Dear Alicia Keys,
I'm writing you from Israel, about your decision to appear in Tel Aviv on the fourth of July. I can only begin to imagine what it's like for you, being at the center of an important, agonizing, often emotionally ugly debate over artists boycotting Israel.
You've never been through this before. But this is what it's like here. You go with what your soul tells you, and you hang on for dear life, because whatever you decide, you'll be surfing a chop of passion and faith like nowhere else. You'll take flak from people you like and respect, and get support from people you don't.
This is what I've learned from this place: You know what your soul is telling you, Alicia Keys. Go with it. Be open. Be fierce. Come to Israel. Talk truth. Listen.
I read the powerful open letter which author Alice Walker wrote you, pleading with you to cancel the concert in support of a worldwide boycott against Israel. When I came to the end of the letter, I read it again.
I'd like to ask you to take another look at something in the letter, something that's been largely overlooked in a firestorm season surrounding Alice Walker's views on Israel and the Palestinians.
Ms. Walker writes of a boycott against all Israeli universities and cultural life as "our only nonviolent option" and that "a cultural boycott of Israel and Israeli institutions (not individuals) is the only option left to artists who cannot bear the unconscionable harm Israel inflicts every day on the people of Palestine."
When you come here, you may see that there are thousands and thousands of people working tremendously hard for justice here, peace here, rights here. Democracy. Many of them are artists, students, professors, Jewish and Muslim and Christian, Palestinians and Israelis and internationals – many Americans among them.
There are groups here, institutions, NGOs, far too many to list, who have made it their mission to work tirelessly, non-violently, for the very goals Alice Walker speaks of – equality, due process, protection of the vulnerable, the disadvantaged, the battered, the powerless.
Before you come here, if you have a moment, seek out some of these people, so that you can meet them when you're here. They have important messages. And you'll have an important stage. Forget the government. The government's got no time for anyone's problems. Talk to the people. That's what they are here. People. Not evil, not villains. They're people with a lot of anger, but they understand straight talk, and it melts them. They can tell when people talk to them human to human.
I should also tell you something else, something about boycotts. I respect them. When I agree with them, I honor them. I've seen their power. In the American South, and in California crop fields and vineyards, I've seen boycotts – choosing the right means, the right targets, the right allies, the right message - change lives for the better, states for the better, history for the better.
There are steps which can allow for tremendous leverage and public support, if handled in a smart way. One excellent example is the EU's current campaign to have products from settlements in the territories, labeled as such.
But this is also why I've grown increasingly skeptical about the specific movement behind the artistic and cultural boycott, a coalition under the heading of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.
A little over a month ago, the Berkeley student senate passed a resolution urging the university to divest from three companies with dealings in the West Bank.
A surprisingly large part of the text of the resolution, though, was devoted to specifically rejecting policies, tactics and aims of the BDS movement including its "strong undertones essentially calling for a one-state solution" as well as the academic and cultural boycott "which hurts more people than just policymakers (and) is counterproductive to academic and cultural growth."
The Berkeley senate was right to wonder about BDS' goals. Many of its supporters call themselves "agnostic" about whether the goal is two states (an independent Palestine alongside an independent Israel) or one state (no more Israel).
Last month, BDS leader Omar Barghouti, writing in the Abu Dhabi-based The National, may have gotten closer to an answer.
"Equal rights for Palestinians means, at a minimum, ending Israel's 1967 occupation and colonization; ending Israel's system of racial discrimination; and respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands from which they were uprooted and expelled during the 1948 Nakba and ever since."
If a boycott is to work, it has to have clear aims, honest momentum, and a time frame that doesn't say, as Barghouti essentially has, "We'll boycott Israel until the end of Israel or the end of time, whichever comes first."
I and many, many other Israelis want the occupation to end every bit as strongly as Alice Walker does. We live here. We see its terrible effects every single day.
It could just be, that the right boycott, run the right way, could help end Israel's occupation of the Palestinians, an occupation which stands in the way of a future for Israel as much as it stands in the way of a future for Palestine.
But not this boycott.
Stay strong, Alicia Keys. Be fierce. Come to us. Speak your mind. Let us hear you.