Pop stars, boycotts & Barney Miller

(Courtesy of Reuters)

In one classic episode of TV’s “Barney Miller”, the dapper Detective Ron Harris asks the brainy, bespectacled Detective Arthur Dietrich, when he came out against the Vietnam War. 


Harris, believing himself to be a hip cat, thinking he’s got Dietrich beat, proudly tells Dietrich he came out against the war ‘68. 


With a smart-alecky smirk, Dietrich responds ‘55, because that’s when President Eisenhower first deployed the Military Assistance Advisory Group to train the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) marking the official beginning of American involvement in the war.


The pop culture TV-trivia reference encapsulated a common conversation of the ‘60s and early 70s era with the question, “When did you come out against the Vietnam War?” 


To be sure, pop culture historians are quick to recall when Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez came out against Vietnam.


Fast-forward forty-years and while it has not seeped into the lingo of pop culture, the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement would like nothing more than to become the cool, anti-establishment cause that Vietnam was.  To that end, it is finding its share of pop icons and musicians nixing events, unwilling to perform in Israel.


On Tuesday, Grammy-winning jazz singer Cassandra Wilson cancelled her scheduled concert in Holon International Women’s Festival after being approached by pro-Palestinian activists.  Earlier this month American musician Cat Power (real name: Charlyn Marie Marshal) cancelled her show in Tel Aviv.  She had planned to perform, but after encountering pressure to boycott the Jewish state, she tweeted that due to “much confusion in her soul” over “such unrest between Israel and Palestine,” she could not perform and she felt “sick in her spirit.”  Prior to her, far bigger names like Elvis Costello, Santana and Bjork have also all cancelled due to BDS pressure.


Yes, there are still top musical performers (major stars) who have made it a point to perform in Israel and plan to, from Lady Gaga and Madonna to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Boss - Bruce Springsteen.


But at some point, if it’s not already here, will the question become, “When did you come out against Israel?” 


The BDS movement has been around since 2005 and has slowly, steadily gained notice, support and adherents.  Because it’s been a relatively slow and steady cancer, it has metastasized gradually.  Pro-Israel groups should not be fooled.  Like the animal placed into a pot of water that heats up little by little, it doesn’t realize it’s being boiled.  Whereas, to be thrown into the boiling pot, the awareness is immediate.  Israel might wake up to find, the temperature is scalding.  For unlike the ‘60s, with the Internet and new forms of social media and the ability to stage/mobilize dramatic spectacles to air on Youtube, BDS can gain momentum exponentially.


Just this month, BDS compared itself to bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama; Cesar Chavez and even the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa when it held a conference at University of Pennsylvania, a school with a relatively large Jewish student population.


Organized by a15-member Penn BDS group, one goal was better branding by positioning the initiative as a democracy movement. There was even a handbook urging student activists to “infuse our language with values like freedom, equal rights and democracy.”   With too few Americans able to accurately define Zionism (nevermind come out for or against it), finding ways to leverage the values Americans do relate to, and layering onto them BDS, is a clever, sinister strategy.  After all, who’s going to say they don’t support freedom and equality?


But rather then face this particular demonstration head on, Penn’s Israel advocacy community were urged to stay clear of the program in order to not grant it legitimacy or draw attention to it.


Geri Palast, head of the Israel Action Network, and a group countering delegitimization on campus said, “While we may disagree with people, it is not in our interest to try to squelch the speech.  It really turns the opposition into a martyr, and we don’t need that.”


Even fellow Jpost writer Professor Alan Dershowitz and a strong supporter of Israel said, had Penn not allowed the BDS movement to protest, he would have defended it on the grounds of free speech.  But that didn’t preclude him from his own speech.  In fact, speaking to an audience of 900 at an event hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, he told the crowd, “We are going to win this encounter.”


But like so many conflict-ridden issues that crop up, BDS can become part of the inevitable polar divide—from gay marriage, abortion and Mel Gibson—that occupy the culture wars. Already, artists and academics are on one side and conservatives and members of the religious right on another.


Judging from the cancellations of pop stars that were slated to perform, BDS has the pernicious potential to do damage by bleeding off of the op-ed pages and onto the Lifestyle sections.  They can leverage the effective tools of branding, launch grassroots ‘60s style demonstrations and broadcast it over 21st century technology.


The answer to the question, “When did you support BDS?” has the potential to become a badge to wear. 


The question inevitably arises, (maybe from your children), “What were you doing to counter it?”


Abe Novick is a writer and communications consultant (www.AbeBuzz.com) and can be reached at [email protected]