I was relieved to see the backside of 2016, the past few months of which have left a bitter aftertaste of shell shock and death march. While there have certainly been personal joys, the wearying relentlessness of global events, from the election of Donald Trump to terror attacks in Berlin, Baghdad and Istanbul, from the unending humanitarian catastrophes in Syria and Yemen to the (seemingly sudden) deaths of A.A. Gill, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Alan Rickman and others, has left me depleted.

Yesterday – just the third day of a whole new year – it was the death of John Berger, the Booker Prize-winning English novelist, art critic and cultural theorist, that greeted me when I awoke. Judging by his intellectual and creative output and the high regard it secured, Berger’s 90 years were well-spent. Still, to those of us weaned on his influential essay collection Ways of Seeing, or the BBC series it spawned, his death was a shock.

Reading about Berger’s life, I was reminded that he was among the first Western intellectuals actively to take up the 2006 call by Palestinian filmmakers, artists and other cultural workers for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel as ‘another path to a just peace’, and to urge his colleagues to do the same. Besides signing a letter to The Guardian in which he and 93 others made the case for solidarity with Palestinians, Berger wrote his own personal appeal which I’m pasting below.

As it happens, his death and the inevitable review of his life that follows coincide with the Modern Language Association’s long-awaited vote on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, which takes place this weekend.

Indeed, perhaps the most sobering aspect of these artists’ comments is that they were written a full decade ago, yet they might as well have been composed yesterday. The conditions they describe are indescribably worse: record numbers of Palestinian homes demolished and administrative detention orders issued, breakneck colonial expansion against a growing determination to annex Palestinian lands outright, unchecked settler violence, and a decade long siege of Gaza, punctuated by regular military assaults of increasing and experimental viciousness.

Like a canny child with no discernible boundaries who’s grasped that impunity and toothless handwringing constitute the reliably flaccid response to his rampages, the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu is out of control, beyond the reach of ordinary decency let alone the dictates of international law. It has found an aggressive champion in Donald Trump, whose own pathology is eerily similar. Together they bring to mind Mickey and Mallory Knox, the protagonists in Oliver Stone’s grim crime film, Natural Born Killers, in which the media exalt a pair of monstrous murderers.

Today the case for BDS is more compelling than ever, which is surely why the backlash against it becomes ever fiercer. As the human rights lawyer Jonathan Kuttab pointed out in a speech in Toronto a few months ago, the pro-Israel lobby long ago abandoned putative grassroots campaigns via newspapers’ letters pages and the like, refocusing its formidable resources on persuading governments to defy their own constitutions by outlawing free speech on Israel, while waging a concurrent smear campaign against anyone who advocates for Palestinian rights. And to close the circle, those with the temerity to comment on this bullying at the behest of a foreign power are accused of perpetuating anti-Semitic notions of a ‘global Jewish conspiracy.’

A case in point is Nadia Shoufani, the Ontario schoolteacher who was suspended over remarks she made at an Al-Quds Day rally last July, in which she referred to the Palestinian writer and political activist Ghassan Kanafani as a ‘martyr.’ Kanafani was assassinated by the Mossad in Beirut in 1972. Ms Shoufani’s case was covered by the taxpayer-funded CBC, which did no independent research, preferring to parrot defamatory claims supported by historical distortions that had been circulated by B’nai Brith and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

Yesterday, the Palestine Festival of Literature posted on Facebook a video of Berger reading Kanafani’s ‘Letter from Gaza’. It’s also embedded below, in honour of Berger and Nadia Shoufani, both of whom refused the complicity of silence.

Here is Berger’s letter:

I would like to make a few personal remarks about this world-wide appeal to teachers, intellectuals and artists to join the cultural boycott of the state of Israel, as called for by over a hundred Palestinian academics and artists, and – very importantly – also by a number of Israeli public figures, who outspokenly oppose their country’s illegal occupation of the Palestine territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Their call is attached, together with my After Guernica drawing. I hope you will feel able to add your signature, to the attached letter, which we intend to publish in national newspapers.

The boycott is an active protest against two forms of exclusion which have persisted, despite many other forms of protestations, for over sixty years – for almost three generations.

During this period the state of Israel has consistently excluded itself from any international obligation to heed UN resolutions or the judgement of any international court. To date, it has defied 246 Security Council Resolutions!

As a direct consequence seven million Palestinians have been excluded 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.

As Nelson Mandela has pointed out, boycott is not a principle, it is a tactic depending upon circumstances. A tactic which allows people, as distinct from their elected but often craven governments, to apply a certain pressure on those wielding power in what they, the boycotters, consider to be an unjust or immoral way. (In white South Africa yesterday and in Israel today, the immorality was, or is being, coded into a form of racist apartheid).

Boycott is not a principle. When it becomes one, it itself risks to become exclusive and racist. No boycott, in our sense of the term, should be directed against an individual, a people, or a nation as such. A boycott is directed against a policy and the institutions which support that policy either actively or tacitly. Its aim is not to reject, but to bring about change.

How to apply a cultural boycott? A boycott of goods is a simpler proposition, but in this case it would probably be less effective, and speed is of the essence, because the situation is deteriorating every month (which is precisely why some of the most powerful world political leaders, hoping for the worst, keep silent.).

How to apply a boycott? For academics it’s perhaps a little clearer – a question of declining invitations from state institutions and explaining why. For invited actors, musicians, jugglers or poets it can be more complicated. I’m convinced, in any case, that its application should not be systematised; it has to come from a personal choice based on a personal assessment.

For instance. An important mainstream Israeli publisher today is asking to publish three of my books. I intend to apply the boycott with an explanation. There exist, however, a few small, marginal Israeli publishers who expressly work to encourage exchanges and bridges between Arabs and Israelis, and if one of them should ask to publish something of mine, I would unhesitatingly agree and furthermore waive aside any question of author’s royalties. I don’t ask other writers supporting the boycott to come necessarily to exactly the same conclusion. I simply offer an example.

What is important is that we make our chosen protests together, and that we speak out, thus breaking the silence of connivance maintained by those who claim to represent us, and thus ourselves representing, briefly by our common action, the incalculable number of people who have been appalled by recent events but lack the opportunity of making their sense of outrage effective.

John Berger

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