Exclusive: US media moguls fight boycott of Israel

Creative Community For Peace to use personal touch to counteract campaigns that pressure artists to cancel appearances here.

linkin park_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
linkin park_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Their aim, as an old Elvis Costello song professes, is true.
An influential group of US entertainment industry executives has for the first time launched an organization to counter cultural boycott efforts against Israel, the likes of which contributed to Costello’s canceling of scheduled shows here last year.
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Creative Community For Peace (CCFP) pledges to use a wide range of measures to bolster the resolve of artists who sign contracts to perform in or travel to Israel and then face calls from various “boycott groups” to cancel their trips, according one of its founders, Steve Schnur.
Schnur is a worldwide executive of music and marketing for Electronic Arts and president of Artwerk Music Group, and is responsible for licensing music for some of the most popular computer video games.
“We felt that if we could create a place where artists can get information from other artists and from people they know who understand what Israel is really about – the freedom, the democracy and equal rights – and not rely on the disinformation they’re given about ‘apartheid’ Israel, then maybe we could change things,” Schnur said in a phone call this week from Los Angeles.
“Our aim isn’t to applaud the fact that artists have come to Israel, but to enable others to continue to go there.”
The boycott issue has always been present with regard to international artists and Israel, but in the past few years, pro-Palestinian organizations abroad have stepped up efforts to bombard scheduled acts with e-mails, letters and Facebook campaigns urging them to cancel.
While most artists have withstood or ignored the pressure, some, like Costello, the Pixies and the late Gil Scott-Heron, have succumbed to the campaigns and scrapped their shows here. According to Schnur, many others likely don’t even bother to consider booking a show in Israel, to avoid the expected brouhaha.
He recalled his “aha” moment while attending the Elton John show in Ramat Gan Stadium last year in the shadow of the controversy over the previously mentioned cancellations.
“I was visiting Israel on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and giving a master class in Tel Aviv,” said Schnur. “It was shortly after the flotilla incident, and the Costello and Pixies cancellations, which were really exploited in the media as being part of an all-out boycott effort.
“It was really the first time I had heard the word ‘apartheid’ associated with Israel, and it really angered me. So I’m sitting at the Elton John show, and he comes out and makes his statement, saying, ‘Nobody’s gonna stop us from coming here’ and ‘We don’t cherry-pick our conscience,’ and it hit me over the head that I needed to do something.
“I’ve always been involved in Jewish and Zionist activities and I could have written a check, but I wanted to get my hands dirty and make a difference this time. The next day, I saw David Renzer [then-chairman/ CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group] at the master class and told him what I was thinking. Together, we decided that if we could help educate artists by having direct contact with them, we could change the grotesque bombardment of disinformation and threats coming their way so they could make decisions based on critical thinking and accurate information.”
Schnur and Renzer are joined on the CCFP advisory board by a growing list of prominent media execs, artists, attorneys and agents, including Idan Raichel; David Lonner, CEO of Oasis Media Group; Gary Foster, principal of Krasnoff Foster Productions; Doug Frank, former president of music operations for Warner Brothers Pictures; and the organization’s Israel point man, Ran Geffen-Lifshitz, CEO of Media Men Group, the country’s largest music publishing company.
“What we’re doing is to help people make the right decision on the question of boycotting Israel,” Geffen-Lifshitz said this week.
“Music should be separated from politics; this whole boycott issue is a slippery slope.
Once an artist gives in to boycott pressure and cancels an appearance here, his fans begin to think that boycotting Israel is legitimate.
From there, what’s to stop a boycott of Israeli products? We have to say ‘stop’ now.”
The CCFP, which is partially funded by the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and has been informally in operation for a few months, is planning to say “stop” in a carefully orchestrated manner, according to advisory board member Renzer.
“Every month, we receive a report from Ran’s team in Israel on the various artists who have announced they’re coming to Israel,” Renzer said last week during a visit to Israel.
“We then ask our advisory board whether anyone has a special relationship with the artist or his management, and often the answer is yes. So, they’re hearing not from an anonymous fan, but from a high-level person in the entertainment industry.”
The artist receives a phone call or letter congratulating them on his decision to perform in Israel and making him aware of the impending boycott efforts.
The letter, in part, reads: “Millions applaud the recent announcement of your upcoming tour of Israel. However, over the next few weeks and months, you will undoubtedly be hearing from other voices calling for you to cancel your trip in protest of actions in the West Bank and Gaza. Unfortunately, these misguided groups are trying to use the forums of music and culture to make inflammatory and incorrect political points.
“Singling out Israel, the only democracy in the region, as a target of cultural boycotts, while ignoring the now recognized human-rights issues of her neighbors, will not further peace. Ultimately, boycotts are an affront to Palestinian and Israeli moderates alike who are seeking to reach peace through compromise, exchange and mutual recognition.
“We look forward to your joining the ranks of independent-minded artists who have recently performed in Israel, including Elton John, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Rihanna, The Black Eyed Peas, Metallica, Linkin Park, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and many others.
“Music is our shared common language – one that transcends words and hatred.”
The letter is followed up with whatever is necessary to insure that the artists aren’t bushwacked by the boycott efforts, whether it be personal meetings, phone calls, handholding, offers to provide personalized tours in the country and referrals to the CCFP website.
The newly created site (www.creativecommunityforpeace.com) offers an impressive array of video clips of artists performing in Israel, a photo gallery of celebrities who have toured Israel, a “newsstand” with topical articles about artists, celebrity reflections on Israel and educational information on issues of democracy and human rights in the country.
“It’s a grassroots approach, but at a high level,” explained Schnur.
He and Renzer already point to some victories in their battle to fight the boycott, enabling the smooth arrivals and performances last year of Linkin Park and Macy Gray.
“Both Steve and I have a relationship with the band [Linkin Park] and its manager Jordan Berliant. Steve engaged in a dialogue with Jason, first encouraging the group to go to Israel and then working with Jason to arrange special touring for them when they got here. There’s a great photo of the band at the Kotel [the Western Wall], which is wonderful publicity for Israel,” said Renzer.
“For the group, they were going to be in Europe, so they could have come to Israel or not come. Of course, once they – or any other artist – does get here, they have an amazing experience.”
Berliant, in an e-mail, corroborated that sentiment, writing: “The band had a great time; it was one of the best crowds of the entire tour.”
Before the show, the band got a tour of Jerusalem, which they loved.
Berliant added that there had been no efforts to convince the band to cancel their show.
The same can’t be said of Gray’s show last year at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv.
“The Macy Gray experience could be our test example,” said Renzer.
“She was heavily lobbied to cancel. And in what she recognizes now is something she probably shouldn’t have done, she posted a question on her Facebook fan page asking them whether she should come to Israel or not.”
The forum became an open barrage of extreme opinions against Israel, and the singer was on the verge of scuttling her show. Renzer, who represented Gray at Universal, held several conversations with her, as did other CCFP music executives, in an attempt to put things in perspective.
“She was concerned, as an African-American, at hearing the word ‘apartheid’ in connection with Israel. She was genuinely confused and concerned,” said Renzer.
“One of our main messages to her was: ‘Look, Macy, you’re not a politician; you’re an artist. One of the beautiful things about an artist is that when she performs, she spreads the message of love, peace and understanding and an open dialogue. That won’t happen if you cancel.”
Then her manager, who isn’t Jewish, added, “If you cancel, you’ll become a poster child for the boycott movement.”
“On the other hand, her mother was telling her, ‘Be responsible, you have children,’ because some of the messages were threatening physical harm to her, and she was gravely concerned.
“Eventually, she made the decision to come and use the experience to learn more about the region and the conflict.
She donated an ambulatory motorcycle in Israel and met with both Israeli and Palestinian children. She developed a greater appreciation and understanding of the issues and realized that boycotting didn’t really offer any answers.”
In addition to taking the initiative in fighting the boycott effort in the trenches, CCFP has long-range proactive plans to make artists aware that boycotts are the antithesis of freedom of expression.
In the planning stages are a “Concert for Peace” to take place in Israel next year; the launch of Lyrics for Peace, a new clothing line produced in conjunction with CCFP Advisory Board member Hanna Rochelle Schmieder’s Lyric Culture company; and the production of short films about coexistence in the country.
The goal here, Schnur explained, was to encourage more artists to consider performing in Israel.
“A good number of American and European musicians who have never been to Israel are unfortunately still making their decisions based on the 11 p.m. news and what they see there about Israel,” said Schnur.
“There are still people who think that there are camels, sand and guns, and that’s it – they’re shocked to find a country filled with beautiful people enjoying equality.
Once they have that experience, then I don’t have to worry about them again. I know 30 Seconds from Mars and Linkin Park are convinced after having been here,” he said.
“What I need to worry about are the other artists. I found it interesting that even though Elvis Costello canceled, his wife, [Diana Krall], appeared in Israel a couple of months later, so there’s not even agreement in their household on the topic. I hope we get to the day when we [CCFP] don’t need to exist, and it’s not even an issue anymore.”