BDS-promoting Palestine Festival of Literature supported by British public funding.

Last December CiF Watch published an article about the Palestine Festival of Literature (or ‘PalFest’ as it is more frequently known), its origins and its connections to the Guardian. For those wishing to refresh their memories, the article is here

Unsurprisingly then, the Guardian’s culture section carried an article by Alison Flood on May 2nd about this year’s PalFest which is scheduled to begin this weekend in Ramallah, and then to travel to Gaza and Cairo. 

The May 5th event in Ramallah will feature, among others, Guardian employee Rachel Holmes and BBC World Service producer Bee Rowlatt. Among those appearing at the events in Gaza starting from May 6th will be PalFest founder and Guardian writer Ahdaf Soueif, Alaa Abd el-Fattah (who has also contributed to the Guardian and is Ahdaf Soueif’s nephew), Suad Amiry (whose books are available via the Guardian bookshop) and Selma Dabbagh, (who has also written for and been reviewed by the Guardian). 

The interesting parts of Flood’s article are these: (emphasis added) 

“PalFest, a festival of public events, student workshops and meetings with civil society leaders, is set to run from 5 to 9 May in Gaza, with an initial event in Ramallah on the 5 May and a finale in Cairo on the 11 May. Supported by organisations including Arts Council England and the British Council, with patrons including Chinua Achebe, Seamus Heaney and Philip Pullman, it endorses the Palestinian call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, and states as its mission the reinvigoration of “cultural ties between Arab countries, ties that have been eroded for too long”. Soueif is its founding chair.”

“Dr Haidar Eid, a literature professor at Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University, said the festival was “a sign of the growing solidarity across borders in our struggle against racism and oppression”.

“Intellectuals and writers played a key role in ending apartheid in South Africa; likewise, Arab cultural figures are visiting Gaza this year to show solidarity with Palestinian academics and artists in support for their call to increase the global BDS [Boycott Divestment and Sanctions] campaign against apartheid Israel,” he said. “On behalf of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, we deeply appreciate the Arab writers’ principled and consistent support for the Palestinian civil struggle for justice and peace in Palestine.” “

 The Arts Council England receives funding from the British government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport to the tune of £350 million after the recent cuts. It also enjoys further public financial support via National Lottery funding.

The British Council received £196 million in government grants via the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2010-11. It is a registered charity and comes under UK embassy and Consular auspices. 

The BBC World Service (Bee Rowlatt’s employer) is also publicly funded, amongst others by DFID – the Department for International Development – and at present, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  

On the other hand, in 2008 the British Council’s CEO Martin Davidson said that:

The British Council is firmly opposed to an academic boycott of Israeli universities. Academic boycotts are bad in principle, and would be bad in this specific case… dialogue is unlikely to be sustained without exchange between academics and academic institutions…”   

And in 2009 the British Embassy in Israel claimed on behalf of the previous government that:

“The British government is opposed to any kind of boycott of Israel.”

So which is it? For boycotts or against? 

Unfortunately, the publicly-funded Arts Council made its stance more than clear last November when, in response to criticism of its funding of an event featuring proud anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon, it issued a statement saying:

“It is not the Arts Council’s role to dictate artistic policy to a funded organisation, or to restrict an artist from expressing their views. What our policies and procedures do ensure is that we fund a wide range of organisations and individuals who, collectively, present a diverse view of world society.”

It would, however be interesting to hear what the tax-paying British public thinks about the fact that organizations and government departments which it funds even in these difficult economic times see fit to support a project such as PalFest which openly declares its aims to be contrary those expressed at least by the former British government.

It would also be interesting to hear representatives of the FCO, DFID and DCMS explain their departments’ involvement – albeit indirectly – in promoting the aims of the BDS movement and PACBI, which rejects normalization of any kind and aspires to dismantle the Jewish State.  

Until they do, many may continue to think that ambivalent British government policies, actions and statements do much to contribute to the increasingly unpleasant atmosphere on the streets of the UK as well as undermining Britain’s stance as an honest broker in the Middle East. 


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