On boycotts, Palestine, and resistance: a review of ‘Assuming Boycott’

Assuming Boycott

BOOK REVIEW by Kim Jensen

Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production
Edited by Kareem Estefan, Carin Kuoni, and Laura Raicovich
272 pp. OR Books, 2017. $18.

In the winter of 2012 the highly-acclaimed Mvskoke poet and musician Joy Harjo found herself at the center of an excruciating public fray. Despite direct appeals from thousands of BDS advocates, including some of her friends in the indigenous community, Harjo decided to accept a brief residency at Tel Aviv University. Of course, many other international artists have crossed the picket line to perform in spaces targeted by the Palestinian-led boycott, but when Harjo decided to go, it touched an especially raw nerve.

Palestinian and anti-colonial activists felt betrayed that an anti-war, feminist, indigenous cultural icon like Harjo would turn a deaf ear to friends and political allies. For her part, Harjo claimed that she felt bullied and harassed. The emotionally charged debate was intensified by the theatrical presence of pro-Israel propagandists and trolls who, without a trace of irony, cast themselves as guardians of freedom of expression.

Harjo defended her decision on her Facebook page and in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, citing the metaphysical argument that the arts have the special capacity to transcend the barriers of political conflict. This mystical concept struck many BDS proponents as disingenuous since Harjo herself had previously boycotted George Bush’s White House during the Iraq War, demonstrating a conviction that some political boundaries ought never be crossed. How and why had she decided that performing in an Israeli apartheid space didn’t merit the same refusal? 

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