Biting the BDS bullet

From Kanye West to Mariah Carey to Matisyahu, artists have refused to capitulate to BDS pressure, yet the long-term threat of the movement remains unclear.

Jewish American singer Matisyahu performs during a concert at the Rototom Sunsplash Reggae festival (photo credit: BIEL ALINO / AFP)
Jewish American singer Matisyahu performs during a concert at the Rototom Sunsplash Reggae festival
(photo credit: BIEL ALINO / AFP)
It’s the question that causes the pause.
In the literally hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted with international performing artists – whether it be pop stars, comedians, actors – ahead of their scheduled shows in Israel, the topic invariably turns to that uncomfortable issue.
Unlike performing in Switzerland or Canada, when an artist books a gig in Israel there’s some serious political baggage that comes with it. Whether they were aware of it beforehand or not, these entertainers are pulled into the two-ton magnet called the Mideast conflict.
When asked if there was any pressure brought upon them to rethink their decision to include Israel in their itinerary, there’s often an uncomfortable silence on the end of the line for a few seconds.
Then, nine times out of 10, the answer that emerges is a slight variation on the one that rootsy American singer Rickie Lee Jones gave me ahead of her 2011 show opening for Bob Dylan at Ramat Gan Stadium.
“If I boycott all nations because of their governments’ policies that I disagree with, I’d have a hard time working anywhere...
surely my own country is guilty of the most grievous crimes against its own people (and other countries) and I don’t punish the people of the United States because of those crimes,” she said.
“Please don’t mistake what I say as approval of Israeli domestic policies and social attitudes toward its non-Jewish residents,” she added, citing the “terrible treatment of Palestinians under Israeli rule.”
In other words, Jones, like most liberally oriented American and British fellow entertainers, is not exactly a fan of Israel’s government or policies, but considers it no more odious than the policies in her country of origin or other potential venues on her world tours.
Even Elton John, during his triumphant 2010 performance in Ramat Gan, didn’t shout out, “I love Israel!” but instead defiantly told the crowd: “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.”
MAYBE THAT’S why the rag-tag efforts by the loose confederation of groups and individuals under the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that campaign via emails, social media, advertisements and personal appeals to performing artists to convince them to change their minds about performing in Israel rarely bear fruit.
Sure, some have taken the bait, like Elvis Costello, Lauryn Hill and the late Gil Scott-Heron, who all backed out of already-advertised shows. And there are probably many others who simply don’t want to enter the political minefield that awaits them, so they have a tacit agreement with their management and booking agent to just avoid the controversial region.
But the bulk of touring artists – ever more reliant on live performances and new markets in the era of decreased record sales – are reluctantly willing to bite the BDS bullet and venture to the wild, wild Mideast to face the slings and arrows of the social media rabble.
Contrast that scenario with the process that two of the world’s biggest entertainers – Kanye West and Mariah Carey – underwent recently.
Both superstars took private vacations in Israel this year with their families. And even after the paparazzi, the heat and the overpriced coffee, they were impressed enough with their Israel experience that they both decided to return with their professional caps on. Carey attracted 12,000 fans to the Rishon Lezion Live Park, while West is expected to sell out Ramat Gan Stadium on September 30.
BDS doesn’t stand a chance when artists of Carey’s and West’s stature decide that they’re going to do something – the same with Bon Jovi, the American pop-rock giants who are going to make their Israel debut at Hayarkon Park on October 3.
Bon Jovi sends greeting to Israel
So, with a healthy concert industry – which has rebounded from a disastrous 2014 due to Operation Protective Edge – as an indicator for other industries like tourism, hi-tech and business, does Israel need to fear the annoying buzz of the BDS movement? Is it the buzz of a fly that can be silenced with a flick of the wrist, or the buzz of a growing phenomenon that threatens to isolate the country from the rest of the Western world? According to former MK Einat Wilf – a senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute, and the Baye Foundation adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – the fact that the boycott movement has failed to make an impact on the country’s economy, academia and culture doesn’t mean that it hasn’t succeeded.
“Where it’s been successful has been in galvanizing anti-Israel rhetoric and sentiment around human rights language and by making that language the dominant language by which people discuss Israel,” she says.
“Everywhere I go and speak, you can see what I call the placard strategy of the BDS movement. There are placards at all the anti-Israel demonstrations that equate Zionism with apartheid, Nazism, baby-killing and genocide. They’ve been very effective at poisoning the word ‘Zionism’ to the point where even people professionally supporting Israel are advised not to use the word Zionism because it has become so toxic,” she adds.
According to Wilf, that strategy is having a detrimental effect on US campuses, where students are afraid to identify themselves as Zionists. And just as seriously, it’s creating an intellectual environment whereby Israel is considered the ultimate evil and a world without Israel is considered a better world.
“I see this with great concern because I do believe that words matter, and that people rarely, if ever, commit atrocities without believing it’s for a noble cause – and there’s no greater noble cause in the world than eradicating evil. So if you begin to tie up Israel with evil, and a world without evil is a better place, then you’re inviting violence,” she says.
Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul-general in New York and a longtime Foreign Ministry official, points to the BDS movement as representing the apex of a more widespread phenomenon of disconnect from Israel.
"What we describe as BDS is something much deeper and troubling: the inability to relate to Israel which is wide spread and deeply rooted," he said
"Those who delegitimize Israel represent a small minority but those who are unable to develop any relationships with Israel pose a much more troubling threat. The solution is in the strategic implementation of a multi-faceted approach that combats the generators of BDS but also cultivates ties with influencers and leaders with the purpose of restoring relevance for Israel among those groups."
ACCORDING TO media mogul and philanthropist Haim Saban, the economic aspect of boycotting Israel “is only part of a bigger plan of BDS, which is an effort to delegitimize Israel altogether.
“It is an anti-Semitic effort to delegitimize Israel... as a first step, and in that effort, they’ve been very effective,” says Saban.
Is BDS a marginal movement with negligible effect, or a monolithic steamroller that’s going to turn Israel into a pariah? The way one views it determines what one feels should be done about it. Should we take it on in a full-out brawl, or brush it off as an inconsequential bunch of Israel haters? “Ignoring them is not an option. They should be fought,” says Saban. “They are being pushed back by at least 70 different organizations that we have identified. One of them is a program we’ve had on campuses since 2002 called the Saban Leadership program, which trains Jews and non-Jews alike to defend Israel, and lobby elected officials to support Israel.”
Wilf also advocates going head-to-head with BDSers, citing their recent broadening of tactics – for instance last month’s boycott of American-Jewish singer Matisyahu at the Rototom Sunsplash Reggae Festival in Spain over his refusal to endorse Palestinian statehood.
“There’s an absolute intensification of their efforts as seen by the Matisyahu affair,” she says. “It’s becoming a loyalty test: ‘Show us you’re loyal to the cause of a Palestinian state, and then you can sing and earn your living.’” In her view, “we need to respond strongly.
By now, we need to realize that in this Internet age of communication with Google and retrievable information, if you leave lies out there without responding, they don’t go away, but actually stick and become accepted. The notion of ‘let’s keep quiet and it will go away’ has been clearly proven ineffectual.”
Instead, she argues, “we need to meet it head-on and immediately refute the lies and expose them for what they are.
We need to tell our story, which has been hijacked and trampled upon – that most inspirational story of Zionism. The story of the Jewish people coming back to their own land has been swept away. We need to reclaim it.”
Aharoni, while agreeing that BDS can’t be ignored, cautions against using all of Israel’s hasbara (public diplomacy) ammunition in battling the accusations and campaigns against it.
“We, as human beings, have a natural tendency. When someone is agitating us, we want to respond directly to that source of agitation,” he says.
“And it’s a mistake. The problem is that we focus all of our energies on the 2 percent on the fringe who are causing all the problems and ignore the 98% of the public who don’t really care about the issues. They’re the ones we should be focusing on,” he advises.
While stressing that he takes BDS seriously in its potential to damage to Israel’s image and that he focuses much of his office’s resources on campuses dealing with the issue, he adds that BDS shouldn’t dominate Israel’s efforts to state its case.
“Because of the hysteria and because we look at BDS as a crisis, we have been unable to implement a long-term strategy that could tackle this issue quite effectively,” he says “The solution is a combination of two things: managing the crisis properly when we’re being challenged, and rising to the occasion by responding to the threats reliably and effectively.
And at the same time, complement what you’re doing with a long-term strategy that will allow the 98% of the population to connect with what Israel represents. Reducing the conversation only to defending Israel against accusations does a tremendous injustice to Israel and what it represents – its creativity and relevance to the lives of people around the world. We need to celebrate that and we need to do it a very proactive manner,” he says.
“In my work, I try to get American Jews to change the conversation about Israel in a way that will allow their children and grandchildren to connect to it – because right now they’re not connecting to the tired, boring conversation going on about geopolitics,” Aharoni adds.
Changing the conversation is part of what compels Beit Shemesh-based rock-blues guitarist Lazer Lloyd to leave his home for a third of the year to perform in the US.
“If it was just for the income, I have plenty places to perform in Israel,” says Lloyd, a father of five. “But I told my wife that this is something I have to do.”
He explains that “I get invited to talk and play at inner-city schools in places like Detroit and Chicago, where most of the people have never met an Israeli. I get introduced by an Israeli consulate official, and you can see their eyes glaze over as he talks. But then when I start to play, you can see their expression change and a real connection is made. It’s music that has that gift. Then, when I start talking about Israel, they listen.”
Jones, in her 2011 interview, echoed that sentiment before getting in the last word on the virtues of the multi-pronged beast known as BDS.
“Playing music is always good – it’s a magical creature wherever it goes... for musicians not to come play in Israel is a publicity ploy that does more harm than good.”