Here is an update from SFPIRG (simon fraser public interest group) regarding the Vancouver Queer Film Fest’s (VQFF) continued failure to accept a resolution on the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). The Radical Access Mapping Project continues to support the ongoing boycott of the VQFF until this changes.
SFPIRG Statement on the VQFF 2016 and Pinkwashing
It has been almost two years since we at SFPIRG wrote our first Public Letter to the Vancouver Queer Film Festival (VQFF) (footnote 1) addressing pinkwashing. In that letter we expressed the hope that Out on Screen and the VQFF would engage in a process of learning more about Palestine and the Israeli occupation, and that the organization would come to support the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
In the time since, Out on Screen and the VQFF released their own Open Letter (An Open Letter to Our Community). (footnote 2)
We were hopeful when we learned of this Open Letter because we knew that Out On Screen and VQFF organizers had been doing some work to learn more about the issues. Sadly, the Open Letter left us profoundly disappointed.
It has taken us a while to draft a response, but we did want to respond, especially as we once again come around to this year’s iteration of the VQFF in August. We would like to identify three particular concerns with Out on Screen’s Open Letter.
1. We believe that the Open Letter misrepresents the Academic and Cultural Boycott.
The Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) campaign is part of a broader call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) (footnote 3) against Israel until it complies with international law. BDS was launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society, and is a widely supported form of resistance amongst Palestinians.
Our concern that the call for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has been misrepresented arises from how the Open Letter frames what its authors posit as two sides of the ‘debate’.
In describing the call from those in the community who want the VQFF to respect the Academic and Cultural Boycott, the Open Letter states, “They urge us to show solidarity with the people of Palestine by rejecting art or academia from Israel.”
And then, in describing the views of those who support the state of Israel, the Open Letter says, “National and local organizations, festival artists and members have cautioned against excluding art or advertisers based on their nationality or national affiliations.”
These two statements work in the letter as mini-summaries of the ‘sides’ of the ‘debate’ and anyone with little or no familiarity of the issues would understandably be misled by these statements to believe that the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel must be about “rejecting art or academia from Israel” purely on the basis of “nationality or national affiliations.”
This is factually untrue, and framing it this way constitutes a rather horrible misrepresentation of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
A reading of Guidelines for the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (footnote 4) shows that this is not simply a call to “show solidarity with the people of Palestine by rejecting art or academia from Israel” – nor is it a call to exclude anyone or anything “based on their nationality or national affiliation.”
Rather it is a call for the boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions.
The Guidelines from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel state:
“the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has advocated, since 2004, for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions. This is based on the fact that these institutions are complicit in the Israeli system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights guaranteed by international law, or has hampered their exercise of these rights, including freedom of movement and freedom of expression.” (footnote 5)
The Guidelines expressly protect individual freedom of speech by distinguishing between individuals who simply happen to be affiliated with an Israeli cultural institution, and those who are actually representing the Israeli state or a complicit institution:
“Anchored in precepts of international law and universal human rights, the BDS movement, including PACBI, rejects on principle boycotts of individuals based on their identity (such as citizenship, race, gender, or religion) or opinion. Mere affiliation of Israeli cultural workers to an Israeli cultural institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott. If, however, an individual is representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution, or is commissioned/recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to “rebrand” itself, then her/his activities are subject to the institutional boycott the BDS movement is calling for.” (footnote 6)
Individuals as individuals are only within the purview of the boycott under certain circumstances:
“While an individual’s freedom of expression should be fully and consistently respected in the context of cultural boycotts, an individual artist/writer, Israeli or otherwise, cannot be exempt from being subject to “common sense” boycotts (beyond the scope of the PACBI institutional boycott criteria) that conscientious citizens around the world may call for in response to what they widely perceive as egregious individual complicity in, responsibility for, or advocacy of violations of international law (such as war crimes or other grave human rights violations), racial violence, or racial slurs. At this level, Israeli cultural workers should not be exempted from due criticism or any lawful form of protest, including boycott; they should be treated like all other offenders in the same category, not better or worse. This is in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on which the BDS movement’s principles are based…” (footnote 7)
We assume that organizers with Out on Screen and the VQFF must have actually looked at the Guidelines for the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel as part of the work of considering these issues. The Guidelines are available online, and they clearly lay out what is asked of those who wish to be part of a global movement to end the oppression and violence directed by the Israeli settler colonial state against the Palestinian people. We are astounded that the Open Letter so badly misrepresents what is being asked. We would like to believe that this is an unintentional misrepresentation, but we are also frustrated because it is hard for us to understand how, after four years of community requests that Out on Screen and VQFF organizers educate themselves on the issue, such a misrepresentation could happen.
2. We believe that the Open Letter also evades the issue of colonialism, and works to actively mask the reality of Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine, and Canadian settler colonialism here on Coast Salish Territories.
Indeed the idea of ‘colonialism’ is barely present in the letter, with the word ‘colonial’ occurring only once in the Open Letter, and not even as it applies to the displacement of the Palestinian people. The term ‘colonial’ is casually used in the Letter as part of a version of the ‘Why target Israel?’ argument. The “Why target Israel?” argument is a strategy for dodging critique of the Israeli state by suggesting that only those motivated by anti-Jewish sentiment could possibly offer such critique. In this instance, the “Why Israel?” question was posed thus: “Why Israel?, they ask, and not Iran, China, the U.S., or even Canada for our colonial history and legacies?”
This version of the “Why Israel?” argument raises the issue of settler colonialism in Canada in such a way as to suggest that holding Canadian settler society accountable is somehow an over the top suggestion – “even Canada!” As if it were somehow obvious that Canadian settler society should not be called to account for its historical and ongoing colonialism. As if Indigenous people on this land were not continuing to resist, were not continuing to ask everyone who claims to care about social justice to face the violent truth of settler colonialism here, and to be in solidarity with them in dismantling colonial structures while building new relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. From our perspective, the Open Letter reveals not only a failure to recognize, name and resist settler colonialism in Palestine, but also settler colonialism on this continent. This is a sad irony given that one of this year’s Spotlights is on Two Spirit lives.
3. Finally, we find the logic that is used to justify refusing to honor the Academic and Cultural Boycott inconsistent.
The Open Letter says “we have decided to guide our future advertising/sponsorship processes and film curation on our own anti-oppression framework rather than joining the BDS call.” This statement presumes that it is possible to employ an anti-oppression framework while rejecting the call for BDS. We do not agree, particularly given certain other statements made in the Open Letter.
The Open Letter states that Out on Screen and VQFF organizers a) know that they cannot remain neutral, b) oppose pinkwashing and homonationalism, and c) understand that “this conflict is an asymmetrical one (footnote 8) …” and both “… recognize and agree with international law which recognises the Israeli occupation’s systemization of control, dispossession, and violence”. Considering these statements, we would think that any “anti-oppression framework” worthy of the name would actually require a strong and clear stance against settler colonialism, and a commitment to being in meaningful solidarity with Indigenous peoples. It is safe to say that there is a strong consensus among those who do anti-oppression work that listening to and centring those who are being harmed is a central tenet of anti-oppression theory and practice; given this we would expect that, in the specific case of Palestine, meaningful solidarity would require, at minimum, honoring the request of Palestinian civil society that people of conscience support the BDS movement. Solidarity would mean honoring the call from groups like Palestinian Queers for BDS (PQBDS) for queer individuals and organizations to oppose pinkwashing and participate in BDS. (footnote 9)Meaningful solidarity would require centering the Palestinian queers in our community who have generously offered detailed feedback on how they have been harmed by the VQFF’s pinkwashing.(footnote 10)
For us, it comes down to this: we do not understand how you can recognize that the Israeli occupation has, in your words, made use of the “systemization of control, dispossession and violence,” and still decline to support a form of solidarity and resistance that is expressly requested by the very people who are the targets of that occupation, control, dispossession and violence. We do not understand how anyone could consider that to be anti-oppressive. We certainly do not consider this to be anti-oppressive, and because of this, we support the continued call for a community boycott of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival until it acknowledges the harm it has perpetrated and passes a BDS resolution. As an organization that is presently, at the Board and Staff level, predominantly queer, this is not a decision we make lightly, but it is one we make wholeheartedly, guided as we are by our commitment to anti-oppression, which includes, as it must, a commitment to naming and dismantling settler colonialism everywhere.
We also want to acknowledge that many people, especially Black and Indigenous people, will find themselves in a difficult position as the Festival approaches. We understand that the Spotlights at this year’s Vancouver Queer Film Festival will be on Black Lives Matter and Two Spirit community. We recognize that this is an important opportunity for often ignored communities to have a platform and to access relevant programming, and we respect that some of those who find themselves caught between the need to access relevant film and community on one hand, and a desire to be in solidarity with Palestinian struggles on the other, might find that they are not able to participate in the boycott of the VQFF.
We want to recognize that intersecting oppressive structures often put individuals in the sad position of having to choose between imperfect options. We believe that it is possible for those who choose to attend the VQFF this year to also find ways to be in solidarity with Palestinian struggles. We fully expect that many who attend the Festival this year will find a variety of ways to make known their feelings about the failure of the VQFF and Out on Screen to support the Academic and Cultural Boycott and BDS. We also fully expect those who are honoring the boycott will find a myriad of other ways to support Black Lives Matter and Two Spirit folks if they are not already doing so.
Those of you who read our earlier letter might note that the tone of this letter is different. We are, like many, more frustrated than we were. We are both angrier and sadder. That said, we remain open and interested in talking with people, especially anyone with Out on Screen and the VQFF, who would like to connect with us about these issues. We remain very happy to help to arrange learning opportunities and to have meaningful conversation with those who want to explore further. We continue to be hopeful that change is possible – that is, after all, the whole basis for the work we do.
This letter is not an attempt to shame anyone, though we know it might be received as such. We all live in this intensely shame-based society, and it can be hard for most (all?) of us to receive criticism, especially public criticism, and not have it land as shame. Rather than an attempt to shame, this letter is an attempt to hold organizers with Out on Screen and the VQFF accountable to the values that they themselves lay claim to.
Right now there is a massive disconnect – a gaping chasm – between the claimed value of anti-oppression, and the refusal to support Palestinians harmed by Israeli settler colonialism. That disconnect, that chasm, is one more cut, one morewound, adding to the larger collection of injuries that are daily being inflicted on the actual bodies and minds of Palestinian people everywhere, including here in our own queer communities.
We ask that Out on Screen and the VQFF please listen with open hearts and minds. Please do not turn away from the community discontent and the ongoing calls for accountability. These calls for accountability will continue until the harm – first caused when the VQFF allowed itself to become a tool of pinkwashing, then exacerbated by the unwillingness of Out on Screen and the VQFF to align themselves with those suffering under oppression – finally, FINALLY stops.
In love and solidarity with all those who are willing to speak truth to power, and work for a world in which no one is subjected to systemic injustice,
The Board and Staff of SFPIRG (the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group)
Endorsed by the Out On Campus Collective
8 We appreciate that the Open Letter acknowledges that what is happening in Palestine is “asymmetrical” – that is it is not a conflict of two equal powers — that said, we do not believe that the letter as a whole reflects that understanding. Again and again, the language of the Open Letter frames the issues as a “debate” and a “conflict” – both terms that are routinely used to describe situations where parties to the ‘debate’ or the ‘conflict’ are in somewhat equal positions. We, at least in circles devoted to social justice, do not use terms like ‘debate’ or ‘conflict’ to describe situations where the power relation is strikingly unequal. A rape is not a ‘conflict’. Donald Trump spewing rhetoric that justifies Islamophobia is not engaging in ‘debate.’ We see the situation in Palestine as one of violent settler colonialism in which Israel is systematically enacting genocide, displacement, and in doing so, routinely making use of many intersecting oppressive structures to continue occupying Palestinian lands and to continue efforts to erase Palestinian bodies and identities. That is not a ‘conflict’, and those who support such state violence are not engaging in ‘debate.’
9 https://pqbds.wordpress.com/2010/06/28/palestinian-queers-for-bds-call-upon-all-queer-groups-organizations-and-individuals-around-the-world-to-boycott-the-apartheid-state-of-israel/ PQBDS also provides more detailed information about BDS in their open letter to queer academics, artists and activists:https://pqbds.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/an-open-letter-to-queer-academics-artists-and-activists/