Ken Loach: why I support a cultural boycott of Israel

The acclaimed film director talks to Frank Barat about Palestine, politics, and why he wants to keep causing trouble.
Ken Loach

Speaking out: Ken Loach at a rally for low-paid workers in London. Bryce Edwards under a Creative Commons Licence

Could you tell us how you became aware of and then involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights?

It began some years ago when I was involved in putting on a play called ‘Perdition’. It was a play about Zionism in the Second World War and the deal that was done between some Zionists and the Nazis. It shed a whole new light on the creation of Israel and the politics of Zionism. I became aware then, and gradually in the following years, that the foundation of Israel was based on a crime against the Palestinians. Other crimes have followed since then. The oppression of the Palestinians, who have lost their land, whose daily lives are interrupted by the occupation, who live in a state of permanent depression that is continuing today, is something that we have to deal with.

Why Palestine? Why is Palestine symbolic?

There is oppression all around the world but what makes the Israel-Palestine conflict special is a number of things. First of all, Israel presents itself to the world as a democracy. A country just like every Western state. It presents itself in this way while it is in fact committing crimes against humanity. It has produced a State which is divided along racial lines, like apartheid South Africa. It is also supported militarily and financially by Europe and the US. So there is a massive hypocrisy going on; we are supporting a country that claims to be a democracy, we’re supporting it in every way, and yet, it is involved in these crimes against humanity.

There are various tools to try to change this, and one of them is the BDS (Boycott, Divestment Sanctions) call. You were the first major personality to endorse and support the call for a cultural boycott of Israel. You opened the way for many others to join you. Some people say you should not boycott culture. What would you respond to that?

First of all you are a citizen, a human being. When you are confronted by such crimes you have to respond as a human being, regardless of if you are an artist, a VIP or whatever. First of all you have to respond and do what you can to bring this to people’s attention. A boycott is a tactic. It is effective against Israel because Israel presents itself as a cultural beacon. It is therefore very susceptible to cultural boycott. We should not have anything to do with projects that are supported by the State of Israel. Individuals are not concerned; we have to concentrate on the actions of the Israeli State. That is what we have to target. We target it because you cannot just stand by and watch people live their lives in refugee camps forever.

Israel uses art and films for a campaign called ‘Brand Israel’. Art is therefore political. As far as you are concerned, all your films are political. So, in your opinion, can art be a tool to fight oppression?

Yes. The basic point is this: whatever story you choose to tell or images you choose to show, what you select indicates what your concerns are. If you do something that is entirely escapist, in a world which is full of oppression, this indicates what your priorities are. So a major commercial film, to make a lot of money, shows something. It has political consequences and implies a political stance. Most art has a political context and political implications.

Have you heard about World War Z, a film with Brad Pitt where there is a virus killing people around the world, and the only place which is safe is Israel because of the wall that they have built?

It sounds like extreme rightwing story. You have to see the film before making a judgement but it really sounds, from your description, like far-right fantasy. It is interesting that Israel reveals itself by its friends. In the north of Ireland – which has a long history of being split between the loyalists and the republicans – the loyalists, on their walls, have the flag of Israel and the South African whites; the republicans have the flags of Palestine and the ANC. It is curious how these alliances reveal so much about what people really think.

Are you worried about the rise of the rightwing and the rise of far-right ideas all over Europe? It reminds me of the early 1930s.

The rise of the far-right always accompanies economic recession and depression and mass unemployment. People in power, that want to keep power, always have to find scapegoats because they do not want people to fight their real enemy, which is the capitalist class, the owners of big industries, those in control of politics. They need to find scapegoats. The poorest, immigrants, asylum seekers, gypsies will be to blame. The rightwing chooses the most vulnerable, the weakest to blame for the crisis in their economic system. In mass unemployment people are unhappy and have to find something to fight. The Jews were to blame in the 1930s, terrible things were done to them. Now it is immigrants, the unemployed...We have a horrible press in Britain which will blame those without work for their own unemployment while, of course, there are no jobs.

How can we respond to that when the same people control everything: press, capital, politics? How can we, the civil society, without access to the mainstream press, challenge and defeat this ideology?

Big question. In the end there is no home but politics. You have to make an analysis of the situation and organize resistance. How it is organized is always the big question. You have to defeat every attack on the ground and stand in solidarity with those most under attack. You also have to organize political parties. The problem is that we have parties that have a false analysis. We have the Stalinist parties of the Left that led people for years into a blind alley, we have the social democrats who want to make people believe that we have to work within the system, that we can reform it, we can make it work. Which of course is a fantasy, it will never work. The big question is what politics? People are struggling with this every day.

Your last film touches upon those points. About people that are marginalized because of their political views. I have read today that Jimmy’s Hall might be your last film and that you might want to focus on documentaries after that, which is great news for Palestine.

I don’t know about that. Jimmy’s Hall was quite a long shoot and it is very hard work. I am not sure I could make another like that. But there is still trouble to cause somewhere, so I have to work out the best way to cause a bit more trouble. Certainly, films should be made about Palestine. They need Palestinians to make them. The Palestinian struggle, at the end, is one that will be won. Things don’t stay the same forever. It will be won in the end. The big question is, what type of Palestine will emerge? It is not only a question of ending Israeli oppression – it is a perennial question – what state will emerge? Will it be in the interest of all the people? Or will it again be dominated by one wealthy class that will oppress the rest of the people whatever their background? What type of State will emerge is the bigger question.

This interview was conducted by Frank Barat for Le Mur a des Oreilles. Crossposted with permission.
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