Back in June, we filled you in on the BDS movement (cultural boycotts, divestment, sanctions) that aimed to take action against Israel for its decades-long violence and discrimination against the Palestinian state that began in 1948. Their pledge:
“We support the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality. In response to the call from Palestinian artists and cultural workers for a cultural boycott of Israel, we pledge to accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.”
Thousands have joined the movement, including British and American artists like Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Brian Eno, Roger Waters, Jarvis Cocker, and many, many more.
Now, there’s a competing group in the UK called the “Culture for Coexistence,” and their latest member is Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.
“Cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory and will not further peace,” the group told The Guardian, in an open letter. “Open dialogue and interaction promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance and it is through such understanding and acceptance that movement can be made towards a resolution of the conflict.”
They claim to be aiming for cultural engagement and a “two-state solution,” and oppose the boycott. Many of the group’s signatories have been politically active in a group called “Conservative Friends of Israel,” which is described as “dedicated to strengthening business, cultural and political ties between the United Kingdom and Israel.” There are no Palestinians among their numbers. Hilary Mantel, Simon Schama, and Zoe Wannamaker are among the other artists that have joined the group, and the full list can be seen here.
As you might have guessed, Rowling came under heavy fire for her opposition to the boycott, especially because of the perception that the Culture for Coexistence is a conservative propaganda effort led by pro-Israeli politicians in the UK.
“I’ve received a lot of messages over the past few days that use my fictional characters to make points about the Israeli cultural boycott,” Rowling wrote, in a long post justifying her decision. That’s the ground on which she chooses to meet her critics—through the rest of the post, Rowling uses her fictional characters as a defense for her membership in the Culture for Coexistence. The title says it all: “Why Dumbledore Went to the Hilltop.”
Fair warning—the explanation will be confusing for those who aren’t familiar with Harry Potter, and utterly unconvincing for those who are. An example:
In the final book, Deathly Hallows, when many hidden things come to the surface, there is a scene on a windy hilltop. Dumbledore has been summoned by a Death Eater, Severus Snape. At that point, Snape is a subscriber to the inhuman philosophy of Voldemort. He is probably a killer, certainly a betrayer of two of the people Dumbledore loved most, and the man who had sent Voldemort after an innocent child in the knowledge that Voldemort would kill him.
Again, to my knowledge (my memory isn’t infallible, so forgive me if you did), nobody has ever asked me: why did Dumbledore go when Snape asked him to go, and why didn’t he kill him on sight when he got there?
I think readers assume that Dumbledore is wise enough, knowledgeable enough and compassionate enough to sense that Snape, though he has led a despicable adult life, has something human left inside him, something that can be redeemed. Nevertheless, wise and prescient as Dumbledore is, he is not a Seer. At the moment when he answers Snape’s call, he cannot know that Snape isn’t going to try and kill him. He can’t know that Snape will have the moral or physical courage to change course, let alone help defeat Voldemort. Yet still, Dumbledore goes to the hilltop.
Even if her readers are the ones who initiated the comparisons, it’s at least semi-ridiculous for Rowling to frame her rationalization through the lens of a fictional character, noble as his intentions may have been. The situation in the Harry Potter universe is far less complex than the Israel-Palestine conflict, and you’d think someone as smart as J.K. Rowling would know better than to draw a false equivalence between the two.
Eventually, painfully, she brings the Dumbledore-based narrative back to her decision on Israel:
Dumbledore is an academic and he believes that certain channels of communication should always remain open. It was true in the Potter books and it is true in life that talking will not change wilfully closed minds. However, the course of my fictional war was forever changed when Snape chose to abandon the course on which he was set, and Dumbledore helped him do it. Theirs was a partnership without which Harry’s willingness to fight would have been pointless.
The Palestinian community has suffered untold injustice and brutality. I want to see the Israeli government held to account for that injustice and brutality. Boycotting Israel on every possible front has its allure. It satisfies the human urge to do something, anything, in the face of horrific human suffering.
What sits uncomfortably with me is that severing contact with Israel’s cultural and academic community means refusing to engage with some of the Israelis who are most pro-Palestinian, and most critical of Israel’s government. Those are voices I’d like to hear amplified, not silenced. A cultural boycott places immovable barriers between artists and academics who want to talk to each other, understand each other and work side-by-side for peace.
The glaring error here is that Rowling’s Dumbledore story focused on confronting Voldemort, an unabashed enemy, while her transition to Israel shifts attention to the “cultural and academic community,” who are neither enemies nor separated by “immovable barriers,” even in the case of a boycott. Arguably (read: factually), a boycott empowers oppositional voices in those communities.
But let’s take Rowling at face value. Essentially, her argument is that punishing the Israeli government will punish all the people of Israel, even the progressives, and therefore silence their voices and make it more difficult to reach a solution.
The counter-argument is easy—by pressuring the Israeli government through political action like a boycott, it will actually make it more likely that progressive elements will speak up, and that moderate or undecided voices will be forced to contend with an issue they might otherwise have ignored. That’s what a boycott does—it raises awareness through cultural and economic means.
Rowling’s logic, on the other hand, is actually dangerous. If you chase it to its logical endpoint, it functions as an argument against political protest in general. It’s not much different from a line of faulty reasoning that became popular in America during the Iraq War: If you criticize the government, you’re only serving to demoralize and undermine the troops. It was a convenient way for pro-war elements to silence dissent without overtly defending their own policies, which where baldly ineffective. It’s a clever strategy—simply point out a group of innocent victims, and escape censure under the guise of a secondary morality.
Protest would be fine, the argument went, but maybe just not in war time. This, of course, was laughable, because if you believe that a war is wrong, war time is exactly when a protest is needed most. But Rowling is using the same line of thought: “Sure, I get that the human rights atrocities are bad, but let’s not take it out on the poor Israeli culture!” In fact, if Rowling truly believes that a change is needed in Israel—that Palestinians have “suffered untold injustice and brutality”—she should know that it’s precisely the culture that needs to be most aggressively challenged.
And though more information needs to be unearthed about who actually controls the Culture of Coexistence, and the real purposes for which it was formed, Rowling has not done an adequate job of convincing her readers that she’s anything but a convenient stooge for conservative elements in the British government.