New Internationalist

Ken Loach: why I support a cultural boycott of Israel

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

Ken Loach [Related Image]
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.
Facebook: Le Mur a des Oreilles

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  1. #1 David Neunuebel 07 Nov 13

    Would love Ken to make a film simply titled, ’NAKBA.’

  2. #2 elaine newby 07 Nov 13

    There is no argument that there has been injustice meted out to Palestinians due to the European solution for its guilt for the centuries' long waves of anti-Semitism that culminated in the holocaust, but there needs to be in this article an indication as to the non-representative nature of Kastner's 'collaboration' as a Zionist during the War.

    His crime comprised attempting (with others from the Rescue and Aid committee there, one assumes the 'some Nazis' to whom reference is made) to save family and others from his hometown ghetto as well as those around him in the movement in Hungary (some of those in the movement having already fled Germany). Through bribery they 'bought' their freedom in negotiations with Eichmann while far more clearly perished and, some argue, did so without adequate warnings from the him and the Committee. (The passenger list is available, and comprises women and children, rabbis and professionals and public servants, a total of about 1,680 of whom at least 400 came from his ghetto.)

    The interviewee moves quickly from 'the deal that was done between some Zionists and the Nazis' to a very general 'whole new light on the creation of Israel and the politics of Zionism'.

    Zionists and non-Zionists alike perished among the 6-8 million Jews across Europe. Very few escaped once the curtain came down with a Nazi invasion, and the western countries of Europe and elsewhere failed to welcome many of those who tried to flee before war was declared... Limits were imposed that doomed many unnecessarily to death in the years that followed.

    In Hungary, anti-Semitism had a long history dating from the Middle Ages, and in the interwar period, its government had already enacted ant-Jewish legislation from as early as the 1920s when Jewish success in the professions in the early twentieth century (after centuries of being banned from agriculture and land-ownership), led to their enrolment in university being restricted to a percentage that matched their level in the general population. From resentment to persecution (and later murder)can be a small step as more recent genocides demonstrate.

    In the 1930s their government emulated the Nuremburg laws and employment restricted and the right to vote virtually eliminated. By 1941 deportations began to occur of Polish Jewish refugees back to Poland where extermination awaited. By 1942 massacres were reported by Hungarian soldiers and 'police' of Jews. Jewish citizens had been used as forced labour in Hungary but their deportation was resisted by the government (it is worth recalling that before by 1920 some 50% of doctors were Jewish, as well as substantial numbers of teachers and engineers etc). Mass deportation began with the Nazis taking control in March 1944.

    The 'Kastner train' left June 30 and went via Bergen-Belsen (a special Hungarian section) with the last persons entering Switzerland in December after varying periods of imprisonment in that camp in conditions similar to others there. This was no luxurious journey - they were fortunate to have survived with their lives - there was no guarantee.

    Many hundreds of thousands in Hungary who were deported, either via a concentration camp as forced labour in Germany (like my now late neighbour and his wife) or to immediate destruction did not survive.

    A few had bribed their way to freedom - the controversy seems to have been over how aware Hungarian Jews were of the Nazis intentions and had the Aid and Rescue Group (particularly Kastner) warned others in the Hungarian Jewish community of the danger ahead for those who remained; and about how more generally people were already aware etc.

    In the post-war years, who would trust this Europe to be a safe place for Jews - religious or secular - ever again. But the European 'solution' using already occupied territory had repercussions in terms of displaced Palestinian / Arab population.

    The migration that had begun before the war was a prelude to what was to come. A 'Jewish' homeland, a 'solution' to a European problem? Or was it one that had echoes already in the Middle East where nearer members of the dispersed Jewish population also sought to be a part of the newly created State.

    The State of Israel was a 'solution' a convenient/inconvenient one that also happened to appear to fulfil eschatological hopes. The horrific past is known - the unsatisfactory present too - but what suggestion is made for the future?

  3. #3 elaine newby 07 Nov 13

    It is worth noting that support for Zionism internationally has fallen substantially as illegal settlements continue and abuses and everyday sufferings and inequality of Palestinians are revealed. The persecuted can become the persecutor. But surely the bottom line for Israel is an acknowledgement of its 'Right to Exist' - in some form, not absorbed into states that will not be able to guarantee religious or secular freedoms over time, or a population whose religious freedom may be compromised by its becoming a minority in its 'own' land.

    Peace and coexistence surely must be the goal. Compensation for the displaced that permits them a new life? Access to education etc?

    What alternative solution is suggested? Dispossessing generations of migrant Israelis, including the some three quarters of a million who have reportedly left their homes in the ME and near area (leaving homes behind them) and come to Israel (in a movement similar to Partition)?

    We need Peace. The ME needs Peace.

    The situation of the Palestinians in their areas is known - but what is Loach's proposed solution? A 'one state' solution where Jews secular and religious are a minority and likely over time to be subject to anti-Semitism or restrictions on their religious freedoms etc as is seen in other MENA countries (an attitude admittedly fuelled by the initial involuntary displacement)surely is not?

    I would have welcomed a clear statement by Loach of his ideas of a geo-political solution, given his appeal for a cultural boycott.

  4. #4 J Saffer 11 Nov 13

    you obvious hatred of the Jewish people is transparent. First of all Israeli Jews and Palestinians are of the SAME race, the Semitic race. Secondly you ignore the fact that it is a bona fide nation that has both muslim and Jewish citizens, while no arab country has Jews as citizens. Why are you silent about Russia, where gay people are being murdered or the many arab countries where women are oppressed, raped and treated like property? You say you are against Israel's ideas being listened to? You are a Jew hater, no better than the nazis of 1939.

  5. #5 Jim Hendry 12 Nov 13

    J Saffer's comment follow the usual well worn path of the utterly false accusations of anti-semitism levelled at anyone, who dares criticise tha fascist Zionists and their Gestapo IDF. Being an opponent of mass slaughter and genocide of innocent men women and children does not make one a Jew hater. Many eminent Jews condemn the Zionists as non-Jews, pointing out correctly that they are a Nationalistic racist community, made up of supposed Jews, Christians and Moslems. Read the words and listen to Miko Peled, Naom Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein whom I consider to be amongst the ranks of the many good Jews I know and support intellectually.

  6. #6 glennie 13 Nov 13

    As long as we are blaming and fighting each other , we don't see the real cause of the problems our society faces.

    It is like a big rose garden, the problems are not all the different types of roses or the thorns - they all get along with some nutrition, water and sunshine.
    The problem is the tiny aphid we barely see that destroys everything it touches.

  7. #7 Reality Check 24 Nov 13

    I hope that Ken Loach's family experiences a thousand times the hate and discrimination that he wishes on Israeli Jews as Israel tries to protect itself from the irrational jihadist psychopaths that surround Israel.

    Ken Loach is disgusting, and a vile bigot.

  8. #8 Reality Check 24 Nov 13

    For honest coverage of Israel-Palestinians, read this blog every day:

    Also, disgusting bigot and hatemonger Ken Loach should go move to Syria if he wants to enjoy the wonderful insane jihadists that Israel, quite rightly, is protecting itself from.

  9. #9 Leia 22 Feb 14

    Very clear, passionate, well put opinions by ken - I agree whole heartedly. One issue I find with poeple when you tell them you support Palestinians and are against the state of Israel is that you must be racist against jews - people are ignorant about the difference between being anti semitic and anti zionist. More information\education needs to get out to inform people to clarify the situation and gain momentum in the support of the palestinian people and in the war aginst the state of Israel.

  10. #10 NK 25 Feb 14

    It might be nice if the interviewer challenged Ken Loach's ideas. Even if you agree with him, you have a journalistic responsibility to make him defend his position. These softball, helping him along comments aren't good guys, pick up your game newint!

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