CulturEscapes and the Moral Duty of BDS Today

The neutral Switzerland is about to host a yearly Culturescapes festival. Every year the festival focuses on a different country. This year- the most successful for cultural boycott, yet- it just had to play into Desmond Tutu’s hands and focus on Israel.

A Word about Culture

Culture is a word I’ve been hearing a lot lately. Israel’s Brand Israel campaign is focusing on PR apartheid; Hiding it’s atrocities as best it can, and highlighting it’s “advantages”:

In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 6 niches were identified in which Israel has a relative advantage… The 6 niches through which it is planned to promote Israel, in the world, are environment (with an emphases on desert agriculture); Science and technology (medicine, internet and hi-tech); Culture and art; Human variety and tradition; lifestyle and leisure culture; Tikun Olam [=Fixing the world] (support of populations of special needs).

The word “culture” originates from the Latin “cultura” (“to cultivate”). Unsurprisingly, the word was resurrected in the 18th and 19th century colonialist Europe. Sure enough, you can read all about it in this Wikipedia article, describing its racist, supremacist origins and its re-appropriation by non-white/western/males.

While there are many ways to analyze the local Israeli culture, I think it’s safe to say that generally the Israeli culture, as enabled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is one of colonization, capitalism and robbery. Falafel, for example, was hardly a fixture on Ben-Guriyon’s plate, and I don’t know when exactly the “independence day” BBQ became Israeli tradition. Ballet was hardly invented in these parts and last I heard the joint Moroccan-Russian (people of the former Soviet Union) Andalusian Orchastra was just licking its wounds from the last indignation.

Israel Ain’t Switzerland

The establishment of the State of Israel is closely linked with Switzerland.

Don’t look at me, I’m just quoting from the Culturscapes website, but don’t look at them either, because they just copy/pasted from the Switzerland Foreign Affairs website. So this may be a good time to add that neutral Switzerland isn’t just proud of Switzerland’s role in the over-60 year old military occupation of Arab peoples in the Middle East, but takes pride in direct connection with its racist colonial ideology:

The establishment of the State of Israel is closely linked with Switzerland: The first Zionist Congress was held in Basel in 1897; and 15 of the first 22 Zionist Congresses also took place in Switzerland. Prior to the foundation of the State of Israel in Palestine, Switzerland maintained a consulate in Jerusalem (accredited to the British Mandate) and a consular agency in Tel Aviv. In 1949, Switzerland recognised the new state and opened a consulate in Tel Aviv. This consulate was upgraded to an embassy nine years later.

While the above quotes can be found on both websites, even the Culturscapes folks found the Foreign Affairs bullshitting a bit over the top, and the rest of it can be found only on the Foraign Affairs site:

Representation of interests and peace efforts
Switzerland has represented Israel’s interests in numerous countries such as in Hungary (1967-1989), Guinea (1967-1973), Ceylon/Sri Lanka (1970-1976), Madagascar (1973-1994), Liberia (1973-1983) and Ghana (1973-2002). Conversely, it has represented the interests of Iran (1958-1987) and the Ivory Coast (1973-1986) in Israel. Today it is committed to a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict and respect for international humanitarian law. By supporting programs for civilian peace-building and dialogue projects, including the Geneva Initiative, Switzerland contributes to the peaceful coexistence of nations in the Middle East. It has also lobbied successfully for inclusion of Magen David Adom in the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement.

Being a state-funded affair that’s goal is to strengthen and celebrate Switzerland’s international relations with the rest of the world (both Switzerland and the respective country’s government fund), Culturescapes does an excellent job of whitewashing the inconvenient truth. Something stinks when you look at their list of focus countries and you find that in 2005 it focused on Armenia and in 2008 it focused on the genocide-denying Turkey. Much like the Eurovision contest, there’s no serious political backbone to this cultural project, just a projection of “peace on earth”, with Israel’s specialized “melting-pot” culture-scape. As Culturescapes founder and director, Jurriaan Cooiman, admitted himself to Ynet news [limited by my translation]:

The Israeli embassy turned to us and asked that the next focus will be on Israeli culture. At first we were reluctant, after all, it is a sensitive issue. I admit that today I’m under crossfire, that on one hand, I want to have this focus on Israel, and on the other, I’m being asked all the time, especially after the attack on the Marmara and the letter, how could we do this, when Israel’s theaters announced they’d continue preforming in Ariel?

Escapist Capitalist Culture-Scapes

Here’s another anecdote from the Ynet article: The writer got the festival’s name wrong and called it “Culture Escape”. It seems she’s on to something. The Culturescapes website is full of statements which goal is to evacuate culture, as if culture isn’t both the mirror and inducer of reality:

The annual event, which goes beyond political boundaries… encourages the discussion and exchange of ideas between different cultural groups…

Or rather the goal is to evacuate politics?

Events featuring live music, theatre, literature, art and films ensure that CULTURESCAPES covers the whole spectrum of current performing arts and reaches beyond language barriers to provide audiences with the greatest possible insight into foreign cultures. Furthermore, symposia and lectures contribute to more intensive discussions characterised (sic) by rigorous dialogue. The combination of all this results in the productive process of artistic exchange between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the past and the present, the creative and the political.

We’ve seen this before; Dialogue groups between Israelis and Palestinians which fake a framework of equality, where there is none; The “Peace Process”; and the use of culture to whitewash Israel’s apartheid and military occupation. Linking culture to politics is simple- follow the money. Let us not forget that culture festivals are business. Jurriaan Cooiman is a professional culture festival organizer since the mid 1990’s and the “Culturescapes Foundation” is his baby, which is “in the course of incorporation” (as mentioned here).

Israelis often excuse their state’s actions and policies with the phrase “Israel ain’t Switzerland.” To me, it’s all too ironic: The national pride Netherlands-born Cooiman takes in Switzerland’s part in establishing a colonial apartheid state, in addition to supporting Israel’s official murderous ideology, under the banner of wanting to strengthen state ties between Israel and Switzerland, and- above all- all this being very profitable for him. Indeed it seems that Israel and Switzerland have all too much culturally in common.

Apartheid Entertainment- Classical-European Ballet and Not a Word about the Dead Palestinian Children

When the demonstrations in Nebi Saleh began, one of the leaders of the village committee told me “it’s not the stolen spring, it’s the occupation.” Last Friday, during a demonstration, he told me “it’s not the occupation, it’s capitalism.” I agree. It doesn’t take long for anyone who studies the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or the American occupation of Iraq, or any other occupation for that matter, to find that it’s all about the money, and that “culture” is often an oppressive control mechanism rather than- as the Culturescapes page puts it-

…rites and customs that have developed due to the current needs and aspirations of a region.

Jurriaan Cooiman can’t go on pretending that he’s just a cultural ambassador. He fully admitted that he has no problem serving the colony-state-of-Israel’s interests and giving it sole voice, in order to promote his soon-to-be-incorporated foundation, even though he completely understands the reality of its apartheid:

It will be on how Israel is looking at its problems from the inside. I am not incorporating Palestinian artists because it would give the impression that they are doing collaborative work. For this reason, we stick with the Israeli side, showing their problems. I know that it is a reduced picture of the area but it is a way to show how Israel is coping with the fragmented sections of its society. How they face their identity, their position toward minorities, meaning majorities, as neighbors. I am very inspired to go there. I have already been twice and you can very quickly grasp substantial elements.

Indeed, Culturescapes will be exhibiting Israeli culture in all its glory: Classical-European ballet and not a word about the dead Palestinian children.


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