In the context of Subcontracted Nations, A. M. Qattan Foundation holds a debate on the Criteria for normalisation and freedom of expression
On Wednesday, 11 June 2018, the Public Programme of the A. M. Qattan Foundation (AMQF) held the first debate of the Subcontracted Nations exhibition’s Debate Programme. The debate was organised at the art gallery of the new AMQF Cultural Centre in Al-Tira neighbourhood, Ramallah.
These debates come within the context of the New World Summit, an artistic and political organisation founded in 2012 by Swiss-Dutch artist Jonas Staal. The organisation creates, and works in favour of, ‘parliaments’ for stateless and blacklisted political groups that are banned from democracy. Membership of the New World Summit includes blacklisted independent collectives and political organisations. Made for the Subcontracted Nations exhibition, Staal’s installation art work features Reading Platforms, which were designed for the first parliament of the New World Summit in Berlin, 2012. These platforms are showcased to visitors and local communities in the form of a space for analysis, discussion and synthesis.
The question that lingered clearly in this regard is: Where does the freedom of expression end, the freedom of an artist to break through the forbidden? Does freedom of expression contradict the freedom of normalisation? Is there a need to redefine the concept of normalisation or criteria of what is considered as normalisation in the Palestinian context?
Moderated by Najwan Berekdar, the debate brought together Zaid Shuaibi and Yazan Khalili.
Shuaibi asserted that the controversy over the boycott movement does not concern the freedom of expression. Rather, it is a political controversy.
Shuaibi stated that the “mind can barely comprehend the existence of a boycott movement that seeks freedom, but at the same time contradicts the freedom of expression.” According to Shuaibi, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasises that freedom of expression is bound by obligations and responsibilities, such as national and public interests.
“In the Palestinian struggle against colonisation, there is a higher national interest that should be given weight in exercising freedoms.” Shuaibi said.
Shuaibi spoke about the screening of The Insult, a film that boycott movements called for boycotting. In the view of others, this was a restriction on freedom. Shuaibi highlighted that, at the time, the goal of boycott was to confine the freedom of normalisation, holding that persecution of persons who called for the boycott was an oppression of the freedom of expression.
“Normalisation undermines the national struggle abroad. The Israelis tell foreign nationals: ‘Don’t be Palestinian more than Palestinians themselves. They share with us cultural products, such as writing.’ The Israelis use this in the interest of the Israeli propaganda.” Shuaibi explained.
“We need to resolve the issue. Enough blurring.” Shuaibi said. “There must a national point of reference in line with a national reconciliation effort. Our criteria are adaptable; they have changed over years. This will take place through seminars with cultural institutions in the West Bank.”.
“We are not a judicial authority. We are just a moral force.” Shuaibi concluded.
Khalili asserted that he did not debate whether or not the boycott of normalisation was part of the national project, but questioned how the boycott could take place.
Khalili inquired: “Is the boycott movement an institution that has its own texts and working mechanisms? Is it being transformed into an alternative for the stalemate in the Palestinian political action?” According to Khalili, the controversy within the boycott movement “provides the grounds for our understanding of the new political formation, which the Palestinian society is engaged in. We have to think of the boycott as an internal Palestinian movement.” Khalil continued.
Khalili highlighted that the boycott “is a cultural movement. It uses culture to shape community thinking and culture, which bring citizens closer to economic boycott. It aims to reach a stage, where we speak with Israelis on an equal footing.”
Khalili was of the view that the boycott criteria were not limited to support or lack of support. Rather, it involves talking about and discussing these criteria when a controversy erupts within the movement.
“We might find out that a film contradicts some criteria, but we don’t deal with it as it is in conflict with these criteria. The point is not to create a fixed political text, but to allow the possibility to bring it for discussion.” Khaili also stated that actions of the boycott movement should not be linked to bans.
Khalili believed that the boycott has not yet turned into an umbrella or popular movement: “It is easy that we ban a film, but it is so hard that we go to a merchant who sells Israeli products and prevent him from selling these products. It is, therefore, an easier way of economic boycott.”
Khalili stressed that the boycott movement is useless if it does not aim to create political and cultural mobility. “I wished that the film could be screened, but no one goes and watches it.”
In the ensuing discussion, a participant expressed his opposition of banning films: “In Israel, Jenin Jenin was screened. Ideally, the boycott movement needs to be associated with the people. Currently, the movement is elitist and its approach is more external than internal. The movement should raise public awareness to refrain from buying Israeli products.”
Another participant said that the boycott movement should have a material basis. To this day, the situation has shifted from seeing work at an Israeli factory as an act of normalisation. If there is no potential to create cultural and political thinking, the boycott will continue to be a self-exhaustive act. The boycott movement needs to place pressure on the Palestinian system, which allows access for [the Israeli] products and calls for normalisation.