Australian artists to build an alliance to fight Israel's apartheid

Australian artists from disciplines including music, visual arts, poetry and film-making, with the common goal of ending Israel’s apartheid system, will come together at Australia’s first Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) conference, which is being held in Melbourne from October 29 to 31. By joining the BDS campaign, Australian Artists Against Apartheid will add further strength to the growing cultural component of the global BDS campaign.

An organiser of the conference concert and fundraiser, Brisbane musician and activist Phil Monsour, has been pivotal in building an alliance of artists to fight Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine through artistic means: “The nature of the apartheid system in Israel is slowly seeping into the consciousness of people outside the Middle East and will hopefully lead to artists of conscience not only supporting the boycott but also using music to help expose the nature of the apartheid system in Israel to a mass audience.”

According to both the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, apartheid is a crime against humanity. Both the convention and the court define apartheid as inhuman and institutionalised acts that systematically oppress and dominate a racial group. According to the International Criminal Court, apartheid is “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”. The 1973 convention states that apartheid occurs when “inhuman acts [are] committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”.

Palestinians face racial discrimination and segregation including hundreds of military checkpoints, a dividing wall, house demolitions, frequent raids by occupation forces and a high level of surveillance of their movements. Israel’s apartheid system actively seeks to segregate and oppress Palestinians, both in the occupied territories and in Israel, carrying out inhuman acts to keep Palestinian Arabs economically, politically and socially powerless.

South African example

The fight against South African apartheid, waged in part, by “culture makers”, took on various forms and has strongly influenced today’s artists and intellectuals in the fight against Israeli apartheid.

In 1978, a group of exiled South Africans based in nearby Botswana formed the Medu Art Ensemble. Medu was a grouping of “cultural workers” who produced theatre, music, literature and graphic arts in support of the anti-apartheid struggle. In 1982, Medu organised the Culture and Resistance Festival in Botswana with the theme “political struggle is an unavoidable part of life in South Africa, and it must therefore infuse our art and culture”. Around 5000 cultural workers came from South Africa to take part in workshops, including the production of thousands of anti-apartheid posters. This was at a time when members of the anti-apartheid African National Congress and the Communist Party of South Africa were considered “terrorists” by the ruling elite and were subject to imprisonment, torture and/or death.

In 1980, two visual artists, Antonio Saura (France) and Ernest Pignon-Ernest (Spain), formed Artists of the World against Apartheid. By 1982-83 they had brought together 150 paintings and sculptures representing 30 countries. Works by well-known international figures such as Roy Lichtenstein (USA), Wilfredo Lam (Cuba), Christian Boltanski (France) and Antonio Tapies (Spain) toured the world to spread the message that racial segregation in South Africa must be defeated.

Phil Monsour recalls the hugely popular anti-apartheid song “Sun City”, recorded in the 1980s: “The artists against apartheid projects of the era were a powerful mainstream project. The ‘Sun City’ single was one of the first records I bought as a teenager.” The song was a product of the international musicians group Artists United against Apartheid formed by the guitarist of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band in 1985. These artists vowed never to perform at the state-sponsored venue in South Africa called Sun City, because to do so would be an acceptance of apartheid.

No ‘balance’ with oppression

Similarly, musicians and artists today who perform or exhibit in Israel’s state-sponsored venues or festivals anywhere in the world are accepting Israeli apartheid. Monsour points out that this has been an area where the cultural arm of the BDS campaign can be effective, especially by bringing attention to issues via the corporate media. He refers to the power that the global movement has in urging fellow artists to consider the reality of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination before exhibiting or performing in Israel’s state-sponsored events.

Well-known film maker Stephen Frears (director of High Fidelity, 2000), is currently being urged by the United States Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and US- based Artists against Apartheid, to pull his film Tamara Drewe out of the Haifa International Film Festival. This festival, like similar cultural initiatives supported by Israeli state institutions, is designed to whitewash the crimes of Israeli apartheid.

Recently world-renowned British music duo Massive Attack outlined why they wouldn’t be performing in Israel. The band argued that to do so would be considered “balancing” between Israel and Palestine - which would deny the clear imbalance between the oppressor and the oppressed.

US folk music icon and human rights activist Pete Seeger is being called on by more than 40 anti-apartheid groups to cancel his participation in a November internet event organised by the Zionist groups the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the Jewish National Fund. It shows that even seasoned activists who have a history of fighting for human rights need to be convinced to join the campaign in support of Palestinian human rights.

US policy

Monsour outlines that Israel’s dominant position in the Middle East and its apartheid system are a product of US imperialism: “The situation in Palestine is important on a number of levels. Not only is the apartheid system often described as worse than South Africa by prominent South Africans, but it is also closely connected to the US empire’s Middle East policy. A challenge to apartheid in Palestine represents a challenge to US political and economic domination in the region, and such a movement can also help challenge racism in Western countries.”

As part of the BDS conference in Melbourne, Monsour hopes to initiate an ongoing Australian artists against apartheid movement and to encourage Australian artists to respect the boycott and the campaign against apartheid in Israel.

The BDS conference concert and fundraiser will be held on Saturday, October 30, 6.30pm, at MUA Hall, 54 Ireland Street, West Melbourne. Artists of all disciplines are encouraged to attend. The line-up includes: Fear of a Brown Planet, The Brothahood, The Conch, Phil Monsour Band and Rafeef Ziadah. On the night there will be Middle East Food available and drinks. See the Australian Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions Campaign for Palestine website.