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Making Palestine Solidarity Impossible

In Britain, every cultural body exhibiting Palestinian culture is facing a vicious campaign to cut their funding, cancel their events and sack workers. The message is simple: ignore genocide or face consequences.

Artists protest HOME Theatre's cancellation of a Palestine literature event.

The censorship of Palestine solidarity is nothing new, but it has accelerated in the months since Israel launched its latest assault on Gaza. According to a report by advocacy organisation CAGE published in December, by that month there had already been a 455 percent increase in cases of support for Palestine being repressed, a disproportionate number of which involve British Muslims. That figure is likely to be much higher now. Despite being just one of the many arenas in which this plays out, the culture sector tends to attract the most media attention and provoke the most debate. This stands to reason: while no more important, an exhibition being cancelled is a more public event than, say, a fourteen-year-old being reported to Prevent after arriving at school with a pro-Palestine badge.

Because of that visibility, culture is an essential terrain on which the battle against the dehumanisation of Palestinians must be fought. Members of the public have a stake in how cultural institutions operate and the power to withdraw their support; many of us have strong ideas about what culture should do and the values for which it should stand, and feel affronted when these values are betrayed. This makes the arts and culture sector especially well-suited to galvanising support for the Palestinian cause, as we have seen repeatedly in the last six months. However oppressive the climate may be, the picture is not one of cowed, fearful individuals bowing to censorship, but of solidarity and successful organising.

While the situation in the UK is not quite as severe as it is in Germany, there have been several high-profile cases of Palestinian events being cancelled. HOME, an arts venue in Manchester, last month cancelled ‘Voices of Resistance’, an evening of writing to mark the launch of Palestinian author Atef Abu Saif’s book, Don’t Look Now: A Diary of Genocide (a decision since overturned). In February, the Barbican cancelled a London Review of Books-organised talk with author Pankaj Mishra, which was to explore the legacy of the Holocaust in relation to Gaza. Last November, the Arnolfini — an arts centre in Bristol — cancelled two events from a Palestinian film festival, provoking an artist-led boycott which remains ongoing. This is by no means an exhaustive list; doubtless many more incidents have flown under the radar.

To understand how this process plays out behind the scenes, I spoke with Katie — not her real name — a worker in the film industry who last year experienced an intense backlash from pro-Israel individuals and advocacy groups after organising a Palestinian event. Based on separate conversations I had with cultural workers and organisers with knowledge of the issue, her experience was a typical one. ‘It’s very email-based,’ she says. ‘Your partners, funders, board members, and trustees will receive an onslaught of emails, which argue they’ve breached their funding agreement and threaten that if action isn’t taken, they will get into legal trouble.’

The situation is then escalated to the board of whichever funding body or venue is involved, which feels an intense pressure to respond with proof that it has taken the complaints seriously, whether by cancelling an event, withdrawing funding, or even firing the employee deemed responsible. Some institutions will bow to that pressure, and others won’t, but even the more sympathetic will prioritise their reputations above their workers (who are, as Katie points out, often precarious and therefore disposable).

This experience had what Katie calls a ‘catastrophic’ impact on her mental health. ‘It makes you want to do anything to make it go away, including cancelling the event,’ she says. ‘You’re feeling the shock and grief of witnessing world events and what’s happening in Gaza, and you’re feeling the pressure from within your community to act and say something. And then when you do, you’re facing the potential loss of your job and your work being defunded. There’s not really been anything from major funders like Arts Council England to put anyone’s mind at ease — only more censorship. The whole thing is designed to make you afraid.’ 

In Katie’s case, a network of organisations soon mobilised to provide her with support, including PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, the academic and cultural wing of BDS), Artists for Palestine UK, and the European Legal Support Centre, a non-profit which defends advocates of Palestine who have experienced repression. ‘It’s important for workers, artists and organisations to realise that the support and solidarity is there,’ she says. 

In the end, Katie neither backed down and cancelled the event nor lost her job, but she regrets not being adequately prepared for what happened. ‘If you work in the culture sector, you have to understand that if you’re going to express support for Palestine or host a Palestinian event, somebody’s going to attempt to shut you down,’ she says. ‘You will have to deal with all these abusive emails and calls; you’ll potentially have to deal with a media storm. In hindsight, it was naive to think we wouldn’t need to have a strategy.’

False Neutrality

The institutions that acquiesce to censorship campaigns tend to fall back upon the same set of excuses. When HOME released a statement explaining why ‘Voices of Resilience’ had been cancelled, it used the language of ‘safety concerns’ and ‘political neutrality’ to justify its decision. According to a representative from Comma Press, the publishing house which had organised the event, both of these frameworks are regularly used to censor Palestinian culture. ‘It’s common for institutions to talk about “safety concerns”, because it’s vague and absolute; it’s hard for people to question it because it sounds like it might be legal, and it’s hard to argue these concerns should be overridden because, of course, safety is paramount,’ they say. ‘Maybe in some cases there have been genuine safety concerns, but generally, it seems to be a way of avoiding transparency about what’s really going on.’

The language of political neutrality serves a similar purpose, even though it’s nakedly absurd: if art institutions were to apply this principle consistently, there would be no exhibitions related to race, social class, Ukraine, LGBTQ+ issues, or just about anything. ‘All the great art being shown in these venues is undermined by the idea of neutrality,’ the representative from Comma Press continues. ‘You don’t know where the boundaries of censorship are, but you know that is happening, and you know that what you’re getting from these places has been okayed, vetted, and judged to be safe.’

In less than a fortnight, the campaign against the cancellation of ‘Voices of Resilience’ outstripped the initial set of complaints: around one hundred artists removed their work from the gallery, at least two film festivals threatened to pull out, and there was an enormous upswell of support from members of the public, hundreds of whom cancelled their subscriptions and emailed to register their dissent. Hopefully, this success will remind institutions that they cannot suppress Palestinian culture without consequence, and further empower people to take on censorship where it occurs in future.

In fact, when the Palestine solidarity movement kicks into gear in these situations, it usually wins. Last summer, when the Barbican censored a talk with Palestinian radio producer Elias Anastas — asking panellists, prior to the event, to avoid discussing ‘Free Palestine’ — it was forced to issue a hasty apology. When it cancelled Mishra’s talk this February, it responded to the ensuing backlash by apologising and pledging to review its decision-making process (although it stopped short of reinstating the event). ‘While we do need to start seeing some concrete commitments, the fact that the Barbican has responded positively to our intervention shows there is space for progress,’ a representative from Cultural Workers Against Genocide —  a collective involved with the campaign — says. 

Judging the success of the campaign against the Arnolfini is similarly complicated. The institution expressed ‘deep regret’ over what happened, but it still hasn’t apologised, nor has it acknowledged the censorship of Palestinian perspectives at the heart of the dispute. Still, the scale and persistence of the mobilisation — over a thousand artists are continuing to boycott the Arnolfini — speaks to both the unwavering commitment of those involved and the wider movement’s impact and momentum. ‘While it’s essential we are robust in insisting cultural institutions uphold freedom of expression and prevent discrimination, it’s also important we don’t exaggerate the power of some of these pro-Israel outfits and individuals to silence us,’ a representative of Artists for Palestine UK explains.

‘Groups such as UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) boast about their impact, but when their efforts are challenged, they generally fail,’ they continue. ‘The Rio Cinema, for example, stood firm in the face of a right-wing smear campaign [after it respected the Palestinian call to boycott Eurovision and cancelled a planned screening of the finals]. According to its own statement, UKLFI resorted to making a complaint to the Charity Commission after failing to pressure the Rio into reversing its decision. Anti-Palestinian groups and individuals frequently make baseless complaints to the Charity Commission, and then proclaim such and such organisation to be “under investigation”. We should not overrate the significance of these tactics.’

Centring Palestine

The situation in Gaza is so desperate and the death toll so high that the issue of freedom of expression for artists in Britain might seem trivial in comparison. But while the two situations are incommensurate (some people are silenced with bullets, others with emails), they are connected. ‘The recent increase in cultural censorship around Palestine in the UK is central to Israel’s campaign to push Palestinians out of the public sphere, so that the history of their oppression is erased,’ Aimee Shalan, chair of the British Palestinian Committee, says.

Because it expresses a collective national identity, Palestinian culture has always posed a threat to Israel’s colonial project, which depends upon the idea that no such thing exists, that the land was previously empty, that no one was really there. As Comma Press’s representative puts it, ‘Palestinian communities all over the world, inside and outside of Palestine, have preserved their identity through cultural heritage, memory, and family history even though the land has been stolen from them. The eradication of culture forms part of any genocide, and to preserve culture is to resist genocide.’