In the days following Native American poet Joy Harjo’s decision to cross the picket line and to perform at Tel Aviv University, many have taken the disappointment from friends, colleagues, and fans as a sign of the boycott movement’s “with us or against us” attitude. But that is an unfair characterization of a growing movement that is more “all or nothing” than anything else.
I’ll start with a very basic premise: there is no such thing as halfway justice. There is no in-between. And in the case of an oppressor-oppressed system as clear as the one we see in Israel’s systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights, there is no middle ground.
So when Harjo chose to act against the Palestinian civil society’s Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) call, even after countless petitions and expressions of concern were directed her way, and when she tried to make up for it by scheduling a visit to the West Bank, she had made her point clear. She had tried to forge a middle ground where none could exist.
Her decision to travel to the West Bank elicited very mixed reactions. Some saw it as a sign of support. Harjo insisted she had initially been misinformed, that she was just beginning to learn about the boycott. Still others felt it was a disingenuous decision to save face.
Whatever the immediate public response was, she has shown a receptiveness to the boycott calls. She has recognized some though certainly not all of the implications of crossing the picket line. This is a time for growth, many argue, and this is a totally reasonable suggestion.
But others are convinced this growth is futile and that Harjo is adamant about pushing for that costly middle ground. In a statement released in the morning of her performance at Tel Aviv University, she expressed her belief that “compassion and seeing each other as beloved relatives, even our enemies, is more powerful than guns,” as if to imply that BDS and the pressure she’s received for ignoring the boycott call is on the same level as gun-toting.
Harjo also argues in this statement that her art demands her presence in Tel Aviv, which is why she so quickly rejected the boycott call.
So it is no less reasonable to suggest that Harjo’s reception of the BDS call is ultimately futile unless she openly and honestly confronts the problem of violating a boycott call grounded in restoring many of the same rights Native Americans including herself seek to restore.
Because of this, there will be (and should be) ever-increasing pressure.
But this is not a sign of a “with us or against us” mentality, as some BDS critics claim. It is not a matter of the BDS movement writing her off. But BDS is an all or nothing type of thing. What good is a 75% boycott?
Harjo’s resolve to forge that middle ground that appeases both the oppressor and the oppressed shows that she will continue to defy the boycott call even after repeated reminders. So again, it isn’t a matter of the BDS movement casting her to the side. It’s a matter of Harjo herself writing off the campaign, patronizing Palestinians with a visit to the West Bank as a gesture of compromise, and trying to convince us that justice necessitates her singular presence in Israel more than her absence and the absence of her fellow artists and performers.
Picket lines exist for a reason. You cannot have one foot on each side. So in a sense, there is an element of “with us or against us”. But that decision is made entirely by the individual, not the boycott movement, as critics suggest. The BDS call requires a total rather than a partial or pseudo boycott, so those individuals, like Harjo, who seem unjustifiably glued to both sides of the picket line are distancing themselves.
There will hopefully come a time when Harjo realizes the full effect of her visit to Tel Aviv. She will hopefully take up the boycott principles and demands as her own. Maybe she will even wonder how she crossed the picket line in the first place. But until then, the pressure must mount. Of course, it must be constructive pressure. BDS is not and will not be responsible for her distance; that has been the result of her own personal decisions. But the movement will continue to outstretch its arms to make sure that she doesn’t make the same mistake in trying to appease both sides of the oppressor-oppressed complex again.