Lana Del Rey should have known better. And if not Del Rey herself, then at least her managers, PR people and agents.
As the highest-profile artist who was scheduled to appear at the Meteor Festival over the weekend in the north, it was clear she’d be the one caught in the crossfire, the one boycott groups would try to convince to ditch an appearance in Israel. That’s the same crossfire with diplomatic, moral and economic implications that confronted Lorde, Lauryn Hill and Tyler, the Creator: musicians who announced performances in Israel and changed their minds because of political pressure.
Del Rey, however, isn’t the story. Her cancellation, which included some mental gymnastics as far as her positions were concerned, could have been expected. Unfortunately, we’ve been there many times and in many different circumstances.
Tsunami of cancellations
The ones who caught us unprepared by drafting an agenda for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict turned out to be DJs like Shanti Celeste, Volvox, DJ Seinfeld, Python and Leon Vynehall, who also dropped out of Meteor. Why was this unexpected? Because Israel’s nightlife and clubbing scene – especially in Tel Aviv – had been an oasis regarding cultural boycotts, an extraterritorial hedonistic space with no room for politics.
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The current tsunami of cancellations, while it might sound trivial if you’re untutored in trance music, could reflect a trend with effects far beyond the Meteor Festival. In the optimistic scenario, this is a one-off event that has cast the spotlight on lesser-known musicians as well. In the pessimistic scenario, this is the end of an era in which the clubbing scene has been an exception.
Adding credence to the change-in-direction theory are the cancellations by DJs who have spun in Tel Aviv in recent years; Volvox, Shanti Celeste and Leon Vynehall have all had their passports stamped at Ben-Gurion Airport. And those times the situation wasn’t very different: Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister, the occupation was decades long and there were sporadic exchanges of fire between the sides.
Moreover, two of the DJs spearheading the struggle on the nightlife scene regarding Mideast politics – the Black Madonna and Anthony Naples – have been here, enjoyed themselves, been honored and promised to return, until they discovered there’s such a thing as the occupation.
Americans and Brits cancel more
So what has changed since 2015? First, there has been a change on the Gaza border, with civilians getting shot. These incidents have multiplied in the past three months and don’t exactly photograph well.
Second, news reports about the nation-state law and the discrimination that comes with it have done their bit. Third, the arrests and detentions of left-wing activists entering Israel haven’t remained in a vacuum.
Fourth, and most importantly, is Donald Trump’s presidency and his unconditional embrace of Netanyahu, including, of course, the controversial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. As in the case of Natalie Portman's refusal to accept a prize from the state, the closeness between the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government – under the sponsorship of evangelical Christians – has made Israel a country non grata in the liberal community, of which Hollywood is one pole and nightlife the other.
It’s no coincidence that the DJs canceling are either Americans or Brits on the left; that is, Democrats or Jeremy Corbyn supporters in Labour – people who see cooperation with Israel as collaboration with Trump and Britain’s Conservative government.
Different from them is Honey Dijon, the black trans DJ from Chicago who in response to the protest against her appearance at the Meteor Festival tweeted: “All of you people criticizing me about playing in Israel, when you come to America and stand up for the murder of black trans women and the prison industrial complex of black men then we can debate. I play for people not governments.” Not many people tried to argue with her. Say what you will, contrarianism is always effective.
The case of DJ Jackmaster
Beyond the issue of values, at the image level, alleged collaboration can be a career killer, just as declaring a boycott is the last word in chic for your image nowadays. That’s exactly what has happened with Scotland’s DJ Jackmaster, who has gone viral with his eventual refusal to perform at Tel Aviv’s Block club. He posted a picture of the Palestinian flag with a caption saying you have to exploit a platform in order to stand up for those who need it. The flood of responses included talk about boycotting all Tel Aviv, not just the Block.
Yaron Trax is the owner of the Block; his club is considered not only the largest and most influential venue in town but also an international brand. Trax didn’t remain silent; on his personal Facebook account he mentioned how a few weeks before Jackmaster’s post his agent was still trying to secure the gig for him at the Block.
“Not my finest hour, but calling for a boycott of my club at a time when an artist is trying to play there felt to me like crossing a line,” Trax says. “Only after the fact, and especially when I saw how his post was attracting dozens of hurtful, belligerent and racist responses – and generating a violent discourse that I oppose – did I realize how significant it was.”
Trax talks about the hatred that has welled up in support of Jackmaster’s Israel boycott – just between us, not the sharpest tool in the shed and someone who has recently been accused of sexual harassment. As Trax puts it, “The next day it was important to me to admonish myself, first off, and then all those who chose to respond the way they responded.”
In a further well-reasoned post, Trax wrote, “I have always thought that people who take a risk and use the platform that is given to them to transmit a message they believe in, especially one that isn’t popular, deserve admiration and not intimidation or silencing.” Unsurprisingly, the reactions to this message were mostly positive.
'We don’t endorse Netanyahu any more than Trump'
Notwithstanding the boycotters who have acceded to the demands of Roger Waters and Brian Eno – the most prominent musicians linked to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – there are plenty of superstar musicians like Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake and the Rolling Stones who have come to Israel as part of their concert tours, even though they suffered the same pressures. The performers most vocal about their decision to appear in Israel have been Radiohead and Nick Cave.
At a press conference on the eve of his concert, Cave expressed his opinion on the demand to boycott Israel: “It suddenly became very important to make a stand, to me, against those people who are trying to shut down musicians, to bully musicians, to censor musicians and to silence musicians.”
Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke took the message one step further and tweeted: “Playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government. We’ve played in Israel for over 20 years through a succession of governments, some more liberal than others. As we have in America. We don’t endorse Netanyahu any more than Trump, but we still play in America.” As Yorke put it, music, art and academia are “about crossing borders, not building them.”
There’s a lot of truth in Yorke’s declaration, but whether or not musicians like it, appearances in Israel tend to acquire a political dimension; any statement becomes a potential international incident. Thus, for example, after Radiohead’s statement, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan saluted the band, and after Cave’s press conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon tweeted “Bravo Nick Cave!”
The trend continues when we step down a league from the A-listers, like Beyoncé, who doesn’t intend to perform in Israel despite her annual declaration that she’ll come “next year.” There’s the second level, the cream of international alternative rock and pop – refusals to appear in Israel by bands “of good conscience” like the Knife, Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire and Deerhunter.
The most prominent voice from this territory is that of former Sonic Youth guitarist and vocalist Thurston Moore. Yes, he appeared with his band in Tel Aviv 23 years ago, but since then he has become an avid supporter of BDS, so much so that he says it’s not okay to eat hummus because it’s a product of the occupation.
At the next level of refusers are the major – and minor – hip-hop stars. In addition to Lil Yachty and Tyler, who canceled appearances, other heroes of the genre like Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper and Vince Staples have refused from the outset to accept invitations to Israel. It’s quite possible that the connection between BDS and Black Lives Matter is influential. As early as 2016, Black Lives Matter published a statement supporting BDS and declaring Israel an “apartheid state.”
Which brings us to electronic music and the cultural phenomenon that goes with it – the club culture. In numerical terms, club culture is smaller, but the information that flows from it on the ground or online flows much faster.
Moreover, not only is club culture more sensitive to changes and far more alert to ideas and technological advances, its history is marked by struggles by oppressed groups. It can be said that African-Americans, Hispanics and gay people were the first to adopt the “night” way of life, back in the days of New York’s clubs and underground parties in the ‘70s. Accordingly, these groups have been the ones to nurture this lifestyle into today’s popular culture. Hence also the association with movements like BDS.
Boiler Room Palestine
Indeed, the current trend points to a step-up in the discourse; in the past year the top alternative culture magazines – of which the electronic music magazines play a key role – have published articles surveying musical and cultural happenings in Palestinian society.
The online music magazine Resident Advisor has had two such stories, the first about a workshop for artists with the participation of the Block 9 production team, musicians Brian Eno and Róisín Murphy (formerly of Moloko) and American DJ the Black Madonna. The workshop, which included tours, discussion groups and joint musical work, was held at the Walled Off Hotel in Ramallah, also known as Banksy’s hotel because of the street artist’s involvement in its planning in the shadow of the separation barrier.
The second article surveyed the Palestinian electronic scene and its leading players – promoters, DJs and producers who are operating despite the restrictive military regime. In addition, the writer accompanied the production of Boiler Room Palestine in Ramallah in June. (The wider Boiler Room franchise has been the world’s most popular pop party for the past five years.)
Another example includes the style magazine Dazed, which wrote about the cultural boycott movement immediately after the cancellation of Lorde’s concert, and just last month New York Magazine’s culture supplement Vulture set forth its philosophy on the boycott (also in the context of Lana Del Rey). It predicted that the awakening we’re seeing today is only in its infancy.
This partial list isn’t a clear declaration about “taking a stance” – after all, progressive media outlets in culture laud Israeli artists (for example Red Axes, Moscoman and Guy Gerber) or local venues, like the Block club. But if you add to these the scores of Facebook battles or Twitter discussions (like the one Del Rey found herself in), you’ll get noise. And noise generates questions, which generate more noise and raise consciousness. And from there to change on the ground is a modest distance.
'These are people who slept on my sofa'
Refusals of invitations or cancellations of concerts in Israel by artists didn’t begin with BDS or the increasing volume of the past two years. After all, a visit to Israel all too often requires an intrusive security check. It’s hard to complain about a DJ who isn’t keen to have his underwear probed.
Also, there’s a stratum of artists who’ve appeared in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Haifa and have decided to stop coming – unless there’s a Palestinian production. Two examples are the French band Acid Arab (Parisians Guido Minisky and Hervé Carvalho) and the American producer – and darling of the hipster community – Nicolas Jaar. Jaar appeared in Tel Aviv a bit under a decade ago, just before he became a star, while Acid Arab not only performed in Tel Aviv but was also involved in projects with Israeli musicians – so plenty of people called the duo hypocrites.
“I have no problem with strong opinions, but in the case of Acid Arab it annoyed me at the personal level – these are people who slept on my sofa, recorded with local musicians, and the day they put up their post announcing they wouldn’t play in Tel Aviv, they also asked me to send them some music,” says Maor Anava, aka DJ Hectik.
“I have no problem with people changing their minds on the go; it’s clear to me that a visit to the separation fence can do it, but what bothered me is that it’s entirely a PR and image move, apparently at the advice of their agent,” he adds.
“We’ve reached a situation in which a boycott of Israel is the trendiest thing and situates you in the right place in the scene – as a supporter of the Palestinian freedom fighters against the terrible Zionist occupier, something that can get you to another three big festivals. If you performed in Tel Aviv, apparently they’d do without you.”
Thus at the end of last year, Acid Arab and Nicolas Jaar appeared in Haifa and Ramallah at parties produced by Jazar Crew, the only electronic collective in Israel that isn’t afraid to mix in politics. So it surprised no one when Jazar received laudatory – and justified – coverage not only in Bar Peleg’s Haaretz piece but also in Resident Advisor.
Is the party over?
So are we seeing the onset of the electronic boycott of Tel Aviv, one of the world’s clubbing capitals? Well, the city is still a flourishing center of parties and club events every week. “As of today it hasn’t yet happened that we’ve directly encountered an attempt by the cultural boycott to influence artists who are slated to appear at the club,” Trax says.
“But we’re definitely seeing a change in the surrounding behavior. Nasty responses that people are leaving for a DJ who announced an upcoming gig with us have led to fewer famous DJs announcing appearances at the Block – even those who always promote themselves.”
He notes a slowdown in the past two years. “A number of DJs who used to appear with us – Moodymann, Kyle Hall, the Martinez Brothers – have announced they won’t be returning,” Trax says, referring to three American acts. “But there isn’t any set reason why. If the cultural boycott has an influence here I wouldn’t be surprised, because the Detroit junta is very political. And this also applies to UFO,” a successful British DJ and a high-profile voice in the European underground arena.
Not all DJs who have chosen not to come to Israel have taken their stance amid the strengthening of the BDS movement. Some of the top people in the dance industry – including star Chilean-German DJ Ricardo Villalobos and British DJs and producers like Matthew Herbert and Andrew Weatherall – have for years been refusing to spin in Israel. They’ve made clear that this is their way of opposing Israel’s activities in the territories.
Another great DJ, Tunisian-born Loco Dice who lives in Germany, is also considered a vocal opponent of Israel. But in December he played at the Block, and Trax doesn’t recall any signs that his guest was hostile to the country. This shows that a change of awareness works both ways.
There’s a similar story: the decision by DJ Tama Sumo of the Berghain club in Berlin to play in Israel after a long boycott. She and her partner DJ Lakuti, a pillar of the industry, donated the proceeds of her Tel Aviv set to an organization for human rights in the territories.
“As of now I don’t feel that the names who have decided to stop coming will change anything regarding the Block, because our lineup of VIPs isn’t based on them,” Trax says. “But if the more commercial cream of the clubs – DJs like Dixon, Ame and Damian Lazarus, or the big names in techno like Nina Kraviz, Ben Klock, Jeff Mills or Adam Beyer – change their minds, that will be a real blow to us, and not just us.”
Amotz Tokatly, who’s responsible for bringing DJs to Tel Aviv’s Beit Maariv club, isn’t feeling much of a change. “The cancellations or refusals by DJs and artists based on a political platform didn’t begin just this year. I’ve been encountering this for many years now. There are even specific countries where we know the prevailing mood is political and tending toward the boycott movement. For example England. The rhetoric there is a priori much stronger,” Tokatly says.
“But take Ben UFO, who has played in Tel Aviv in the past. When we got back to him about another spinning gig his agent said explicitly, ‘It simply isn’t worth it for him from a public relations perspective, and it could hurt him later on.’ DJs like him make their own calculations.”
Tokatly doesn’t believe in a “Meteor effect” that will send the visiting DJ economy to the brink of an abyss. “I’m giving it a few weeks to calm down, and in the worst case we won’t be seeing here the level of minor league DJs who have canceled due to the circumstances,” he says.
“In any case, they’re names who would have come here – if at all – once a year. Regarding artists who have a long-term and stable relationship with the local scene, we haven’t seen any change in approach yet.”
Unlike Trax and Tokatly, Doron “Charly” Mastey of the techno duo TV.OUT and content director at Tel Aviv’s Alphabet Club says the recent goings-on haven’t affected him too much; his club is unusual in that doesn’t base itself on names from abroad.
“I don’t remember any case of a refusal or cancellation because of political leanings,” he says. “But with everything that’s happening now regarding Meteor, and if that affects the scene down the road and the airlift to Tel Aviv stops, I’m not at all sure that’s a bad thing.”
Mastey has in mind the gap between the size of the audience and the number of events, parties and festivals happening in Israel right now. “The audience is tired, and indifferent,” he says. “And if this kick in the pants – of cancellations – is what's going to dismantle the scene in its current format, then it will simply rebuild itself. I hope in a way that’s healthier for everyone.”
In any case, if the rest of the world has realized that it's impossible to separate politics from anything, and definitely not from club culture, which started out as a political and social movement, then the best thing we can do is try to hold the discussion in an inclusive a way as possible. An Israeli DJ working in Berlin who requested anonymity thinks that these ideas should be taken one step further.
“Nowadays, for artists who want to go to Israel, two proposals are on the table,” he says. “Support the boycott or support the occupation. These two things are depicted even if they aren’t accurate, and between the two options there are a thousand more levels.”
He believes there is scope for taking action. “The local scene must know how to fill the vacuum and craft alternatives to the boycott’s demands,” he says. “For example, by showing artists other ways to take a stand, whether by cooperating with Palestinians or suggesting that they donate the proceeds of their Tel Aviv appearances to a human rights group.”
The voices calling for a cultural boycott of Israel, whether in sports, concerts or the subfield of electronic music, aren’t going to disappear. If anything, they’re only going to grow louder.
Moreover, if we take into account the complexity of the conflict, maybe we should seek to communicate these insights in a way that drops the imagery of absolutes like left-right, bad-good, Zionist-anti-Semitic. The club culture exists to connect extremes, not separate people. Our demand to continue a vibrant electronic scene is just as legitimate as that of the boycott supporters’ attempts to create awareness.
Even if we don’t agree with the idea of the boycott, it’s still possible to accept the realization that there are people who think differently – who want to perform for the other side as much as they want to perform for us. This doesn’t make them an existential danger.
Moreover, as the Israeli DJ working in Berlin says, the Israeli scene needs an arsenal of proposals for constructive activism; it must provide alternatives to the BDS call to boycott – and not automatically flex an insulted patriotic muscle. This might not be the easiest thing to do, but hey, this is Israel. It’s not going to be easy.