s not like this is Russia!

If supermarkets here would take all Israeli products off the shelves like they do with Russian products (because after all it is not just Putin or Bennett, it’s a matter of a whole state being culpable), we would immediately hear deafening cries about antisemitism and animus to Israel, and what about Russia.

All in all, the reason why BDS is so much less popular than boycotts against Russia in the west, is really just racism against Palestinians. And that’s the irony – Israel apologists are projecting their own racism against those who would support the oppressed. Nonetheless, BDS does have some considerable popular support, which can be seen in a US poll from 2019 by University of Maryland, which shows that out of half of the respondents who actually heard about the BDS movement, about half of the Democratic responders supported it. It was only 8% support among the Republicans. While it is still supported by a minority, it is a considerable one. On the other hand, the legislation against BDS suggests that the political elite is at a disconnect with the people. And it’s not just about support or no support – the majority of the political elite outlaws it downright – on behalf of Israel, at the cost of the very First Amendment of the US constitution. This suggests that the political elite has managed to go over the heads of the people and censor a popular movement for justice, freedom and equality.

To come back to my experiences in Denmark, here was a wave of popular mobilization. The public didn’t wait for politicians – popular support for boycott led the way, and politicians came along. That’s what grassroots pressure means, and that’s what Israel is seeking to curtail. The potential for a massive BDS movement to hold Israel to account for its crimes against humanity is there – it just needs to overcome the hurdles that Israel places internationally, where it seeks to shame and outlaw those who seek to support the oppressed.

Those who find this to be an exceptional moment of clarity regarding boycotts and their legitimacy (since they are boycotting Russia with passion), should take a moment to consider why the same non-violent means should not be applied to help Palestinians against the Apartheid oppression. And if they could see through Russian propaganda, I’m sure they can also see through Israeli Hasbara.     

Jonathan Ofir – Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark