Opinion

BDS Movement's Celebrity-obsessed Tactics Won’t End the Israeli Occupation

After 12 years, it’s time for the Israel boycotters to rethink their strategy of targeting rock stars about to perform in Israel. It’s not working and is distracting from the real story

Radiohead singer Thom Yorke performing in Yarkon Park, Tel Aviv, on July 19, 2017.
Liron Schneider and Ariel Efron

With no alarms and no surprises, Radiohead performed in front of 40,000 fans in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night. Roger Waters and Ken Loach – who both called on the band to cancel its concert – did not charge the stage in a desperate, last-minute bid to stop it. R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, who came out in support of Radiohead, was also absent.

Just a regular, run-of-the-mill rock concert. Apparently, they played “Creep.”

As has become par for the course whenever an internationally renowned artist announces plans to perform in Israel, the most interesting thing about Radiohead’s show was the pandemonium that preceded it: Both sides of the anti-/pro-BDS debate trying to either convince the band to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement or score propaganda points off its back.

The pre-show hectoring of pop stars visiting Israel has become a tired old routine, as BDS activists – among them Waters and other influential cultural figures – put an enormous amount of effort into pressuring artists to support their cultural boycott. Among others, veterans of the Great BDS Music Wars include Elvis Costello (canceled in 2010); the Pixies (canceled in 2010, performed in 2014 and performing again next week); Australian singer Natalie Imbruglia (canceled in February); and also Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Bon Jovi and the Rolling Stones (all performed as planned).

At best, the results of this “Celebrity Deathmatch” strategy can be described as “mixed.” A more description would be that constantly pestering celebrities is futile and, frankly, a bit silly. And that this losing strategy is partly to blame for BDS being more hype than hope, with very few successes to its name.

Red Hot Chili Peppers performing in Spain, July 2017
JOSE JORDAN/AFP

Time for self-examination

This is not one of those anti-BDS smear pieces. Despite the efforts of propagandists to paint it as an anti-Semitic hate group (it isn’t), BDS is actually right about many things: Israel is running a brutal military occupation in the territories and a system of institutionalized racism within its borders. Not only is the word apartheid not out of place in this debate, it becomes more and more accurate with each passing day. Also, while many (including the author of this piece) would argue that the boycott approach is counterproductive and ultimately doomed to fail, it is clear that the chances of Israel changing course of its own volition anytime soon are slim to nonexistent.

Having said this, it’s time to admit: BDS has existed for exactly 12 years now, and in this time it has completely failed to advance its stated goal – bringing about an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine through a combination of boycotts, divestments and sanctions. Economically, politically and academically, BDS has had zero effect so far. In those 12 years, the occupation has only become more entrenched, more suffocating, more inhumane. This is a fact.

This is not the BDS movement’s fault, of course. But after 12 years, some self-examination seems to be in order. Especially when it comes to the movement’s fixation with hounding aging rock stars and pop singers.

Ask yourselves: Had the campaign against Radiohead’s show in Tel Aviv worked and the band canceled, what would that have achieved? Possibly, this would have encouraged more artists to boycott Israel, increasing awareness of Israel’s crimes, leading to more people and universities and firms, and ultimately countries, joining the movement until pressure would hit critical mass – at which point Israel would have no choice but to evacuate all Palestinian lands.

Or, more likely, Radiohead would have canceled and Israelis would be bummed – but then they’d go see the Pixies in Caesarea next week instead.

The celebrity game BDS activists spend an enormous amount of energy playing can never be won. There will always be more celebrities willing to perform in Israel than celebrities willing to take a controversial political stand by boycotting it – especially since outside the narrow confines of this debate, the decision to perform in Israel or not perform in Israel bears no impact on their future careers.

Supporters of BDS keep insisting it’s all a matter of numbers – that if enough artists would enlist, then pressure would build, leading to that crucial tipping point. But to paraphrase Radiohead (and George Orwell before them), their 2+2 always seems to equal 5 in that regard.

Also, BDS activists insist that disrupting Israel’s “business as usual” attitude is crucial to ending the occupation. But they forget (or don’t know) that in Israel, canceled shows are business as usual. Artists have been canceling concerts in Israel for conflict-related reasons since at least the 1970s. So far, this has yielded zero political change – so why should it work now?

The cancellation of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ concert in August 2001, at the height of the second intifada, harbingered a decade-long drought that saw very few international artists visit Israel. Did that prevent or slow down Israel’s descent into far-right nationalism?

Of course it didn’t. So why is the boycott movement spending so much time, effort and political cachet bullying the likes of Pharrell Williams or Natalie Imbruglia?

The world has changed

A cynic might say Waters is the movement’s most outspoken and well-known activist and that, being a rock star, Waters naturally believes rock stars still carry some political or economic significance. The ex-Pink Floyd man earned his fame at a time when this was partly true, so one can forgive him for thinking that. It’s just a pity no one bothered telling him the world had changed.

An even greater cynic would say that the BDS movement’s only real success so far has been the incessant media coverage of its actions, and that celebrity feuds are great for creating media buzz.

Some might argue, of course, that media buzz is important because it can raise awareness of the criminally underreported Palestinian plight. That is true. Nonetheless, it’s also worth asking ourselves the following question: Did the horrors of present-day Gaza receive more coverage thanks to the brouhaha over Radiohead’s Tel Aviv gig and the constant coverage of what Waters said about singer Thom Yorke? And what Yorke then said about Waters? And what Stipe had to say about them both? Or was it simply eclipsed by it?

Roger Waters. Still believes rock stars carry some political or economic clout.
Victoria Will/AP

The truth is BDS should cease with its hounding of celebrities who choose to perform in Israel. Not because it’s unfair to Israelis who oppose the occupation. Not because artists need to bring people together or encourage dialogue, or whatever. Not even because, like so much of what the BDS movement does, it taps right into the far-right’s agenda of keeping Israelis isolated (that’s right, the purveyors of the Israeli occupation don’t really care if some leftie British band performs in Tel Aviv. In fact, they’d be just as happy if it didn’t).

BDS activists should stop playing the celebrity game because they’ve become too enamored with it. It’s become too distracting. If the Radiohead debacle proves anything, it’s that the celebrities have become the story instead of the chroniclers of it.