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  • Dan Knight

Opinion | Israel, Music and the Cultural Boycott

Many musicians in recent years have been urged not to perform in the State of Israel in protest at the human rights abuses carried out by its government. Should artists boycott performances in Israel and similar nations?


Madonna performs with Quavo at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest final in Tel Aviv, Israel.

On the evening of the 12th May 2018, Israeli singer Netta took to the stage at Lisbon’s vast Altice Arena to perform to a sea of twenty-thousand revellers waving flags of various nations. Dressed in shocking pink and blood red, and surrounded by dancers and flashing lights, she sang Israel’s entry, the quirky electro-pop of “Toy”. The song, and the entire evening, was as glitzy and glittering as any other final of the annual Eurovision Song Contest.


On receiving the coveted trophy, and hearing the news that her home nation of Israel would be hosting the contest next year, an overjoyed Netta gave an impassioned speech in front of the world’s cameras:


“I’m so happy! Thank you so much for choosing different. Thank you so much for accepting differences between us. Thank you for celebrating diversity.”

Two days later, fifty-five people, including five minors, were killed in Gaza, and over two thousand injured. The US and EU-backed Israeli Defence Force unleashed tear gas, firebombs, and live ammunition on protestors approaching the Israeli border, an act that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu justified as an act of defence, claiming that the protestors were members of "the Hamas terrorist organisation" (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated that the majority of the protestors were unarmed, non-violent, and unaffiliated with terrorist organisations, and various human rights organisations took a similar view). The protestors were taking part in the “Great March of Return” to lands that had once belonged to the Palestinian people but had subsequently been "settled" by the state of Israel. On the same day, the United States Embassy in Israel was opened in Jerusalem, after previously being located in Tel Aviv. Months prior, the US government led by Donald Trump had made the decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a contentious decision that sparked further conflict.


Hospitals in Gaza became overwhelmed with the influx of dying and injured people, and it became one of the bloodiest days in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Two days earlier, the world’s attention was on Israel’s music, glitter and dancing – now it was on their bullets, bombs and tear gas.


As soon as the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest had been announced, the world’s reaction varied. Although the governments of the US, Britain, and the European Union formally support and provide funding and military aid to the state of Israel (although with stated aims to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict), many people expressed concern about the Israeli establishment’s history of human rights abuses and repeated violation of international law, and the decision was immediately a controversial one.


In April 2019, American pop mega-star Madonna was confirmed to perform during the interval of the following month’s Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, a long-time supporter of the BDS movement, penned an op-ed in The Guardian newspaper, asking her to reconsider her decision. Waters reminded her of the 2004 call for a cultural boycott of Israel from a group of 170 Palestinian organisations and unions: a “cultural picket line, asking artists to refrain from performing in Israel until such time as the Israeli government recognises the Palestinians’ right to self-determination”. Waters stated, “it is my belief that the future of the human race will largely depend on our ability to develop our capacity to empathise with others, not our capacity to oppress and control them.”


Less eloquently, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie called Madonna a “prostitute” after she carried out her performance in Tel Aviv. Madonna’s performance was controversial in more ways than one: the BDS movement and its supporters were angry that it happened at all, and pro-Israel media outlets both in and outside of Israel were furious that Madonna chose to use her platform to draw recognition to the existence of Palestine and make a call for peace in the region. As her classic single “Like a Prayer” ended, dancers wearing gas masks appeared onstage – presumably a reference to the ongoing conflict.


Her performance of “Future” with rapper Quavo featured two dancers – one wearing the Israeli flag and one the Palestinian flag – arm-in-arm, and the song ended with the words “wake up” appearing on a screen behind them. The performance was a clear acknowledgement of the controversy, yet its platitudes were too vague and non-specific to make a coherent political point. Icelandic act Hatari held up Palestinian flags later that night – a slightly more direct statement.


Madonna’s performance that night was roundly criticised (not just for ham-fisted religious imagery and overuse of autotune) by the press, to which she responded with the statement:


“I’ll never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be. My heart breaks every time I hear about the innocent lives that are lost in this region and the violence that is so often perpetuated to suit the political goals of people who benefit from this ancient conflict. I hope and pray that we will soon break free from this terrible cycle of destruction and create a new path towards peace.”

In 1985, Paul Simon took a similar tactic, breaking the cultural boycott of South Africa by travelling to Johannesburg to record his seminal album Graceland. In an interview with National Geographic, Simon explained the rationale behind this decision. “It was on the surface apolitical, but what it represented was the essence of anti-apartheid, in that it was a collaboration between blacks and whites to make music that people everywhere enjoyed.” Simon wanted the “rich music” of the (mostly black) musicians that he worked with there to be heard by the rest of the world. While Graceland was far more successful both musically and artistically than Madonna’s Eurovision performance, and Simon’s intentions seem benevolent, the album’s role in ending South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime is questionable.


In a similar vein to Simon and Madonna, non-profit organisation Creative Community for Peace had written an open letter denouncing BDS’ proposed cultural boycott, accusing BDS of “subverting the spirit of the (Eurovision) contest and turning it from a tool of unity into a weapon of division”, and describing the boycott as “an affront to both Palestinians and Israelis who are working to advance peace through compromise, exchange, and mutual recognition.” The letter was signed by various public figures in music and the arts.

Other high-profile artists who have decided not to take part in the cultural boycott include Radiohead and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, both of whom performed (on separate occasions) in Tel Aviv in 2017. In 2018, Nick Cave publicly shared an email he had sent to Brian Eno – both a staunch supporter of the BDS movement and a personal hero of Cave’s. In the email, Cave argued that he had decided to perform in Israel “not as support for any particular political entity but as a principled stand against those who wish to bully, silence and shame musicians”, and that himself and the band “do not support the current government in Israel, yet do not accept that my decision to play in the country is any kind of tacit support for that government’s policies.” He also raised the point of his Israeli fans, most of whom cannot be blamed for or presumed to endorse the actions of its government: “I simply could not treat my Israeli fans with the necessary contempt to do Brian Eno’s bidding.”


Thom Yorke of Radiohead, in a similar response to director Ken Loach, echoed Cave’s view, saying that “playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government”. Yorke stated:


“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. Music, art and academia is about crossing borders not building them, about open minds not closed ones, about shared humanity, dialogue and freedom of expression.”

Radiohead’s ties to the Israeli people are more personal than those of most acts. Their early success can largely be attributed to their considerably large Israeli fanbase, and their first ever international gig was held in Tel Aviv in 1993. It was during this visit that guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood met Sharona Katan, an Israeli visual artist who he went on to marry and have three children with. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Yorke stated:


“The person who knows most about these things is Jonny. He has both Palestinian and Israeli friends and a wife who’s an Arab Jew. All these people to stand there at a distance throwing stuff at us, waving flags, saying, ‘You don’t know anything about it!’ Imagine how offensive that is for Jonny.”

Clearly the music industry is as bitterly divided on this issue as the rest of the world is. The Creative Community for Peace argue that “the arts are crucial to help bridge cultural divides”, and it would appear that musicians like Yorke and Cave agree. The BDS movement, however, points to the arts being deliberately misused by the Israeli government to distract from the political conflict: in August 2008 Arye Mekel of the Israeli foreign ministry stated that “theatre companies and exhibits” are instrumental in government initiative Brand Israel’s goal to “show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” Presumably, the concept of improving the state’s public image by relenting on their aggressive campaign of human rights violations is unthinkable.


Contrary to Yorke, renowned professor, writer and political activist Noam Chomsky distinguishes between working in America and in Israel. While Chomsky has for decades been intensely critical of US domestic and foreign policy – urging citizens to protest American activities from the Vietnam War to the current concentration camps on the US-Mexico border – he continues to live and work in the US, while largely supporting the cultural boycott of Israel. He cites Israeli government propaganda initiatives as the reason for this discernment: “I am opposed to any appearance in Israel that is used for nationalistic or other propaganda purposes to cover up its occupation and denial of Palestinian human rights.”


A few months after Radiohead’s Tel Aviv gig in 2017, New Zealand pop singer-songwriter Lorde decided to cancel her planned performance in the city, citing letters and messages she had received from activists: “I have had a lot of discussions with people holding many views, and I think the right decision at this time is to cancel the show.” Commenting on her initial plans to perform there, she said: “I’m not too proud to admit I didn’t make the right call on this one.”


Her decision to cancel the show was praised by Brian Eno and others, but criticised by other media outlets: a full-page ad in The Washington Post written by American rabbi Shmuley Boteach called Lorde “a bigot” who has joined “a global anti-semitic boycott of Israel”. To paint all opposition to Israeli apartheid as a result of anti-semitism rather than a support for human rights is disingenuous at best. Lorde ended her statement with the hope for societal change, and the chance to perform to Israeli fans in future: “Tel Aviv, it’s been a dream of mine to visit this beautiful part of the world for many years. I hope one day we can all dance.” It would seem that the “all” that she refers to includes currently-displaced Palestinian fans.


American singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey followed Lorde’s example months later, cancelling a planned show with the statement:


“It’s important to me to perform in both Palestine and Israel and treat all my fans equally. Unfortunately it hasn’t been possible to line up both visits with such short notice and therefore I’m postponing my appearance at the Meteor Festival until a time when I can schedule visits for both my Israeli and Palestinian fans, as well as hopefully other countries in the region.”

In this case, it seems fair that the blame for the disappointment of innocent Israeli fans should be taken by the Israeli government, and not by Del Rey herself – after all, The Beatles’ refusal to perform to segregated audiences in America in the 1960s was widely understood by history to be a show of support to the oppressed black community, rather than an act of disrespect to their white fans!


Other musicians who have cancelled appearances in Israel for similar reasons include Elvis Costello, Lauryn Hill, and Gorillaz, and it is fair to anticipate this number growing exponentially as awareness increases. This is what happened in the 1980s with South Africa: the cultural boycott was but one aspect of the international condemnation that helped bring an end to apartheid, but nonetheless an important one.


Music and the arts are an intensely personal experience, and should, in an ideal world, be considered to transcend politics. As disappointing as it must be for Israeli music fans (many of whom are as opposed to the acts of their government as the BDS movement is) to miss out on the experience of live music and the connection between artist and audience, we have to wonder what horrific acts may be being obscured by music events in states such as Israel and (formerly) South Africa, and what nefarious results these performances may eventually, indirectly, lead to. Graceland’s music is undeniably beautiful, as is Radiohead’s and Nick Cave’s, but is art more important than human suffering?


The ethics of cultural boycotts make up a difficult, multi-faceted debate – ultimately we have to consider our responsibilities as humans as well as music fans and/or performers.

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