Let me cut short all detours and answer your burning question: no, calling Bollywood to not shoot their films in Israel is not an attack on freedom of speech and expression. I understand this sounds confusing, but what is at stake here? Calling for a boycott of Israeli institutions (and there’s a reason I’ve highlighted that word) is, in fact, standing up for the freedom of millions of Palestinians who either live in Israel occupied Palestine, live as second-class citizens of Israel, or who were forced to leave their homeland and are not allowed to return to it.
Sounds even more confusing? Let me unpack things a bit more. Israel is an apartheid state, and Arab Palestinians do not have the right to move freely in their own homeland, or have the security of living in their own homes — freedoms that we take for granted in other democracies. Which brings me to the question: is Israel even a democracy like India? The right to vote is only one of the fundamental rights assured to Indian citizens. Besides, all Indian citizens have the right to equality, the right to freedom, the right against exploitation, right to freedom of conscience and free profession, and the right of minorities to conserve their culture. Israel has given the native Palestinians, who are the indigenous inhabitants of the land that Israelis have occupied, only the right to vote. Israeli law (Israel does not have a constitution) mandates that the native Arabs must be treated as second class citizens. Palestinians who are Israeli citizens only have the choice to vote governments in power who can further their subjugation.
Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian who holds a visa of permanent residency in Israel, and is a co-founder of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement, says, in an interview:
Palestinian citizens of Israel (the indigenous population that survived the massive ethnic cleansing campaign of 1948 and remained put) have the right to vote, and that is a huge difference from South Africa; however, in every vital domain, they are discriminated against by law. In addition, they are only allowed to vote for a system that enshrines apartheid! Any party that calls for the dismantling Israel’s racist laws, instituting unmitigated equality, and transforming the state into a real democracy as a state of all its citizens, cannot run for the Knesset.
Writer Githa Hariharan, who is a member of the Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, says,
To talk of freedom of speech and expression in the case of Israel is like their talk of democracy in Israel. Consider the situation of Palestinians living in their own lands, the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Not only do they live without freedom of speech, they don’t have freedom of movement to go to work, or school, or hospital; their lives are often at risk, especially if they protest; their own cultural and artistic practice is erased or made as difficult as possible. Then, consider the Palestinians in historic Palestine — those referred to as Israeli Arabs in Israel. They are second class citizens, subject to official policies of discrimination.
I want to share just one small memory with you. In 2013, two of us, a Palestinian poet and I, were to read from our work in Ramallah. The poet, Rafeef Ziadah, was not allowed into Palestine. A Palestinian from the diaspora, a Palestinian refugee may not be allowed to return, even for a visit; but a Jew from anywhere in the world can think of Israel as home. Is this the kind of “freedom” and “democracy” and “culture” we want to associate with?
Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have an Israeli friend, or that it’s wrong to even talk to them. No, that’s not what we mean. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement only calls for a boycott of institutions. That is why we must have a problem when two Prime Ministers — Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi, meet each other as official public heads of their respective states. The Shalom Bollywood event, which is expected to have stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Karan Johar in attendance, too, is organised with the help of the Israeli embassy (which, of course, is an official organ of the Israeli government).
Calling for a boycott of Shalom Bollywood is not a political reaction to an innocuous cultural event. The fact is that the Shalom Bollywood event is also a political event. Calling for its boycott is a political reaction to a political event.
In an article written by Yuval Ben-Ami in 2005, Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, a former Deputy Director General of the Israeli embassy, on being asked about the “status of culture in the new order”, said, "We are seeing culture as a hasbara (propaganda) tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture.”
Israel clearly sees culture as propaganda. They want to show the world that theirs is a modern democracy. Arye Mekel, Deputy Director General for cultural affairs in the Israeli foreign ministry, told the New York Times in March 18, 2009, “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theatre companies, exhibits. This way, you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”
Images of Netanyahu and Modi spinning Gandhi’s charkha work to demolish Gandhi’s fervent support for Palestine, and his firm opposition to the formation of the Israeli state. It is hasbara (propaganda) of the highest order.
So, Karan Johar might as well invite Netanyahu for coffee on his show and have a “good time”. What Bollywood needs to acknowledge is that even things like the seemingly harmless Shalom Bollywood event, and the simple act of shooting a film in Israel, with the support of Israeli state, helps — to use Mekel’s own phrase— to “…show Israel’s prettier face”. It helps build the “Brand Israel campaign” launched by the government of Israel as early as 2005. Hariharan says,
Shooting Indian films in Israel amounts to “business as usual” with Israel. Business as usual with Israel means breaking ranks with the international community that is working hard to isolate Israel for its apartheid policies. How does this work? We only have to recall how effective a similar boycott of South Africa was in the days when the international community boycotted the country at multiple levels — economic, cultural and sports.
Echoing Hariharan’s sentiment, the documentary filmmaker, Anand Patwardan, said:
As I was growing up, there were two countries my Indian passport did not allow me to visit. One was the racist, apartheid South Africa, and the other was the racist, apartheid Israel. South Africa overthrew its apartheid regime, so India, rightly, relaxed its travel ban. Israel sticks to apartheid by denying Palestinians their basic rights as citizens, and yet, today, the leadership of our country shamelessly embraces Israel. Israel has always used the Holocaust to garner world sympathy.
Today, Modi and Netanyahu shamelessly parade little Moshe in a horrific act of child exploitation. The subtext is clear. This is what Muslim terror has done and we are partners against this terror. But the reality is starkly different. Israel, USA, Saudi Arabia, and their private arms manufacturers and dealers, are the creators and sustainers of Islamic terror, from Al Qaeda to ISIS. Modi plays the same game in India. It is no surprise to see them all in a hugathon.
But we, the thinking citizens of India, declare that we are not their partners in crime. We declare that we stand by Mahatma Gandhi's position that Israel cannot undo the wrongs of the Holocaust by dispossessing Palestinians. Peace and justice are inseparable.
Bollywood has to make its stand clear. As Indian citizens, who gained independence though a non-violent anti-colonial struggle, will they stand for fellow Palestinians, or will they stand with the colonisers?