We have been punished because the singer cancelled a Tel Aviv concert. This attempt to distract from the broader picture won’t work
An Israeli court this month ordered us to pay NZ$18,000 (£9,000) in damages for harming the “artistic welfare” of three Israeli teenagers. This ruling came after New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde heeded the call of activists, including a letter from the two of us, and cancelled her show in Tel Aviv. The teenagers claimed they suffered “damage to their good name as Israelis and Jews”; their legal action was possible because of a 2011 Israeli law allowing civil lawsuits against anyone who encourages a boycott of the country.
This is no farce. It may sound laughable, but the political implications are deadly serious. The lawsuit is a vivid example and extension of Israel’s suppression of dissenting voices.
Since the inception of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2005, which promotes action against Israel until it meets “its obligations under international law”, Israel has used a range of strategies to obstruct and undermine the global campaign. Some of these strategies are unassuming, such as the “advocacy” app Act.IL, which aims to “influence the online debate about Israel”. The app enlists users to identify online criticism of Israel and copy and paste “pre-approved responses” to inundate the critics with government propaganda.
Other tactics are more punishing. The lawsuit against us was filed by Shurat HaDin Law Centre. For years now, it has targeted advocates of the BDS movement, a testament to the potential of the boycott movement to transform Israeli policy in the region.
Israeli ministers have recently debated a bill that calls for up to seven years’ imprisonment for anyone who advocates for BDS. Rather than intimidate, this response only demonstrates the necessity of BDS.
These tactics embroil activists in costly and time-consuming debates, strawman arguments, bogus lawsuits and drawn-out disputes. They have a chilling effect, aiming to scare us into submission and silence, to undermine the moral integrity and dignity of individuals and groups affected. To some extent, this is working. But it will not work on the two of us, a preschool teacher and a student tucked away in the farthest reaches of the South Pacific.
When we wrote our letter to Lorde we joined a chorus of other voices. Lorde’s cancellation is a testimony to her own intelligence and humility when presented with the facts of Israeli aggression. That we recognised she was likely to change her mind speaks to the swaths of moral ground the BDS movement has managed to win over the past decade.
Our letter didn’t sway the balance of forces. The slow patient work of movement-building did. Nevertheless, Israel has thrust a platform beneath our feet. This platform comes with a responsibility to demonstrate how we can and should respond to its tactics. Israel’s aim was to intimidate, but also to set the terms of the debate. Israeli sensibilities are the starting point from which things must be understood. We see this in the way Palestinians are constantly quizzed on whether they believe in Israel’s right to exist, while Palestinian existence is denied and threatened.
This year, US-Palestinian journalist and writer Ramzy Baroud toured New Zealand. He impressed upon us the need to reject these terms. He argued that the Palestinian struggle required Palestinians and their supporters to reclaim the narrative.
Israel wanted the discussion of our case to distract from both the content and broader context of our letter. This context is one where ordinary Palestinians get up every day to stand against a continuous onslaught.
In response to the court order, we received many offers of financial assistance. We wanted to channel that spirit of generosity into the grassroots work of organisations in Gaza. We set up a crowdfunding page to raise funds for groups doing vital mental health work in Gaza. Within a week the page has generated nearly NZ$40,000 from a global community. The strength of feeling is clear. People are looking for ways to play a role in the struggle for justice in Palestine.
This money will go into important projects determined by grassroots organisations seeking to deal with the immediate circumstances of a humanitarian and mental health crisis. But treating the psychological wounds of Israeli aggression in Gaza is not enough. A 2016 report showed that 70% of children in Gaza suffer recurring nightmares. Treating nightmares is worthy work, but ultimately we must change the preconditions. We must work with Palestinians to realise their collective dreams of freedom and justice.
The pursuit of Palestinian dignity requires our full attention. There is much work to be done. In the words of Audre Lorde: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.”
- Nadia Abu-Shanab is an activist, teacher and trade unionist of Palestinian descent. Justine Sachs is a student, activist and writer of Jewish descent