Monday, February 27, 2012

The Humanity of Culture

Last night, the Iranian film “A Separation” directed by Asghar Farhadi won the Oscar for best foreign film. This is a fantastic and much-needed victory for the Iranian people. They have had so little to celebrate in recent years, it’s nice that – for at least one night – they have a reason to raise their heads high. Just watch how this one Iranian family reacted to last night's news:

Farhadi’s acceptance speech was pure class:
At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or filmmaker, but because at the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.

And in fact, it appears that A Separation has already helped remove some of the “heavy of dust of politics” in Israel. According to the Associated Press, Israelis are “flocking” to movie theaters to watch the film. The cultural and historical ties between Israel and Iran run deep, far deeper than these recent years of tension and belligerency. As Roya Hakakian recently contended in the New York Times, “No two nations have ever been so deeply shaped by each other and yet so unaware of their debt to each other.” Films like A Separation can go a long way to remind Israelis and Iranians of that debt.

That is not to say that such cultural exchanges can overcome the logic of politics. There are real substantive issues with serious implications that separate the two countries. No amount of Oscar-winning films can change that.

But what cultural exchanges can do is humanize the other. At a time when all sides are concerned with whether to go to war and how to win one, it’s important to take a step back and consider who will be the victims of war. Bombs do not kill some abstract enemy, but real people – fathers, mothers, sons and daughters – who by fate and chance sit on the other side of the battle lines. By humanizing the other, we raise the psychological costs of war and thereby, all things being equal, incrementally decrease the chance of war. Through the humanity of culture, we can build a culture of humanity.

Today, the Iranian government boasted that A Separation succeeded in “leaving behind” a film from the “Zionist regime” that was also nominated for an Oscar. This comment is pathetic for two reasons. One, the Iranian government has worked assiduously to censor its own film industry. So far from boasting, it should rather apologize for all the Iranian films that could have won Oscars but were never allowed to be made.

Two, if the Iranian government is so confident in the superiority of Iranian films, then it should have no problem allowing the screening of Israeli films in the country. It’s sad that while Israelis can flock to watch “A Separation,” Iranians do not have the same opportunity to watch Israel’s Oscar nominee,  “Footnote.” Cultural exchanges only work if they flow in both directions.

This brings up my question generally for supporters of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement who seek to isolate Israel in every sector, whether political, economic, or cultural. To BDS supporters, I ask whether an uncompromising position of absolute isolation of Israel is counterproductive.

Importantly, there are significant debates within the BDS community over tactics and strategy. For example, some only boycott goods that derive from the occupation of the West Bank, while others prefer a comprehensive boycott of the entire state of Israel. Therefore my question is pointed to those who observe the maximal interpretation of BDS.

Israeli films, books, music and art are as diverse as the society that produces them. Unlike the Iranian government which seeks to censor its artists, the Israeli government (usually) understands that it derives strength from pluralism. I understand why the BDS movement would want to avoid much of what comes from Israel, even if I do not agree with them. Yet at the same time, some of the most damning critiques of Israeli society and policies come from Israelis themselves. Why boycott these as well?

Ultimately, Israeli policies towards the Palestinians will only change as a result of pressure from within. Instead of isolating voices calling for change within Israeli society, the BDS movement would be better off seeking to empower those voices - or at least listen to them once in a while. More fundamentally, all sides would be better off if they could brush away some of that “heavy dust of politics” and humanize the other. To achieve peace, Israelis and Palestinians must be able to look at each other and see, above all else, fellow humans first. Just as to avoid war, Israelis and Iranians must be able to do the same. 

To any supporters of BDS, please email me (jasonstern242 at gmail dot com) or comment below. I would honestly like to hear your response.

UPDATE: A supporter of BDS suggested I check out two sources on the movement. The first is the website for The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. The second is Omar Barghouti's book, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.

You can also read this blog in Arabic (هذه الصفحة باللغة العربية)

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