The rock and roll boycott of Israel
By Adam Shay
The Biggest Names in Music Continue to Perform in Israel
For the last ten years there has been an ongoing attempt to promote a cultural boycott of Israel. While this campaign has achieved very few actual victories, it has received widespread attention and media coverage disproportionate to its success. This is not surprising as musicians, celebrities, and cultural icons are the frequent focus of media attention, especially when they step outside the world of culture and express a political opinion. Coupled with the widely televised Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this makes for a winning formula for conveying a radical agenda to the general and mostly uneducated public.
Efforts at a cultural boycott of Israel begin with attempts to pressure artists to avoid performing in Israel or to cancel appearances once they are scheduled. There is of course a significant difference between statements by artists that they will not play Israel as a matter of principle, and the cancellation of a scheduled performance. While the former is often nothing more than an empty statement, the latter resonates loudly with Israelis.
Despite these efforts, the musical boycott of Israel appears to have failed. The biggest names in the world of music continue to frequent Israel, including Alicia Keys, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Rihanna, Madonna, Depeche Mode, Moby, the Pet Shop Boys, Aerosmith, Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Barbra Streisand, and many others. Israeli music fans recently received another vote of confidence with the announcement that the Rolling Stones are scheduled to play in Israel in June 2014. In this case, the boycotters attack on the Stones actually worked in Israel's favor, as Mick Jagger was recently quoted as saying: "We've been slammed and smacked and twittered a lot by the anti-Israeli side; all I can say is: anything worth doing is worth overdoing. So we decided to add a concert."
According to the website of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), the call to boycott Israel on the political, economic and cultural fronts came from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah in 2004, and has since been endorsed by hundreds of Palestinian civil society organizations. Yet both these claims are dubious. The call to boycott Israel can be traced back to the 2001 Durban Conference against Racism and was picked up by European academics. It would be another several years before the Palestinians realized the potential of this campaign and sought to present it as an inherently Palestinian initiative. To date, Palestinians residing in the West Bank have barely mobilized to support or promote this effort. Some even speak out openly against it, describing it as counterproductive.
Regarding the endorsement of this campaign by Palestinian civil society, the published list of endorsements includes numerous duplications, organizations that are not known except for their appearance on this list, and groups that are terrorist organizations.
Bridging the Troubled Waters
Roger Waters, co-founder of the legendary rock group Pink Floyd, now serves as the poster boy and head instigator for the campaign calling for the cultural boycott of Israel. Notably, Waters himself has played in Israel, causing an incident Israeli music fans are not likely to forget.
In 2006, promoter, producer, and impresario Shuki Weiss, who is responsible for most of the big international acts performing in Israel, signed a contract with Waters for a concert in Park Hayarkon, a central location in Tel Aviv equipped with the required infrastructure for such concerts, ample parking, and easy access. Nearing the time of the concert, Waters announced he was having second thoughts due to political reservations. After a prolonged debate, Waters eventually agreed to uphold his obligation, but asked that an alternative location be provided. Eventually, the village of Neve Shalom was selected as the agreed-upon location. Neve Shalom is a unique binational community of fewer than 300 Jews and Arabs, located in a remote section of the Ayalon Valley in an area that was designated as "no man's land" prior to the 1967 Six-Day War. Needless to say, the village had no infrastructure, stadium, or open space that could possibly host a massive rock concert. In order to fill the artist's requirements, Weiss was forced to lease a chickpea field near the village, destroy the harvest, bulldoze the field, and make a clearing that could contain the expected crowd.
The result was one of Israel's longest traffic jams. 50,000 fans made their way to Neve Shalom, a village with a narrow access road and no public parking to speak of, to hear Waters criticize the Israeli government. Despite the discomfort and inconvenience of the circumstances, his performance was met with enthusiastic applause. It was only after this concert that Waters started promoting the idea of a cultural boycott and calling on fellow musicians to refrain from playing in the Jewish state.
Waters' endorsement is perhaps the most important achievement the cultural boycott campaign has had. To date, no other artist of Waters' stature has chosen to align with the boycott movement.
Roger Waters holds legendary status in the world of popular music. His work was and still is considered groundbreaking and Pink Floyd remains to this day one of the most commercially successful and musically influential groups in the history of popular music. Many musicians have cited Pink Floyd as the band that has influenced them the most and the band's albums continue to sell until today, nearly 30 years after the band broke up. As such, there is no shortage of die-hard fans willing to agree with anything Waters has to say.
Waters is also the author and composer of Pink Floyd's acclaimed "The Wall" album, a rock opera and later a film discussing anti-establishment themes, abandonment, and isolation. The association of "The Wall" with the Israeli security barrier, which was built to stop the flow of terrorists from the Palestinian Authority into Israel, provides the boycott campaign with a useful symbol.
Thanks to Waters, would-be boycotters do not have to rely solely on online petitions and groups. Waters has the ability to pick up the phone and call any artist or production company, with the absolute certainty that he will be heard. To date, very few artists have chosen to answer or object to his efforts. This does not mean that artists categorically agree with Waters, but rather that they are reluctant to voice opinions that openly contradict those of the icon.
Waters' latest boycott incursion is an open attack on the Rolling Stones concert scheduled to take place in Israel in June 2014. To this end, he drafted his former bandmate Nick Mason so that his open letter calling on the Rolling Stones to cancel would seem like it came from Pink Floyd rather than Waters alone.
Behind Performance Cancellations
It is very difficult to know if a given cancellation or abstention by an artist or group is at all boycott-related. As a rule, popular commercial artists tend to steer clear of all political or controversial matters, for fear of upsetting their audience and affecting sales. Therefore, when an artist cancels a scheduled concert, it is not always possible to find out the exact reason. Very few artists have released explicit statements of support for the Israel boycott; however, artists have cited contractual disagreements, scheduling conflicts, and health problems as reasons for not performing. The boycott movement is usually quick to respond, congratulating the artist for his or her choice to refrain from playing in Israel, and taking responsibility for the achievement, regardless of the actual reason for the cancellation.
Another element clouding our understanding of this process is the nature of the messages artists receive from boycott supporters, specifically death threats. Numerous artists have stated that they had received death threats warning them to steer clear of Israel. Understandably, not everyone has the courage to stand up and say "I will play in Israel despite receiving death threats," as Paul McCartney did. There is no way to tell who cancelled their appearance due to death threats, nor should it be held against them. No one wants to admit to being threatened and coerced into making a decision, especially if a fashionable alternative – boycotting Israel – is available to them. Whatever the true reason for the cancellation, the boycott activists and websites will be quick to congratulate the artist on his/her "conscientious" decision. Artists rarely respond to these claims, as it is simply not in their interest to do so or to take a stand against the phenomenon, because this would inevitably enrage supporters of whichever side they don't support. Ironically, silence is often the best option for the artists.
Understanding Specific Cancellations and Boycott Attempts
In 2008, rapper Snoop Dogg's scheduled performance in Israel was cancelled. A source in the production said that the concert had been called off due to "contractual difficulties" between the artist and the producers, and not because of low ticket sales. The boycott, apparently, didn't even factor into the equation.
2010 was "The Year of the Boycott." This year saw the largest number of concert cancellations; however, it is unclear how many of these cancellations reflected an ideological or political choice to boycott Israel.
The first cancellation of 2010 was by guitar virtuoso and singer Carlos Santana. However, according to the artist's agent, they did not cancel the concert but rather postponed it. According to the agent, the artist apologized that his hectic tour schedule had forced him to postpone concerts in several locations, including Israel. His statement included no support of a boycott, no condemnation of Israel, or any sort of political or ideological justification.
In February 2010, 500 artists from the city of Montreal, including Lhasa de Sela, Gilles Vigneault, Richard Desjardins, members of Bran Van 3000 and Silver Mt. Zion, joined the cultural boycott of Israel, saying that Palestinians "face an entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation resembling the defeated apartheid system in South Africa." Yet no Israeli promoter had booked any of these artists to play in Israel. Therefore, this should not be regarded as a cancellation but rather as an empty statement.
In April, jazz and spoken word artist Gil Scott-Heron cancelled his scheduled concert in Israel "until everyone is welcome there." Boycott advocates had picketed Scott-Heron's concert in London, which was the launching concert for his world tour. The rowdy picketers attracted a considerable amount of attention outside the venue, and then continued to protest inside, disrupting the concert. At this point, while on stage, Scott-Heron announced he would cancel his Israeli obligation. It is entirely possible that this decision was made on the spot, for the sake of silencing the protesters who heckled the artist from the start of the show.
In June, British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello announced that he would scrap his scheduled concerts in protest of the" intimidation and humiliation of Palestinians by Israel." "I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security....It has been necessary to dial out the falsehoods of propaganda, the double game and hysterical language of politics, the vanity and self-righteousness of public communiqués from cranks in order to eventually sift through my own conflicted thoughts." Sadly, this cancellation can only be regarded as a politically motivated boycott. However, reading between the lines one can easily sense the artist's displeasure with the process leading to his decision. "The vanity and self-righteousness of public communiqués from cranks" seems like a good description of the mob mentality and brutal attacks that boycott activists use in order to influence their victims.
That same month, California-based folk artist Devendra Banhart cancelled two concerts scheduled to be played in Israel. He released a statement explaining his decision which did not include any sort of support for the boycott movement or condemnation of Israel, but rather explained that the cancellation was due to "pressure." "We love the land and people of Israel, and have been looking forward to our third show there with unimaginable anticipation. Unfortunately, we tried to make it clear that we were coming to share a human and not a political message, but it seems that we are being used to support views that are not our own," Banhart and the band said in a message posted on their Myspace page. "We will be overjoyed to return to Israel on the day that our presence is perceived and reported on as a cultural event and not a political one. We truly hope that day comes soon," they added.
This concern over being used to support Israeli views and policies is something promoted consistently by boycott activists. Every artist scheduled to play in Israel receives emails urging them to cancel "because the effect of your appearing in Tel Aviv will be to send a strong message to Israelis that what they are doing to Palestine is acceptable." The fear of being used or manipulated by a government is understandably an alarming scenario for artists.
What should be noted regarding this cancellation is the following:
The decision to cancel seems to have been made hastily. The producers were notified only hours before the artist was supposed to board a flight to Israel, and in a previous correspondence with the Israeli producers both the artist and his agents made it clear that a cancellation was not on their agenda.
Sir Elton John, on the other hand, took a firmer stance against the would-be-boycotters in June 2010. After experiencing immense pressure calling on him to cancel his concert in Israel, he appeared on stage in Tel Aviv and proclaimed: "Shalom, we are so happy to be back here! Ain't nothing gonna stop us from coming, baby....Musicians spread love and peace, and bring people together. That's what we do. We don't cherry-pick our conscience."
In the aftermath of the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, several bands cancelled their participation in Israel's Pic.Nic. Festival organized by Shuki Weiss. The Klaxons, Gorilla Sound System, and Pixies all announced they would not attend. However, this was related to a specific event and no mention was made of a boycott or any ideological justification. The cancellation took place immediately following the flotilla incident, before all the details were made available to the public and before the media was able to construct a context and narrative for covering this incident. A brief and ambivalent statement released by the Pixies explained: "The decision was not reached easily....We all know well the Israeli fans have been waiting for this visit for far too long. We'd like to extend our deepest apologies to the fans but events beyond all our control have conspired against us." Since the Pixies are currently scheduled to play in Israel in June 2014, their previous cancellation does not appear to be motivated by the boycott.
In July 2010, the British electronic duo Leftfield opted out of the Israeli leg of their tour, citing "unforeseen production problems" as the reason. However, a letter from the boycott movement was posted on the group's Facebook page, claiming: "Performing in Israel today means crossing an international picket line," and adding, "Your visit here will be construed as a vote of confidence in Israel's oppressive policies."
In August 2010, 150 Irish artists pledged their support for a cultural boycott of Israel, declaring that they would not perform or exhibit in Israel "until such time as Israel complies with international law and universal principles of human rights." However, none of these artists were scheduled to play in Israel.
In December 2010, the British alternative band Tindersticks, which was scheduled to perform two concerts in Tel Aviv, announced: "It is with sadness that Tindersticks announce the cancellation of their forthcoming concerts in Tel Aviv. When agreeing to play our music in Israel we, perhaps naively, believed that the music we make is beyond political considerations. Over the past weeks, the pressure exerted on us by people and organizations, some close to us, has shown us that this is not the case. It is difficult to defy a rapidly growing movement with whose aims we agree, even if we are not wholly convinced by their methods." Again, this statement sounds more like lip service than a message supporting the boycott. The band specifically refers to "pressure exerted on us" as the reason for cancelling, rather than Israeli policies. In fact, the statement includes no mention of the Palestinian cause or Israeli actions.
The Tindersticks were joined by Faithless, a British electronica band, which also declined to play in Israel. Singer Maxi Jazz wrote on his website to "family and friends of the band in Israel," saying, "We've been asked to do some shows this summer in your country and, with the heaviest of hearts, I have regretfully declined the invitation. While human beings are being willfully denied not just their rights but their needs for their children and grandparents and themselves, I feel deeply that I should not be sending even tacit signals that this is either ‘normal' or ‘ok'." However, this statement did not represent the unified opinion of the band. "Not everyone agreed that it was the right time to boycott Israel," said guitar player Dave Randall.
No Boycott by Punk and Heavy Metal Groups
Interestingly, representatives of two specific musical genres – punk and heavy metal – have consistently ignored all attempts to be pressured into boycotting Israel. These two genres operate under fairly strict internal codes that in this case work in Israel's favor.
Punk is overwhelmingly a left-wing to radical left-wing movement. Originating in the mid-1970s from the lower working classes, it is geared at addressing social topics such as equality, personal freedom, and individualism. Punk adopts an anti-establishment and non-conformist attitude by promoting direct action by its followers, such as protests, squatting, and boycotts. Punk promotes the view that power inevitably corrupts and maintains an anarchistic and nihilistic ideal in its core. As such, it is to a certain extent surprising that the punk movement has not joined hands with the boycott movement. There are two main explanations for this:
The two biggest names in the transatlantic punk movement are John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, former lead singer for the Sex Pistols, considered the initiators and founding fathers of UK punk, and Jello Biafra, former frontman for the California-based Dead Kennedys. Both performers have locked horns with the boycott movement and refused to bow to it.
Biafra cancelled a July 2011 performance in Tel Aviv with his band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine, following a very intense and heated online debate. However, this should in no way be understood as support of the Israel boycott, as Biafra clearly stated in an open letter.
There are several unique characteristics that make this specific cancellation an interesting case study:
John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, has a reputation of loudly opposing politically correct niceties and calling things by their true name and character. He is considered one of the biggest and loudest mouths in twentieth-century popular music with his blunt, yet picturesque, candor. Lydon was booked to play Israel in August 2010. It is easy to see how deep into mainstream media – especially in the UK – the call for a cultural boycott of Israel had penetrated at this time by the questions put to Lydon during an interview on Sky News:
Lydon kept his Israeli obligation, playing with his band Public Image Limited. Later, at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Lydon was asked what he thought of bands that cancelled concerts in Israel. He answered:
In a different interview, Lydon added: "I really resent the presumption that I'm going there to play to right-wing Nazi Jews." If Elvis "Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he's suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians, then good on him. But I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won't understand how anyone can have a problem with how they're treated."
While punk is generally a left-wing-leaning movement, in the world of heavy metal it is perhaps less surprising to find support for Israel. Generally speaking, this world is young and macho. Although recent years have seen the rise of several dominant vampire beauties/female vocalists, it remains a predominantly male world. It is dominated by a sentiment of "us" versus "them," and the concept of "a nation under siege" resonates well within this community. Recent years have also seen the rise of a naturalistic trend in heavy metal with different communities musically articulating their indigenous history and warfare (battle metal), pantheons and ethnicity. Israel has been a key player in these developments with bands such as Salem redefining contemporary Holocaust remembrance, and Orphaned Land melding metal with Sephardic and Oriental music.
To date, all the big names in heavy metal have played Israel: Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeath, Lamb of God, Deep Purple and many more. Even bands associated with left-wing ideologies and UK labor union politics such as the grindcore act Napalm Death have appeared in Israel. The main reason for this is the strict ethic maintained by this community, according to which "it is all about the fans." A band's loyalty to its musical style and fans is a defining element in the world of heavy metal. According to this logic, the band-fan relationship is the only consideration, and any intervention or attempt to impede this relationship is considered an external and hostile intervention. To date, no heavy metal band has boycotted Israel.
R&B sensation Macy Grey scheduled a concert in Tel Aviv for February 2011 (after already playing Israel in 2000, 2008, and 2009). When an online attack calling her to boycott Israel began, Grey posted the following question on her Facebook page: "I'm getting a lot of letters from activists urging and begging me to boycott by not performing in protest of apartheid against the Palestinians. What the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinians is disgusting, but I want to go. I have a lot of fans there that I don't want to cancel on, and I don't know how my not going changes anything. What do you think? Stay or go?" Over 1,000 users took the bait, bombarding Grey with boycott slogans. Grey eventually concluded the discussion by remarking, "See, I'm willing to listen – really listen – but some of you so-called boycotters are just assholes."
In September 2011, Anglo-Egyptian singer Natacha Atlas cancelled her tour in Israel and stated, "I had an idea that performing in Israel would have been a unique opportunity to encourage and support my fans' opposition to the current government's actions and policies. I would have personally asked my Israeli fans face-to-face to fight this apartheid with peace in their hearts, but after much deliberation I now see that it would be more effective a statement to not go to Israel until this systemized apartheid is abolished once and for all. Therefore I publicly retracy my well-intentioned decision to go and perform in Israel and so sincerely hope that this decision represents an effective statement against this regime."
This incident enjoys several unique characteristics that should be noted: Atlas' ethnicity undoubtedly played a significant factor in the ability of the boycott movement to influence her decision to play Israel, as her father was born in Jerusalem (Palestinian). It is not beyond the realm of imagination that Atlas had already considered any tension that might exist between her heritage and her willingness to play Israel. In any case, her original decision was indeed to play. It was only after an intense attack by boycott activists that she decided to refrain from playing; however, this cancellation should not be regarded as a whole-hearted agreement with the boycott, seeing as Atlas is now rescheduled to play Israel in May 2014 as part of the Ashdod Mediterrannee Festival. Perhaps the regional concept of the festival made the decision easier for her.
Eric Burdon, former lead singer for The Animals, was scheduled to play Israel on August 1, 2013. A vicious online attack made Burdon cancel his concert, with his manager releasing the following statement: "We've been receiving mounting pressure, including numerous threatening emails, daily. The last thing I intend to do is put Eric in jeopardy." Unfamiliar with the violent tactics of the boycott movement, Burden's management understood that there was in fact a clear and present danger to Burdon's person, and ordered the cancellation. Soon after, Burdon was contacted by Creative Community for Peace, a Los Angeles-based group of top music executives battling the cultural boycott of Israel, who walked Burdon's management through various boycott tactics and methods. Following this intervention, the concert was re-affirmed and eventually took place as planned, with Burdon saying: "It was not my decision to cancel the show, it was my manager's, who, as a result of lots of threatening emails she received, was genuinely afraid for my life….I'm not afraid to perform here and very happy to be back in Israel."
Later that same month, Afropop superstar Salif Keita cancelled his participation in the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival on the eve of his concert. Enraged by the last minute cancellation and knowing that Keita had come under heavy pressure to cancel his concert, the organizers published the following notice: "A few hours ago, just before he was due to fly to Jerusalem, Malian musician Salif Keita complied with calls from the anti-Israel cultural boycott not to perform in Israel and cancelled his participation in the closing performance of the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival." Boycott websites were quick to celebrate and take responsibility for the cancellation. After a week, Keita's non-profit organization, the Salif Keita Global Foundation, published a statement on his Facebook page making clear that boycotting Israel was the last thing on his mind. It said the performer's representatives:
The list goes on. Once one scratches the surface of any given concert cancellation, one quickly comes to the conclusion that ideology, conscience, and support for the Palestinians have very little to do with it. The true factors leading to a cancellation are usually online bullying, threats of damaging an artist's sales, disrupting concerts, sabotage letters, deceit, and explicit death threats. Further boycott tactics include picketing concerts and shows by Israeli artists abroad, and attempts to disrupt performances via shouting, sign-raising, and general misconduct.
More often than not, it becomes evident that the so-called "success'' the boycott movement has enjoyed never happened. Just because a pro-boycott site claims that an artist or band has boycotted Israel doesn't necessarily mean that this is true. For example, several boycott websites have explained that "Jon Bon Jovi was asked not to play in Israel. Thus far, boycott efforts have been successful." According to this logic, anyone who has not been to Israel is automatically a boycott supporter. In an interview with the BBC's Jo Whiley, rocker Jon Bon Jovi reveals Israel is the one place in the world he would like to play that he hasn't yet.
Adam Shay is a senior program coordinator and researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, specializing in battling the cultural boycott of Israel, and a Consultant for Creative Community for Peace. He is regularly called upon by producers and concert promoters to help battle BDS activists in their attempts to pressure artists into cancelling performances in Israel.