The BDS Effect: Should Israeli Artists Hide Where They're From?

Amid the rise of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, actors, musicians and dancers have to decide if they're Israeli artists or artists from Israel. Or maybe they'll hide the fact altogether.

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Asaf Avidan.
Asaf Avidan.Credit: OJOZ

At the end of last week, singer Asaf Avidan was interviewed by the French newspaper Le Monde. In the south Tel Aviv rehearsal room where the talk took place, one of Avidan’s musicians called him “the only artist who makes me feel proud to be Israeli.”

Still, Avidan said he didn’t consider himself Israeli. Avidan told the paper that collective fear was the only thing holding the country together.

“This is Israel — we’re the persecuted people,” he said. “This gets repeated in all our discussions. Because of it I don’t want to live here anymore.”

Avidan didn’t foresee the storm that would break out on social networks. Yoav Eliasi, the right-wing rapper known as The Shadow, advised Avidan to hire a security guard.

Singer Achinoam Nini (Noa), who has often criticized the government, told Army Radio it was sad that successful Israelis we repudiating their country. She blamed the Netanyahu government and admitted that she too had problems overseas for being an Israeli.

Avidan later wrote on Facebook that in interviews with the foreign press over the past six years he has tried to be balanced.

“I don’t respect people who use the foreign press’ appetite for harsh statements against Israel as a way to win the spotlight .... That’s why in every interview I immediately say I’m not an Israeli artist. I’m an artist from Israel,” he wrote. “I don’t show up to represent Israel. I’m not a politician. I’m not a diplomat.”

Yes, many Israeli artists abroad have run into protests against the government’s policies. The rise of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement since 2005 has made such protests a commonplace.

For example, a year ago pro-Palestinian activists tried to get the Batsheva Dance Company canceled in New Zealand. That happened to both Batsheva and the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company in the United States.

Norwegians wanted out

Ohad Naharin, Batsheva’s artistic director, has said the boycott of his troupe, which receives support from the culture and foreign ministries, is ineffective.

Batsheva, a high-profile ambassador of Israeli culture overseas, isn’t an exception. The Gesher Theater has put on two plays in Russia over the past year. The performances were well received and Gesher has never hid its Israeli identity, but Gesher people admit there are places they won’t appear out of fear of anti-Israeli demonstrations outside the theater.

Ilan Ronen, the artistic director of the Habima Theater, is also the president of the Union of the Theaters of Europe. He told Haaretz that a large international project involving Habima was almost blocked when Norway’s national theater wanted to quit, partly in protest of Israeli policies.

Last August, 25 of the Incubator Theater’s 27 performances planned for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe were canceled due to demonstrations by the BDS movement. Even though counterdemonstrations in support of Israeli artists were held, the city of Edinburgh didn’t let the performances go on in an alternate hall.

The Mayumana troupe, which combines dance, song and percussion, appeared recently in France, three days after the terrorist attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris. Erez Bek, the troupe’s general manager, said that in Spain — like a second home for Mayumana — activists post their schedules on Facebook and demonstrate outside the halls.

Mayumana people are instructed to avoid any interaction with protesters; they don't answer questions about politics and keep their personal opinions to themselves.

Someone in the music industry notes a key point: The Foreign Ministry supports artists who appear overseas and in return requires that they put the ministry logo on advertisements. This is a legitimate demand, but the atmosphere against Israel over the past decade can make Israelis consider abandoning their national identities.

“Is this a legitimate desire? Yes. And why not? People have the right to identify themselves as they want .... But they need a connection, roots, a home — not necessarily the artist, but his audience," Nini told Haaretz.

"It’s very hard for people to accept something hanging in the air that’s not assigned to anything. In the end you have to deal with your identity, whatever happens.”

Beyond the fringe

Last summer, around the time of the cancellations in Edinburgh, the Repertory Theater won first prize at Stockholm’s fringe festival. Yiftach Ophir, who appeared in a performance by the theater, told Haaretz the actors were initially leery about passing out leaflets and saying they were from Israel. Ophir admits he thought about concealing that fact but ruled it out.

“I don’t believe in hiding or embarrassment. I’m an Israeli and my art comes from Israel,” he said, adding that he understands Avidan’s position.

“I like his work a lot and understand that his relationship with his audience isn’t simple. When you like someone’s talent, that doesn’t mean you like his behavior, political views or personality.”

Another artist who doesn’t hide his Israeli identity is DJ Skazi, who has appeared all over the world. He even makes sure there’s an Israeli flag on stage.

“I’m proud of my Israeliness,” he said. “I feel that through my music I’m another ambassador for us around the world. I pass on to all electronic-music lovers around the world that good things come from Israel.”

DJ Skazi says he’s an Israeli first; being a musician comes later.

“I studied music in Israel and became a musician; there’s no way to separate the two. In my work the Israeliness in me is expressed,” he said. “I don’t remember opposition toward me during a show. I see in my audience fans from Arab countries.”

He says it should be impossible to miss that he’s Israeli; sure enough, he has a Star of David tattoo on his arm. “Music," he said, "with all its range and styles, is an international language of love and connection."

This article, which previously claimed that there have been violent protests against Israeli artists, was amended on March 25, 2015 to reflect a change to the edited Hebrew version.

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