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Cultural boycott of Israel will not bring peace

Those who made Zakir Hussain cancel his Israel tour, do not have any problems with China in spite of its Tibet record.

Madhuri Santanam Sondhi  NEW DELHI | 15th Jul 2012

Cutural life in West Bank: Ziadeh, owner of the Ramallah Ballet Center, leans on a bar while teaching her class in Ramallah, West Bank, on Wednesday. REUTERS

he recent cancellation of Ustad Zakir Hussain's tour of Israel was triumphantly claimed a success by the Indian Committee for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (INCACBI), established in 2010, a derivative of the P(Palestinian) CACBI initiated in 2005. Hussain himself downplayed it as a "postponement". The call for boycott raises a host of questions which were energetically debated among western and Palestinian academics when first raised: I will confine my attention to just a few arising out of the present situation, of which the first concerns the effectiveness of the method if its main aim is, to quote from INCACBI's letter to Hussain, to achieve "a just peace in Palestine". As it happens, a good number of Israeli academics and artists today support a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, but even if they did not, boycotting them would hardly influence government policy. The Palestinians answer that there is no distinction between the Israeli state and its academia, despite the dissenting scholars and citizens, and that boycotting the one sends a message to the other. Even if this were true, which is arguable, would cultural and academic boycott achieve peace?

Peace theory is quite clear that justice, especially in international affairs, is an essentially contested concept. We can safely say that this is clearly demonstrated in the two claims to the same territory in West Asia. The pursuit of justice is a conflictual exercise (obvious in any law court) where both facts and their interpretations are contested: one side or the other may prevail, but the result is not stable peace (and it would be irresponsible to look for less in the volatile highly militarised Middle East). Far from demonising one party to the dispute, conflict resolution seeks to bring both to the negotiating table, ease them towards acknowledging each other's point of view, identifying a common objective and agreeing to work towards it. Practitioners and theorists have identified many peacemaking and conflict avoidance techniques, but academic and cultural boycott is not one of them: it is if anything counterproductive. When academics and artists from different backgrounds meet and interact there are possibilities for widening the sphere of discourse: isolation breeds paranoia.

The second consideration relates to music which Zakir Hussain in his reply to INCACBI described as "the universal language of peace". He was speaking from within Indian tradition with its history of continuous harmony between Hindu and Muslim classical musicians and the undifferentiated appreciation of their art by patrons and audiences.

David Barenboim is an outstanding example of an Israeli, or more accurately a global citizen who happens to be an Israeli, attempting the same. In 1999 he along with Edward Said established the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Munich, with Palestinian/Arab and Jewish/Israeli players, which performs for both Israeli and Palestinian audiences (mixed wherever possible). The Barenboim-Said Conservatory has branches in Nazareth and Jaffa, while in 2008 Barenboim conducted a "Concert for Two Peoples" in Jerusalem with musicians from both communities. Altogether it beggars the imagination how the cancellation of tabla performances in Israel by Zakir Hussain will hasten an irenic solution.

It is worth reminding the reader that Barenboim's Palestinian collaborator was not only a famed academic, Said was a member of the Palestine National Council from 1977 to 1991 and an accomplished pianist. Among the various honours Said received was an honorary doctorate from JNU: ironically, the lead boycotters are from the same institution.

Regarding efforts in the educational field, in the early 1990s I myself visited several Israeli institutions which encouraged socialisation between Palestinian and Jewish children and the famous Martin Buber Institute for Adult Education in the Hebrew University (philosopher Buber was famed for his efforts at Arab-Jewish reconciliation) where people from both communities interact to learn each others' languages.

Most memorably, I participated in a three-day seminar at the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in June 1994 to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the PLO. Each session had two major presenters — one Palestinian and one Israeli, and both communities sat in the audience. The mayor of Nazareth, an Arab Christian, was listed to attend, but at the last minute sent his regrets due to pressure from his community. There were indeed objectors on both sides, but despite them the conference took place. And in fact today there is a strong Israeli lobby for a two-state settlement and much sympathy for the Palestinians, so much so that some Israelis fear for their state not so much from the Palestinians as from their own liberals. The documents released by WikiLeaks and later Al-Jazeera in the last couple of years show that the distance between Israeli and Palestinian positions, their public pronouncements notwithstanding, have substantially reduced over time.

Finally, we come to the much touted conscience of those who boycott only Israel. The world is full of antagonistic and conflicted situations in West Asia, Africa, Russia, South America, East Asia and, depending on your point of view, even India, where in greater or lesser degree, governments trample on other's territorial rights and identities or smother those of their own populations. Take China in Tibet, where about a million Tibetans were massacred in the course of the PLA's brutal occupation, where today housing colonies and shopping malls in Lhasa cater only for Han immigrants, confining Tibetans to wretched slums, where the atheist Chinese state dictates religious belief and practice to Buddhists, where Tibetan women are subjected to forced sterilisation, where the Tibetan language is discouraged and the population altogether so desperate, deprived even of the right to protest that citizens are driven to self-immolation to draw attention to their plight. There is no equivalent to this state of affairs in Israel, yet no doubt some members of the abovementioned boycott group would give their right arms to get an invitation to visit China, if they haven't already done so several times.

It would actually be useful for them to visit Israel, fearlessly voice their criticisms at academic and cultural forums there and anywhere else, but also listen to voices from the other side. Their stature as freethinking intellectuals and artists would only increase. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers witnessed the collapse of German academia before Nazism: he was deprived of his teaching job and with his Jewish wife narrowly escaped Hitler's concentration camps. His Idea of a University stipulates that it should pursue both excellence and universality — a universe being essentially constituted by multiple and diverse points of view which require free expression — regardless of the policies and politics of whichever government happens to be in power. In a university even a fascist or colonial or communist or fundamentalist opinion has to be heard, provided it is presented with scholarly sophistication and without coercion or violence.

Cultural and academic exchanges are a better way to promote peace than a standoff.

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