Saturday Art: Will 2014 Be the Watershed Year for Cultural Boycotts of Israel?
I. On December 27th, Gaza’s University Teachers’ Association and the Gaza Palestinian Students for the Academic Boycott of Israel wrote to young Norwegian songwriter, Moddi, asking him to cancel his upcoming 2014 concert, in Tel Aviv on February 1st. Friday the young and rapidly upcoming artist responded, in a Facebook post that links to an article Jello Biafra wrote after he had cancelled an Israeli show, with his band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine, back in 2011.
The Gaza letter is an openly emotional plea. It recounts some musicians who have recently decided to cancel appearances in the militant expansionist Zionist state:
We call upon your free soul that has been adding uplifting music into this disenchanted world of ours, to join those courageous people of conscience, artists like Elvis Costello, Annie Lennox, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Massive Attack, Gil Scott-Heron, Faithless, Carlos Santana, Vanessa Paradis, Natacha Atlas and Devendra Banhart.
And directly confronts the notion of an Israeli performance being appropriate, from a Gazan perspective:
We ask you now, like so many people of your nation have stood with the oppressed in the past, to stand on the right side of history, to respond to our call from the Gaza ghetto to not turn your back on us. If you play in Israel, then we will be a short distance away from where you are playing. But your beautiful tunes will break our wrenching hearts and not sway our souls.
I’ve watched a few of Moddi’s Youtube videos over the past year, after a student turned me on to his art. Here is what the Gazan suppliants meant when they wrote “your beautiful tunes.” Moddi, rendering Smoke, with Katrine Schiøtt, in Istanbul:
Moddi’s Facebook response to the Gazans is as poignant and defiant as his song, Smoke:
I have chosen to cancel my performance in Tel Aviv on February 1st. This is without comparison the most difficult decision I have ever made as an artist, and one that hurts almost as much as it feels right.
The reason for my decision is the situation in Israel and the areas it controls. Although music can be a unique arena for public debate, the debate over these territories has been misused for a long time. Discussion and dialogue creates an impression of constant progress. The realities of politics are very different. An example: as we speak, John Kerry is negotiating peace talks between Israel and Palestine, while at the same time Israel announces the construction of 1400 new settlements on occupied land. While everyone speaks about a two-state solution, the constant scattering of the West Bank through the building of new control posts, security fences and walls are making such a solution practically impossible.
The discourse of peace creates a thick veil, concealing the increasingly tighter besiegement of Gaza, the ongoing fragmentation of the West Bank and the continuing discrimination of Arab-Israeli citizens. By encouraging ‘dialogue’ and ‘tolerance’ as ideals, I am afraid that my voice will do nothing but to increase the already dysfunctional divide between words and action in a conflict where no one seems to trust each other’s intentions.
I know that I disappoint many of my Israeli listeners and I am truthfully sorry that it has to stay like this for now. I believe that you will understand, although you might not agree. Again, I encourage you to read Jello Biafra’s article, which provides many perspectives and no clear answers to the questions he has been faced with. Like him, I am overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation. Therefore, I will be going to Israel and to the West Bank to see things with my own eyes, meet some of the people who have joined the discussion and try to understand the situation better.
As long as ‘dialogue’ continues to be a goal in itself and not a means to solve one of the deepest, most intense conflicts of this time, I will not lend my voice to it. For now I’ll keep away, hoping that things can change for the better and that one day I can carry through with my very first concert on an Israeli stage.
II. The list of musicians and other artists who either refuse to perform in Israel, or who have decided to not return there is growing. In spite of the hardships and condemnations that come with taking such actions, 2014 is likely to see an increase in the number of musical groups, from all genres and cultural backgrounds, who question the wisdom of appearances in what is rapidly becoming an openly apartheid state. Between the contemplated forced removals of up to 70,000 Israeli Bedouin citizens, to make way for new Jewish communities, the contemplated forced displacement of up to 300,000 Palestinian Israeli citizens into some sort of newly created Bantustans, as part of land exchanges in a so-called “final status agreement,” to the insinuation of a born-again Christianist University in Nazareth upon the carcass of an Arab university that was never allowed to flourish on its own, Israeli apartheid is full frontal and stark naked.
Moddi (not to be confused with another talented young artist, Motti), in his reference to Jello Biafra’s refusal to perform in Tel Aviv, cites how complex such a decision can be, as many of both artists’ Israeli fans are foes against the rise of apartheid and quasi-fascism inside the Zionist state. Biafra wrote:
What the Palestinian Solidarity Movement does have on its side is the horror of the occupation itself for all to see. If only more people could see it. This is where I say, yet again, Don’t hate the media, Become the media. In this case, what this means is that people in Palestine and Israel – and people who have been there – need to reach out, one-on-one, and show everyone else – especially those in the US – what is going on and what they have experienced.
Believe me, most Americans are so out of it, they have no idea any of this is happening.
What can one person do, small things, big things? Step-by-step things that an overwhelmed person just trying to pay their rent can actually work in to their daily rat race and do?
With eyes on the prize of something this important, there needs to be room for everybody. We who care (and I do) need all the people we can get from BDS to Peace Now to the International Solidarity Movement to thePopular Struggle Coordination Committee, Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolition, Anarchists Against The Wall and beyond.
There is a new Jewish lobby in Washington called J Street, formed to challenge the toxic effects of AIPAC. They may be moderate for my tastes, but anyone who will get in the ring and challenge AIPAC deserves some support.
As an aside, I hosted J Street founder Jeremy Ben Ami here at firedoglake, back in July, 2011, as we discussed his then new book, A New Voice for Israel.
Poet and novelist Alice Walker has been outspoken in the ways she has approached other artists and cultural figures to think it through before performing or participating in the apartheid country. Here she is, on Democracy Now, urging Depeche Mode to not perform in Israel:
While fellow artists have called for her to cancel her July 4th performance in Tel Aviv, Alicia Keys announced Friday she will not be changing her plans.
“I look forward to my first visit to Israel. Music is a universal language that is meant to unify audiences in peace and love, and that is the spirit of our show,” the R&B singer told The New York Times.
The appeal to Keys to boycott Israel came first from Alice Walker, in an open letter posted on the writer’s website. “It would grieve me to know you are putting yourself in danger (soul danger) by performing in an apartheid country that is being boycotted by many global conscious artists,” the “The Color Purple” author wrote.
One of those “global conscious artists” is Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, who posted a letter on the web site of a group called the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. “Please, Alicia, do not lend your name to give legitimacy to the Israeli government policies of illegal, apartheid, occupation of the homelands of the indigenous people of Palestine.”
As with Alice Walker, Roger Waters, for his role in bringing a cultural boycott of Israel to the fore, has been vilified. Along with author Max Blumenthal, Waters made the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s 2013 list of people who the center considers to be a threat to Israel.
Last month, in an interview with Frank Barat for Counterpunch, Waters directly addressed the cultural boycott of Israel:
I wanted to follow up on the Cultural Boycott and about the fact that you are one of the only ones who take such a stand. You could, as many others do, I guess enjoy the benefits of your success and lead a quiet, at least politically, non-controversial life. Why do you do it but more importantly why do you think not more people are doing it? Why a lot of artists who often take position against wars, why don’t they touch Palestine?
RW: Well, where I live, in the USA, I think, A: they are frightened and B: I think the propaganda machine that starts in Israeli schools and that continues through all the Netanyahu’s bluster is poured all over the United States, not just Fox but also CNN and in fact in all the mainstream media. It’s like a huge bucket of crap that they are pouring into the mouth of a gullible public in my view, when they say “we are afraid of Iran, it is going to get nuclear weapons…”. It’s a diversionary tactic. The lie that they have told for the last 20 years is “Oh, we want to make peace”, you know and they talk about Clinton and Arafat and Barak being in Camp David and that they came very close to agreeing, and the story that they sold was “Oh Arafat fucked it all up”. Well, no, he did not. This is not the story. The fact of the matter is no Israeli government has been serious about creating a Palestinian state since 1948. They’ve always had the Ben Gurion agenda of kicking all the Arabs out of the country and becoming greater Israel. They tell a lie as part of their propaganda machinery whilst doing the other thing but they have been doing it so obviously in the last 10 years .
For instance, even after when Obama went to Cairo and made that speech about Arabs and the Israelis, everybody was like “Oh, this is a step in a new direction at least”. But as soon as he visited Israel, they said. “Oh by the way, we are building another 1200 settlements”. Exactly the same when Kerry went last year saying, “Oh I am going to try to get the sides together and talk peace”. Netanhayu said “Fuck you. We are going to build another 1500 settlements and we a going to build them in E1, this is our plan.”
This is so transparent that you’d have to have an IQ above room temperature not to understand what is going on. It is just dopey.
III. Violinist and musical adventurer Nigel Kennedy has not gone so far as to boycott Israel, but his remarks at an impressive collaborative concert at the BBC Proms last summer were censored from the program’s broadcast. Here is what British listeners and viewers were not allowed to hear or see:
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a bit hard to say it, but, we all know from experience from this night of music that given equality and getting rid of apartheid gives a beautiful chance for amazing things to happen.
Here is a link to the entire concert, with Kennedy’s remarks uncensored (they come at 1:21:29). If you have the time, watch it, as it is the most imaginative rendering of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Seasons I’ve ever heard or seen.
Whether it is the gross indignity of being falsely labelled anti-Semitic for asserting for the rights of Palestinians, or the petty indignity Nigel Kennedy and his colleagues underwent through having an important part of their message censored, more artists of stature will be giving deeper thought to the issue of whether or not to perform in Israel in 2014 than in any previous year.
However, Cyndi Lauper will be performing in Tel Aviv today – perhaps as you read this.