Hiddingh Hall at UCT’s Orange Street Campus was packed to the rafters for GIPCA‘s debate; Great Texts/Big Questions – Cultural Boycotts, with a specific look at the call to boycott Israel. I panicked at the sight of many, familiar Jewish faces, thinking that things were going to get very hectic, and that I was going to get hysterical, but no; it was a polite, luke-warm affair that left me totally dissatisfied. My biggest concern is that none of the panel could stay on track. For the boycott were Zackie Achmat and UCT’s Andrew Trench, and against the boycott were Dennis Davis and William Kentridge. I am going to assume that all who read this will know who these people are. And in order for me to put my very own point across I am going to write it as an open letter to Dennis Davis, whose argument I found corrupt and disingenuous, albeit couched in his usual passionate ‘public speak’.

Dear Dennis Davis

I need to explain very clearly why your argument against a cultural boycott is flawed and nonsense. The best way I can do this is to tell you about what happened to me, here in South Africa, when I was a young person terribly opposed to the apartheid regime. I think it would be fair to say that I knew I was not alone in my condemnation of this government. There were many white people (even you) who were. But it was perfectly clear to us that a cultural, academic and sports boycott was absolutely appropriate and necessary. Until such time as these pursuits could be practiced by all South Africans and enjoyed by all South Africans, we accepted as a matter of course that we should also be deprived of those things. I certainly had no expectation that anyone outside of this country would consider me and my fellow activists and grant us special treatment. Although I had no illusions that a cultural or sports boycott could topple a government I was absolutely of the belief that it would help to. And yes, I believed that all those things I was missing, like international acts, and real Levis and proper cricket, was because of the apartheid regime. I knew what the problem was.

You spoke about the complexity of Israel and why that should make a difference. You spoke about the many Israelis who do not support occupation. It is my belief that these are the very people that would totally understand, respect and even support a call to boycott, for the reasons stated above. If they feel punished and deprived then it is because they live in a country whose elected government has created this need for this boycott. To hold the dissenters up as the reason for cultural engagement is nonsense, and it mocks their own legitimate call for a boycott. You disrespect them and their views by saying that they need our cultural engagement.

Then off you went and threw up the paranoid and hideous excuse that Israel is the only country fighting for sovereignty against threats by Iran to wipe it out. You said that this is another reason that makes Israel special. I still don’t know why you said that and what it has to do with anything, other than to throw the normal stinky red herring in the direction of the usual suspects who come up with a contrary argument. Sorry, but this one is truly offensive and meaningless.

Finally, you said something unforgivable. You said that while you are very opposed to the occupation you wanted to remind people that Israel wasn’t that bad. There were worse places, you said. We should boycott them, you said. Boycott China, and Libya, you said. I really hope that you were kidding, because if you weren’t then you stooped beyond the lowest point. I want you to know that you, Dennis Davis are not the person who can decide that Israel is not that bad. It’s not your call to make.

Finally, you think that those many, poor, complex, non government supporting Israelis need us. They need our help to work from within. Here’s what I think. That is arrogant, self-righteous and patronising.

I don’t really know what you were trying to say, or why you don’t support a boycott. Lots of huffing and puffing.

For me it’s fairly simple. The principle of the cultural boycott is to help, in even the smallest way, the toppling of the current regime. We are outside. We want to show our moral alignment. We want to send a message that we won’t engage, exchange, or co-create until people are free. Especially us South Africans, because we remember the how and why of our own boycott. There are no exceptions, excuses or justifications. You are either for the regime or against it. Let the dissident Israelis fight from within. We can take a stand right here.

Finally, I’d like to write a few words in response to William Kentridge. I found your defense of exhibiting in Israel (in retrospect) very hollow. Unless you made a huge, public noise to the contrary William, I suspect it is safe to assume that the Israeli government thought you were on their side. Did you make a huge noise?