The Palestinian boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) campaign has been largely unsuccessful in slowing Israel’s booming economy.
“It’s had a handful of symbolic victories, like Airbnb, but the economic impact has been nil,” says David Rosenberg, economics editor for Haaretz and author of Israel’s Technology Economy: Origins and Impact.
But the cultural boycott is another matter. Economic stories tend to stay on the business pages. News that music celebrities are cancelling shows and arguing with other celebrities quickly finds its way into the headlines.
The buzz reverberates with younger audiences and can now be endlessly echoed and amplified on social media. Sometimes the feedback can be too loud for artists to ignore – particularly those still building their careers.
Noise aside, 2018 was not a great year for the boycott. Headline-grabbing cancellations by Lorde and Lana Del Rey barely dented more than 200 live performances by foreign artists in Israel. Visitors included Alanis Morisette, Ozzy Osbourne, America, Alice in Chains and Ringo Starr. So far a dozen major acts have been announced for 2019, including Bon Jovi, Slash and Steven Wilson.
Boycott calls by Wolf Alice, Portishead and Shame met forceful counter-arguments from artists like Nick Cave, who denounced the boycott as “cowardly and shameful”.
The UK Pink Floyd Experience cancelled an Israel mini-tour planned for January 2019 after former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters said he was “aghast” at the idea. “To sing my songs in front of segregated audiences in Israel, and contribute to the cultural whitewashing of the racist and apartheid government of that country, would be an act of unconscionable malice and disrespect”, Waters said. “The people you intend to entertain are executing their neighbor’s children, shooting them down in cold blood every day.”
But then the tribute band U-turned, citing legal obligations, slammed their idol for “abuse and threats” to the band triggered by his initial comments, and played Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Haifa.
There are, of course, no “segregated audiences” in Israel (except for gender-specific gatherings of religious Jews or Muslims) and few would recognize Waters’s suggestion of daily executions, but people are listening to him.
In 2006, Oren Arnon, managing director of Shuki Weiss Promotion and Production, Israel’s biggest promoter, was tasked with the last-minute relocation of a concert by Roger Waters from Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv to the Israeli-Arab peace village Neve Shalom. 60,000 people witnessed what turned out to be his last appearance in Israel, for the biggest fee paid to any artist at the time. Waters promptly announced his support for BDS and became its most visible flagbearer.
“He made a decision that he was going to not only side with BDS, he was also going to try to convince other artists to do the same”, Arnon says. “All of which I think is not only legitimate, this is what touring acts should be doing around the world. They should be touring the world to learn about the problems that their fans have – even if it puts me out of a job.”
But it would be preferable if performers came to Israel before making up their minds, Arnon says.
“I think you deserve the same opportunity that Roger Waters had. You deserve the right to come here, to understand what this conflict and this situation means, and you have the right to make up your own mind about it. If you decide to join BDS the day after, do that”, he says.
Not everyone is so sanguine. Israeli officials say the boycott movement is racist and part of an attempt to destroy the country.
“Culture and sports should be used as a means to build bridges, not divide people”, says a spokesperson for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, charged with countering the boycott. “The Israel-boycott campaign is calling for the politicization of art to divide Israelis and Palestinians, while espousing antisemitic rhetoric and using threats of violence to achieve their goal of dismantling the Jewish State.”
Meanwhile, Palestinian activists say it’s a legitimate, non-violent protest against oppression.
“The Israeli government uses international performances as a stamp of approval for its regime of oppression and its violent attacks on Palestinian life and culture”, says Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement. “Performing in Israel while it maintains its decades-old system of occupation and apartheid, effectively art-washes its crimes against Palestinians.”
Nor can artists seek balance by performing to both sides, as Paul McCartney tried to do in 2008.
“Palestinians have asked since 2004 that international artists do not cross our nonviolent picket line, in order not to undermine our struggle for fundamental human rights”, says Samir Eskanda, a Palestinian musician and BDS activist living in London.
“Artists who truly wish to learn about the reality on the ground are welcome to visit on independent fact-finding missions, with no institutional links to Israel or its complicit institutions and without art-washing Israel’s system of oppression”, says Barghouti.
Arnon says they are all wrong.
“I don’t think that Roger Waters or Bibi Netanyahu should be shoving their opinions down artists’ throats and I don’t think that either of them should be intimidating artists to a point where artists are saying: ‘Fuck that, I don’t want to go and tour there because I don’t want to get harassed’”, he says.
Reliable data about cancellations is scarce. Creative Community for Peace (CCFP), a Los Angeles-based group formed in response to the boycott by Hollywood music and entertainment executives, counted 220 international acts in 2017 and eight cancellations, but the group did not produce a similar report for 2018.
If that drop-out rate of 3.5% sounds minimal, a deeper dive gives a more nuanced picture. There are about 100 major shows by foreign musicians each year, and about 20 A-list artists booked to appear by January. As 2019 dawned, a similar number of shows were announced but they included only about 15 top-ranked artists. A rough count of the large open-air summer shows that attract the largest crowds suggests they are diminishing. In 2017, there were nine park concerts, including Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, Justin Bieber and Britney Spears. In 2018, there were only three. So far, only Bon Jovi is booked to play at Hayarkon in 2019.
“There’s a clear pattern of less people coming to Israel”, says Israeli promoter Hillel Wachs of 2b Vibes Music, noting that while fewer acts cancel, more are choosing not to come in the first place – a decision that usually occurs without publicity. “There’s been a movement professionally that the issue is discussed in advance so less people actually sign a contract and don’t show up”, he says.
Boycotters are “becoming increasingly aggressive in their tactics”, says Ari Ingel, director of CCFP. “Any relatively well-known artist that books to play in Israel can expect some form of BDS pressure on social media and that looks to continue. The bit of success they have had with artists such as Lana Del Rey and Lorde has energized them to put more resources into the cultural boycott sector.”
Israel’s victory in last year’s Eurovision means that it will host the 2019 competition in May. A BDS petition spearheaded by the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate and a network of Palestinian cultural organizations, urged broadcasters, contestants and the public to boycott the contest. “Would the Eurovision have held the contest in apartheid South Africa?” it asked.
BDS activists say the comparison between Israel and apartheid is valid and make no excuse for singling out Israel ahead of other human rights violators and illegal occupiers like Russia and China.
“Was the South African apartheid regime the worst regime in the world at that time? No”, says Eskanda. “Do activists have a responsibility to rank oppressive regimes in order of their flagrant violations of international law and only challenge the worst first? Of course not. Why should Israel be exempt from effective measures, including boycotts and sanctions, to hold it to account for its human rights abuses?”
It’s a message that chimes with hashtag campaigns on social media, where young artists are in daily communication with their fans.
“Younger artists are more susceptible to BDS pressure since they live on social media”, says Ingel. “To them, it can sometimes be alarming when you have BDS trolls and bots posting messages falsely claiming ‘Apartheid’, ‘genocide’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, and that Israel is responsible for all the problems in the world. While false, these narratives are easy to push by just throwing out these terms. The reality is, most people don’t have any understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the BDS movement preys on that fact.”
The hassle factor created by social media storms pushes Israel – already an isolated and expensive place to perform – beyond most managers’ comfort zone.
“There’s a lot of reasons not to come to Israel, regardless of politics”, says Arnon at Shuki Weiss. “We’re a fucking island in the middle of the Middle East.”
“Bands are touring in Europe in trucks and buses. They’re not getting on planes and schlepping their shit around”, he says. “To come out here means you are leaving your trucks and your buses behind, you’re getting on a plane, you’re losing a day’s work in which you’re paying your crew. You’re coming in to play a show. You’re then flying out and losing another day’s work in which you’re paying your crew. Your trucks and buses are sitting there on the ground waiting for you and you’re paying for them too. There’s a genuine logistical and financial difficulty in coming out here and playing a show in the first place.”
“Sometimes the artists, or the band, or the crew, just don’t like getting on a fucking plane”, he says. “They live on a bus. It’s very comfortable. They have a routine. You do a show, you get on the bus, you go to the next town, you play your show. Now to start dealing with airports and that whole hassle, it’s a pain in the ass.”
“Most of the acts’ reaction is: ‘What the hell? I got invited to play a show because I was told there were 10,000 kids waiting for me to come play for them. Now you’re destroying my social media with your propaganda’”, he says. “I know for a fact that most of the acts aren’t reluctant because they think that Israel is right, or Palestine is right. They are reluctant because they don’t understand the situation in the first place and they would prefer not to get involved in this mess.”
Please note that the print version of this story contains an error in the paragraph starting ‘If that drop-out rate of 3.5% sounds minimal, a deeper dive gives a more nuanced picture…’. The 3.5% statistic is presented as 35%. We apologise, sincerely, for this mistake.