Cultural boycotts have increasingly been in the news over the past few months, as cultural institutions in more Western countries have enforced boycotts against Russian artists and sportspeople. Such cultural boycotts can be psychologically devastating, especially for a country such as Russia that prides itself on its artistic and sporting achievements. For many decades, the Russian government has used culture and sports as forms of soft power to build “brand Russia” abroad.
The cultural boycott of Russia has become increasingly necessary as the administration of Vladimir Putin threatens to drag the world into an abyss of protracted war. After all, there is an historical precedent for a successful cultural boycott, offered by South Africa. The country’s isolation from global arts and sports was extremely successful because it had a huge psychological impact on white South Africa. The boycott communicated the message that apartheid was abnormal and that the regime was a pariah in the eyes of the international community.
However, cultural institutions today risk delegitimizing the boycott as a means of applying pressure on the Putin regime. This is because the criteria these institutions are using to apply it are arbitrary, confusing, and even contradictory. Some heads of institutions have taken decisions to boycott artists due to closeness to Putin or failure on the part of the artist to denounce the invasion of Ukraine. The Glasgow Film Festival, meanwhile, excluded two Russian films based on their funding links to government officials. This occurred even though the filmmakers had denounced the invasion. One of the filmmakers even argued that it was practically impossible to make Russian films without financial backing from the government. Other decisions smack of Russophobia, with artists being boycotted purely because they are Russian.
It is ironic that supporters of the boycott against Russia have looked to the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa as inspiration when it, too, was deeply flawed in its execution. In the global clamor to isolate Russia, a cultural boycott that has been far more carefully thought through has barely registered as a source of wisdom. That is the boycott of Israeli official culture.
The cultural boycott developed by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign is a model of clarity compared to the South African boycott. But as Western governments have rejected the isolation campaign against Israeli institutions as anti-Semitic and have even criminalized it as hate speech, they have done themselves no favors, instead vilifying the very boycott that could be a source of guidance now.
The cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa started out as a blanket boycott. In other words, no artists were allowed into or out of the country. Artists from among the oppressed and exploited increasingly experienced this blanket boycott as counterproductive double censorship; in it, the oppressor and the oppressed alike were being boycotted. This position was unsustainable and correctly began to change in the 1980s.
Liberation and solidarity movements argued for a selective boycott instead, in which any South African artists traveling abroad needed to consult with the national liberation movement about whether their art qualified as progressive culture. To enforce this boycott, the African National Congress (ANC) in exile and the United Democratic Front (UDF) inside the country set up cultural desks that organized artists into formations aligned to them. These formations involved decisions about who would be considered representative of progressive culture and whether they could travel or not.
But the problem was that not all artists who came from among the oppressed agreed with asking the UDF and ANC for permission to travel, especially those who came from black consciousness or pan-Africanist traditions. They felt that the ANC and UDF were using the cultural boycott to declare themselves sole and authentic representatives of the oppressed. Other artists wanted to remain independent from any political formation, as they did not want to become subservient to politicians who sat in judgment about what qualified as progressive culture.
This sectarianism extended to the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), which insisted that artists seek permission from them, the UDF, and the ANC to travel. In one case, a black theater group touring a strongly anti-apartheid play was denied venues in Labour Party-controlled areas because they had not been “cleared” by the AAM. In an interview I conducted at the time, the theater director described this treatment as “petty and ill-informed” and as “an affront to the fact of our struggle.”
The Palestinian cultural boycott avoids the dangerous trap the South African boycott fell into. There can be little doubt that a selective cultural boycott is preferable to a blanket boycott. In the case of Russia, artists who choose not to promote “brand Russia” abroad—possibly at great cost to themselves and their art—should be heard. But the confounding question is, who decides who should be heard?
The BDS movement has solved that problem. Their Guidelines for the International Cultural Boycott of Israel are so clear that there is no need for Palestinian political organizations to sit in judgment over which Israeli artists are considered acceptable enough to tour. In fact, the BDS movement set out to create guidelines that were as unambiguous, consistent, and coherent as possible. This means that the boycottable cases select themselves.
Many of the BDS movement’s nuances were absent in the South African cultural boycott. For instance, BDS avoids making judgments about the content of artworks, including their political messages or lack thereof. The boycott is institutional rather than individual: it targets the institutions that promote the Israeli state and its normalization. In fact, the guidelines argue against artists being targeted due to their nationality or religion in order to counter accusations of the boycott being anti-Semitic.
The BDS movement does not even call for a boycott of Israeli artists purely because they have received state funding. Only if the funding comes with strings attached—such as requiring the artist to promote Israeli state policies abroad—do they consider these artistic events or products to be boycottable. If official Israeli institutions sponsor the artists to promote the branding of Israel as a normal society, then those artists, too, would be boycottable.
By focusing on institutional and branding links, the BDS boycott steers away from decision-making based on what individual artists or their artworks do or don’t think or say. This precedent is important for the boycott against Russia, where artists may now be jailed for opposing the invasion of Ukraine or denouncing the Putin regime.
Had the supporters of the Russian boycott applied similar principles in making decisions about what and who to boycott, they may well have made different decisions.
However, the BDS guidelines acknowledge that they cannot cover all situations that may arise. In fact, they recognize the possibility of what they call “commonsense boycotts.” These are instances—not catered to by existing guidelines—where Israeli artists may be boycotted if their conduct is so clearly supportive of the occupation that it cannot be ignored. In the case of Russia, such an approach could apply to an artist who loudly and unapologetically supports the invasion.
The double standards in how global and Western sporting and cultural institutions have leapt to boycott Russia while refusing to boycott Israeli institutions have been pointed out already, and correctly so.
However, if these very institutions had taken the BDS boycott seriously as a learning moment—instead of rushing to the South African example uncritically—then perhaps they wouldn’t be falling into the ill-considered, individualized, and even xenophobic traps that they are. Cherry-picking struggles against oppression and the lesson they offer will not make the world safer, freer, or more just.