I was one of many people who had tickets to see Devendra Banhart this week in Tel Aviv. A friend of mine introduced me to the American singer-songwriter a few months ago and I instantly dug his warm melodies and soulful lyrics. Needless to say, I was disappointed when I learned he was canceling both his sold-out performances.
Banhart is the latest international act to jump on the cultural boycott bandwagon. Gorillaz Sound System, the Klaxons, and the Pixies have all canceled shows scheduled for this month; all presumably due to Israel's role in the flotilla fiasco.
For his part, Banhart left a short note on his official website, explaining his reasons for pulling out just two days before the first show: "We love the land and people of Israel, and have been looking forward to our third show there with unimaginable anticipation. Unfortunately, we tried to make it clear that we were coming to share a human and not a political message but it seems that we are being used to support views that are not our own. We will be overjoyed to return to Israel on the day that our presence is perceived and reported on as a cultural event and not a political one. We truly hope that day comes soon."
We hope that day comes soon, too. But tucking his drumsticks between his legs and canceling the concert does not bring us any closer to it. While Banhart said he didn't want to send a political message by playing in Israel, by refusing to come, he sends a much stronger political message. The musician also seems to have a politician's flair for gauging public opinion.
Banhart performed two concerts in Israel four years ago. Just before his arrival, Hamas attacked an Israeli convoy and kidnapped Gilad Shalit. As he was strumming his electric guitar in a smoky Tel Aviv music hall, the Israel Defense Forces were re-conquering parts of the Gaza Strip with the stated goal of quelling rocket fire. The occupation of the West Bank was in full effect. Yet, the world was far less critical of Israel back then, making it politically safe for him to play.
Today, appearing here is much riskier. With a mostly young fan base, it would be monumentally "uncool" for a performer to be linked with a regime that recently killed nine "peace activists." The revenue of two sold-out shows at Tel Aviv's Barby club wouldn't offset the damage to the Devendra Banhart brand.
But even assuming Banhart's concern is sincere, is a cultural boycott the correct approach for someone who wants to effect a change in Israeli political behavior? With the possible exception of South Africa, where economic sanctions did play a role in overturning the regime, the vast majority of embargoes end up serving as a carrot rather than the stick they are intended to be, and impose most of their damage on civilians. As I witnessed firsthand in Cuba, state propaganda will point to such sanctions as the ultimate scapegoat for all of society's ills. Certainly, Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip doesn't seem to have weakened Hamas' rule or popularity there.
The logic in favor of cultural or academic boycotts is even less convincing. Regimes don't need art or academia to survive, but they do need arms and food. Cultural and academic boycotts do, however, have a powerful influence on the citizens' collective ability to promote change from within. Limiting people's exposure to art, music and ideas is the best way to restrict freedom of thought and ensure that things remain the same.
In 2005, I was in North Korea, one of the world's most repressive regimes. There is a reason Kim Jong-Il makes sure that people have only one, government-sponsored television channel, no Internet access, and censorship of all artists and musicians by the state: With total isolation and mind control, there is little chance of a popular uprising.
And yet, if Devendra Banhart were to be invited to play in Pyongyang, I would counsel him to jump at the opportunity. Why? Because it would expose the North Koreans to something other than state propaganda. Minds would open. While a revolution may not occur overnight, the collective consciousness might at least shift incrementally in that direction.
Israel is far from North Korea. But my point is that even if Banhart disagrees with Israel's policies, he should still play here. Artists and academics should travel across borders, into war zones, and go wherever their work is accepted. To spread the truth as they see it, and perhaps, alter the status quo.
Banhart, who says he loves the people of Israel, should have done what Leonard Cohen tried to do: offer to play a free show in neighboring Palestine, and donate the proceeds of the Israel appearances to a cause that promotes peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Or, he could have held a joint Israel-Palestinian concert for peace in East Jerusalem.
Of course, it's not too late to reschedule. Forget Woodstock - this would be the show of a lifetime. Imagine thousands of Israelis and Palestinians dancing together at an outdoor summer concert for Middle East peace. On stage looking out at the happy crowd, Banhart would understand that a musician can only make real change when his voice is heard.
Jaron Gilinsky is a freelance journalist and filmmaker working for The New York Times and Time Magazine. He blogs at www.jaronreport.com.