On May 6th in Toronto, Jian Ghomeshi hosted an event honouring Morgan Freeman in which he received a cultural prize from Hebrew University. Because such events wash Israel’s image, and because Hebrew U colonizes palestinian land in East Jerusalem, PACBI (Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) asked both Freeman and Ghomeshi to withdraw from the event. There has been a concerted social media campaign attempting to pressure the figures to not participate in this event, which is a normalization of Israel’s apartheid practices in East Jerusalem. To quote in part the letter sent by PACBI to Jian and Morgan Freeman,
The intention of the award is to honor your work in ‘combating racism and promoting knowledge and education worldwide.’ Given that Israel practices forms of racism through its system of colonialism, occupation and apartheid, and violates the rights of Palestinians to education and life, it is cynical, and nothing short of a dishonor to your lifelong achievements to be accepting an award from a group that is in deep support of an Israeli University complicit in Israel’s systematic violations of human rights and international law.
The Hebrew University is specifically implicated in serious violations in a number of ways. The University illegally acquired a significant portion of the land on which its Mount Scopus campus and dormitories are built. On 1 September 1968, about one year after Israel’s military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, the Israeli authorities confiscated 3345 dunums of Palestinian land. Part of this land was then used to build the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University.
On Monday, Jian responded to the concerns:
In simple terms, this event is not political for me. I am not doing this as a product of political affiliation or to make a statement. I am doing this to honour a great man and to advance dialogue around global education. That is what I signed on for.
Jian’s reference to his own internal motivations as a response to the claim that his event legitimates and normalizes the daily crimes against the Palestinians satisfies a little less than half of those who responded by commenting on the post (it was put up on Facebook). What is interesting about the comments is that not one of them is explicitly pro-Israeli, those who Jian has convinced agree with the non-political nature of the event, and applaud him for sticking to his convictions in the face of criticism. They perceive in Jian an authenticity for sticking to his beliefs.
What is strange about all this is that normally we applaud others for sticking to their beliefs when they are challenged because we agree with their beliefs. But Jian’s beliefs here are not self-understood or represented as political, so instead of a political conflict between two sides we have a conflict between one side that denies its political nature, and another side that declares the political implications of the event.
This is special because while we are used to politics presenting itself as a-political, I can’t think of many examples where the a-political represents itself as a-political and becomes a politics of anti-politics. To be fair to Jian, he is not against ever being political, rather he is arguing for a suspension of politics. In the case of participating in the Hebrew U event, his justification is the assertion that there “will not be an easy resolution soon” to what is “a longstanding political debate”, and that he “will speak out when [he believes] the timing is appropriate”.
So, Jian, when will the timing be appropriate?
Perhaps we can take a clue from his reference to Margret Atwood, which appears at the end of his piece. After all, he said “She articulates what is in my heart…” However, upon opening the piece, we find that Atwood is making a distinction between a cultural prize that comes from a private Israeli foundation, and a prize that would come from the Israeli state or a state university:
the Dan David Prize is a cultural item It is not, as has been erroneously stated, an “Israeli” prize from the State of Israel, nor is it a prize “from Tel Aviv University,” but one founded and funded by an individual and his foundation, just as the Griffin Prizes in Canada are. To boycott an individual simply because of the country he or she lives in would set a very dangerous precedent.
Margret Atwood’s distinction between the boycott of Institutions and individuals is not a hack job, in fact, it echos PACBI’s own language on the boycott of individuals:
In its 2005 BDS Call, Palestinian civil society has called for a boycott of Israel, its complicit institutions, international corporations that sustain its occupation, colonization and apartheid, and official representatives of the state of Israel and its complicit institutions. BDS does not call for a boycott of individuals because she or he happens to be Israeli or because they express certain views.
Jian has no right to use Atwood’s piece to defend his own complicity in Apartheid. Atwood argues against cultural boycotts, but at least she argues rather than appealing to unstructured inner motivation. An argument can be responded to, can be part of a reflexive process of mutual growth and understanding. But a statement that culture is not political is not an argument, and thus what is disturbing about Jian’s remarks is not simply that he choses to stand on the right side of history, but that he chooses not to stand at all but simply hunch and shrug his shoulders, appealing to his own feelings and ignoring those who believe that when it comes to speaking out against human rights violations, there is no need to wait until “the timing is appropriate”.