Does the cultural boycott of Israel work?

We take a look at how the protest movement has affected the music scene

From left: Musicians Annie Lennox, Lorde, Roger Waters, and Gilberto Gil. Gil and Lorde both cancelled Tel Aviv shows scheduled for this month, after pressure from the BDS protest movement. 
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To understand how performing a concert in Israel remains a dicey predicament, consider the recent case of Shakira.

The Colombian pop star caused controversy in the past few weeks after it was reported she would perform in Tel Aviv on July 9 as part of a regional tour that takes her to Beirut four days after that.

The Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) singer was criticised by human-rights activists, while a string of fellow musicians begged her not to perform so as to maintain the ongoing cultural boycott of Israel, spearheaded by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) protest movement. The irony about it all was that there wasn't a concert in the first place.

While discussions were reportedly held, Shakira had yet to announce an official gig in Tel Aviv. Despite that lack of clarity, the BDS movement chalked it up as another victory in its ongoing campaign to shed light on Palestinian suffering under Israeli military occupation. Shakira's "no-show" came on the back of other high-profile music cancellations, including Tel Aviv shows by New Zealand pop star Lorde and Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil set for this month.

They may be merely entertainers, but the silent stages seem to have proven effective in vocalising the mistreatment of Palestinians to the world, and it all illustrates how the cultural boycott continues to gain steam.

The South African connection

That should not be a surprise, because the formula does have historical form. The present Israeli cultural boycott traces its roots to a similar movement instigated against South Africa's apartheid regime more than five decades ago.

What began with the British Musicians' Union prohibiting members from performing in South Africa in 1961 expanded two years later to British playwrights and eventually the sales of British television programmes to South African broadcasters. This was followed up with international demonstrations against South African theatre productions touring abroad and eventually high-profile musicians including Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed and Bonnie Raitt combining to sing the 1985 anti-apartheid protest song Sun City, in addition to refusing to perform in the country.

The cultural boycott and its international profile, played a major role in raising awareness of the plight of black South Africans and aided the eventual dismantling of the apartheid regime.

A targeted approach

The BDS movement sees a direct correlation between the South African and the Israeli cultural boycotts, but they state that the latter is more targeted.

A BDS spokesperson told The National: "The key difference between the South African cultural boycott and the cultural boycott of Israel is that the latter is strictly institutional and does not target individuals. Like in South Africa, international artists are asked to respect the Palestinian picket line by refusing to play Tel Aviv, and by declining participation in festivals or events that are sponsored by the Israeli government, complicit institutions or lobby groups."


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It was an approach first laid in 2005 when the body was formed as a way to amalgamate more than 170 various Palestinian non-governmental organisations supporting the Palestinian cause.

In addition to political lobbying, the BDS movement trained its sights on the Israeli music industry as a means to spread its message.

Concerts in Tel Aviv were not viewed as merely entertainment by the organisation, but instead another measure to “art-wash” Palestinian suffering.

"Any potential benefits of a concert in apartheid Tel Aviv pale in comparison with the political cost of art-washing Israel's system of oppression against Palestinians, 'beautifying it' and making it more palatable to the world," a BDS spokesperson told us.

Indeed, lines between politics and entertainment are routinely blurred when it comes to the Israeli government. Last month, Berlin music festival Pop-Kultur suffered a string of cancelled appearances from headliners after the BDS movement launched a campaign to highlight the sponsorship deal it had with the Israeli embassy in Germany.

The artists involved

When it comes to music acts signing up to the BDS cause, it is an eclectic bag. In addition to artists such as English singer Annie Lennox, American folk singer Devendra Banhart and guitarist Carlos Santana – all of whom cancelled high-profile Israeli gigs in 2010 – the movement received a boost with former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters and Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno joining the cause in 2011 – the duo remain the movement's highest-profile ambassadors and have been potent in dissuading fellow musicians from performing in Israel.

"In 1980, a song I wrote, Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2), was banned by the government of South Africa because it was being used by black South African children to advocate their right to equal education," Waters said in explaining his reasons for joining BDS.

"Twenty-five years later, in 2005, Palestinian children participating in a West Bank festival used the song to protest against Israel's wall around the West Bank. They sang: 'We don't need no occupation." But Waters' opposition has not come without a price. Since joining the movement, Waters weathered constant accusations of anti-Semitism, which have affected his tours. Last week, he concluded a German tour that involved a string of radio stations refusing the opportunity to air his show live. During the gigs, he prefaced the encore by a speech on stage slamming claims of his anti-Semitism as "obscene".

Singing to their own tune

There have also been several artists who took their tours to Israel despite the protests. Artists such as Alicia Keys and Radiohead disregarded BDS's overtures and pressed ahead with their tours, which were celebrated on Israeli government Twitter accounts.

Former Beatle Paul McCartney performed a stadium show in 2008, stating: “I do what I think and I have many friends who support Israel,” while Rod Stewart also returned to Tel Aviv last year with his greatest hits tour.

While those artists kept their shows relatively low-key in terms of discussing politics, there were some acts who addressed BDS’s concerns head on. In agreeing to tour Israel last year, Radiohead’s frontman Thom Yorke said he disagreed with the notion of a cultural boycott. “Playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government,” he said. “Music, art and academia is about crossing borders, not building them, about open minds not closed ones, about shared humanity, dialogue and freedom of expression.”

Meanwhile, Australian musician Nick Cave said it was the BDS movement that convinced him to take his band, The Bad Seeds, on an Israeli tour last year. "It suddenly became very important to me to make a stand against those people who are trying to shut down musicians, to bully musicians, to censor musicians, and to silence musicians," he said.

In a response on behalf of the boycott, Eno believed Cave’s reasoning was ignorant, at best. “It’s nothing to do with ‘silencing’ artists – a charge I find rather grating when used in a context where a few million people are permanently and grotesquely silenced,” he said.

Despite the shows going ahead, the fact they were met with public opposition should probably act as a cautionary tale to those considering performing in Israel.

Is there a middle ground?

But with the continual decline in physical album sales and live touring becoming more lucrative, artists will continue to seek out new markets to play, which raises the question: is there is an ethical way to perform in Israel? According to the BDS, there is.

"Last autumn, music producer and DJ Nicolas Jaar performed in Haifa, in a Palestinian-run venue with no institutional links to Israel, in accordance with BDS guidelines," the spokesperson says. "The French duo Acid Arab also stated they would only consider future gigs in Israel in [similar] venues, respecting the boycott."

Whether such an alternative is feasible for big international acts remains to be seen. What we do know is that with rock legends Ozzy Osbourne and The Scorpions scheduled to perform in Israel next month, the ongoing culture war won't cease any time soon.