Performers Are Flooding Israel: A Sign of the Cultural Boycott's Failure?

As a veritable airlift of artists is on its way to Israel, best efforts of Roger Waters and BDS appear to be in vain. A veteran producer and local boycott activists agree: It's a trend, and like any other, it has ups and downs.

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British rock musician and Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters spray-paints the words 'No Thought Control' on a section of the separation barrier in the West Bank.
British rock musician and Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters spray-paints the words 'No Thought Control' on a section of the separation barrier in the West Bank.Credit: AP
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

It’s been years since music lovers in Israel have had the opportunity to enjoy so many performers from overseas. A partial list of artists scheduled to perform here this summer includes Radiohead, the Pixies, Justin Bieber, Aerosmith, Guns and Roses, Rod Stewart, Nick Cave, Tears for Fears, Grandaddy, Jose Gonzalez, Fatboy Slim, Jean-Michel Jarre, Paul Young, Vanessa Mae, Emir Kusturica and Ace of Base. The list could include other top performers who have had good runs in Israel in recent years, including the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Alice Cooper, Rihanna, Sia and Elton John.

It’s true that along with this glittering array there were also some resounding cancellations, one of the more memorable ones being that of the Pixies’ concert in 2010 only a few days before their performance, shortly after Israel’s fatal takeover of the Gaza-bound ship Mavi Marmara. Since that cancellation they have performed in Israel again.

Among the artists whose names are linked to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are Elvis Costello, the Gorillas, Devendra Banhart and Annie Lennox. Some of them have openly stated that their reason for objecting to performing here was Israel’s domination of the Palestinians. The list includes thousands of artists, people in the academic and film worlds and intellectuals who have called for a cultural boycott of Israel and its institutions.

So, is the boycott working? “At first, many performers thought that appearing in Israel would hurt them financially, but then they saw that musicians were performing here without paying a price. They understood that the sanctions movement is a marginal one,” says a senior Israeli journalist who has been covering the subject. “Many times it’s the politicians on both sides who make waves about the BDS movement. Politicians on the right make gains by pointing to the whole world as being against us, stating that things here are in a mess because of the occupation. In practice, the success of the boycott movement is doubtful.”

Conversations with some of the prominent producers who bring international artists to Israel bear out these words. Some of them say that the boycott movement peaked following the Marmara incident, but as time passed the protest waned. Guy Besser, one of the owners of Blue Stone Productions, the company bringing over Guns and Roses and Aerosmith, says, “The boycott has only marginal influence on artists, and the ones who do come here leave as goodwill ambassadors. After their performance they realize that there is a huge gap between what they were told as part of the pressure they were subjected to and the local reality. We notice the weakening of the boycott from year to year, with Israel becoming a legitimate venue for performances. Ultimately, music vanquishes politics.”

The increase in the number of performances is linked to the increase in the number of local producers who have entered the field of organizing concerts in Israel by international artists. “The market is on the upswing,” continues Besser, “There are many players trying to bring artists here, and audiences have shown that they are amazing consumers of culture, knowing how to enjoy performances. The rising competition has also brought down ticket prices, and performances have become more accessible.”

Guy Besser.Credit: David Bachar

Guy Chadwick, soloist in The House of Love band that performed here last week, agrees with Besser, saying his band had no concerns over coming to Israel. He says he’s wanted to come to Israel for years and didn’t give much thought to the political situation, since he was interested in the local history and culture. He relates how his agent had told band members that there may be problems such as online petitions if they perform in Israel, saying that he’d had such experiences with other groups he had brought to Israel. However, Chadwick says that they encountered no opposition.

Dan Sobovitz is an Israeli who has been working for a few years in a senior position at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. Speaking at his personal capacity, he says the BDS movement is not felt at the popular level in Europe. The Israeli question interests mainly Jewish and Muslim communities, the extreme right and left and the intellectual elites. Mainstream parties support the Two State Solution but definitely o not support any kind of boycott. The average European, he believes, would voice his opposition to the occupation if asked, and this also varies significantly from one country to another, but he wouldn’t take to the streets for this cause.

Cumulative damage to people’s perception

Less optimistic regarding the waning of BDS is veteran producer Shuki Weiss. “BDS is causing us great harm. It’s not something you can assess over one summer or another, but it’s something cumulative in people’s perception. It’s true that we’ve had worse years – three or four years ago people signing petitions were in a much stronger position. In practice not much has changed, and like every other trend there are ups and downs. When we meet performers and suggest they come to Israel we bring up the political issue at the very beginning, telling them that this will rear its head. However, we propose that they don’t engage in political discussions and come meet their fans here just like they do anywhere else.”

Where do you think Israel’s campaign against boycott leaders stands right now?

“I wouldn’t rush to say we’ve beaten the BDS activists. We still need to fight the boycott. The fact that international artists perform in China, a country not exactly known for its human rights record, or in the Gulf States, makes it much easier for them to perform in Israel. Look at Bjork – she was supposed to have 16 concerts in China, but as soon as she opened her mouth and said something about human rights during her first performance, her whole tour was canceled. Now we’ll see what happens in the U.S., with Trump meaning to build a wall on the Mexican border. Do you think any of the major performers will stop appearing there because of that? They understand there is a catch here. It sheds a different light on what’s happening in Israel.”

You brought Roger Waters here and now he’s the most significant performer promoting a cultural boycott. How much impact does he have on international performances here?

“There was hardly any major performer who came here without being assailed by Roger, calling on him to boycott Israel. He’s a major figure in the world of music and his letters have an impact. However, there were artists such as Alicia Keys who received his letter and decided to perform here anyway. Not only did she come, she also had local singer-songwriter Idan Raichel on the stage singing with her. A few months later she appeared with Raichel and a Palestinian singer in a joint concert in New York’s Central Park. She saw both sides and did not ignore the complexity of the situation.”

Do major artists have to worry about a consumer boycott after performing in Israel?

“Not at all - performers often come here before or after appearing in Dubai and Qatar. Audiences don’t really mix the two and don’t really care. In good years we’ve had performers coming here after appearing in Lebanon. An economic boycott isn’t really an issue.”

In Jewish communities as well

Nevertheless, BDS activists are still trying to abort performances in Israel, which according to them “enable the whitewashing of the occupation and the apartheid regime in Israel.” Key music websites take a great interest in this volatile issue. Thus, for example, NME magazine reported last week that Radiohead will be performing in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park, while noting the cultural boycott and the much talked-about protests by Waters and Brian Eno. Last year it was American vocalist Matisyahu who got negative coverage after he was expelled from a festival in Spain for refusing to declare his support for a Palestinian state and for refusing to condemn Israel – a demand posed after pressure by BDS, which is very active in Spain.

Shuki WeissCredit: Dudu Bachar

Ohal Grietzer is an Israeli-born activist and composer living in the U.S. who advocates a boycott of Israel. She previously wrote a public letter with Brian Eno, published on the VICE website, calling for the cancellation of performances by international artists in Israel. This week she wrote on her Facebook page that “if any of your friends or friends of friends are planning to perform in Israel, kindly remind them that Palestinian civil society is asking you to boycott Israel until it ends its occupation and colonization and grants equal rights to its own Arab-Palestinian citizens.”

Ronnie Barkan, one of the prominent BDS activists in Israel, is certain that the boycott movement has great impact on Israel’s cultural agenda. “The success of the BDS campaign – a Palestinian campaign that became a guideline for activity promoting justice, liberty and equality across the world – far exceeds what we envisaged at the outset. Both sides realize that culture is power, and when any activity which empowers Palestinian culture or identity is interpreted by the Zionist entity as a declaration of war, the state of Israel dispatches endless numbers of court artists on its behalf, from writer David Grossman to singer Achinoam Nini to the Batsheva dance troupe, in the hope that they will manage to salvage its collapsing image in the world.’

How is the success of BDS in Israel expressed?

“One can note a significant change in the way the world perceives Israel. It’s now seen as a leper state maintaining a cruel occupation, apartheid and a colonial enterprise. This is what is believed on all campuses in the United States and even in some Jewish communities there. Communities are becoming increasingly critical of Israel’s crimes, with the fastest-growing organization being the Jewish Voice for Peace. It has taken up the cause of basic rights for the Palestinians, sons and daughters of this land, giving its unstinting support for the boycott campaign.”

Doesn’t the deluge of performances scheduled for this summer contradict the picture you’re painting?

“The cultural boycott is in fact gathering steam finding expression in different ways, whether in artists getting together to support the boycott, as for example in the group of 1,200 renowned British artists, called Artists for Palestine UK, or in massive women’s demonstrations against Trump, who while struggling for the future of the United States had managed to integrate the voice of celebrities in support of the women's struggle with the struggle of blacks and people of color, the struggle of indigenous native Americans, the struggle of indigenous Palestinians, Muslims, refugees and more."

Holding their cards close to their chests

Another Israeli group that supports BDS on its cultural and academic fronts is called “Boycott from Within.” Just like Barkan, its members are certain that the boycott is currently more effective than ever. When they are asked through their Facebook page if the Israeli occupation does not take on a different perspective in light of the civil war in Syria or Trump’s wall, they reply: “Artists tend to oppose racism and systematic oppression. Israel’s human rights abuses are recognized by the international community, and the support of Trump and Netanyahu for each other demonstrates the linkage between the struggles against the different types of violations. In particular, it strengthens the ties between human rights groups here and in the US.”

Can you mention any achievements made by the cultural boycott movement in recent years?

“The cultural-academic institutional boycott against Israel is gathering momentum. As it grows stronger, there are fewer cases of artists who first agree, navely, to come to Israel and then cancel their performances. Thus, a lower number of cancellations doesn’t indicate a weakening of the boycott. For example, Pharrell Williams canceled his performance in Israel after many appeals by BDS activists. The fact that the event’s organizers gave contradictory explanations for the cancellation supports the assessment that this was done out of principle by the artist. Talib Kweli, who supports Palestinian rights, also canceled his visit. The growing Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. expressed its support for the boycott and this must affect American artists, particularly Afro-Americans.”

This claim can be countered by looking at the list of performers in the upcoming Kalamazoo festival which will be devoted to hip-hop and black music. Despite the pressure put on artists such as Princess Nokia and MNDSGN, the original lineup hasn’t changed.

Producer Udi Applebaum, who is bringing Rod Stewart to Israel this summer, concurs with the claims of Barkan and “Boycott from Within.” He argues that BDS activists are managing to impact the local cultural agenda. “There are many performances that don’t materialize because of the boycott – we don’t always know the precise reason; sometimes they tell us and sometimes they don’t, since the artists keep their cards close to their chests. We as producers are in an endless campaign against the boycott. My dream is that we become like London or Paris, but we’re a long way from that.”

Nevertheless, the boycott movement – whether one believes in its advantages or whether one views it as an impediment to a dialogue between artists and their audiences, whether one believes it’s working or not – seems to be failing when it comes to the appearance of major artists in Israel. If a band such as Radiohead, one of the most successful in the world, can be brought to Hayarkon Park when it can get any stadium in Europe within minutes, this means that it is consciously choosing to do so. This is also true for the Pixies, Justin Bieber and others.

At the same time, music lovers in Israel are aware that this string of performances can be cancelled in a flash if some military operation or war breaks out. All sides are presumably wishing for a calm summer.



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