For those who attended left-wing parties in the mid 1980s, there were two songs about Africa that were continuously played. The first, recorded in 1985, was We Are the World, a charity single still well-known today. The second, also from 1985, was called Sun City but it is less remembered today, as the political conditions that sparked it have passed into history.
Sun City was a luxury resort in the apartheid-era bantustan – or pocket of land set aside for a particular ethnic group – in Bophuthatswana, South Africa. It was a place where international acts would come to perform, situated in the midst of a region where thousands of black South Africans had been forcibly relocated. As such, it became the focus of the international cultural boycott against the apartheid regime, the aim being to remove the veneer of respectability that the regime gained by having international concerts on its territory.
With the song Sun City – the chorus of which ran: "Everybody say: I ain't gonna play Sun City" – a stellar cast of more than two dozen singers, including Bob Dylan, Run DMC, Ringo Starr and Herbie Hancock declared they would respect the boycott. The song became a rallying cry against the apartheid regime.
In South Africa, breaking the boycott was called “entertaining apartheid”. For the Palestinian campaign to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel to force it comply with international law and end the occupation of Palestine, known as the BDS campaign, the term used is “art-washing”.
Art-washing is what BDS campaigners call the use of culture to whitewash the occupation. For them, any artist performing in Israel is allowing themselves to be used to justify the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians and therefore any time an artist, usually a musician, refuses to attend, it is another ounce of international pressure against Israeli policies.
As such, the refusal of Natalie Portman to attend an award ceremony in Israel, coming so soon after the high-profile cancellation of a concert by the singer Lorde, has made supporters believe a tipping point is coming soon.
The BDS campaign is incredibly dangerous for Israel, as evidenced by the fact the government has created an entire department to oppose it. But perhaps more dangerous is what is sometimes called the “silent boycott” – those artists and cultural figures who don't explicitly side with the BDS campaign but simply quietly avoid the country. Portman doesn't quite fall into the category – her refusal to attend was high-profile – but her justifications certainly do.
In her sole public statement on the issue, Portman said: “I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it” but added that she could not accept “the mistreatment of those suffering from today's atrocities”, without specifying what they were. In that sense Portman was fulfilling the spirit of BDS while distancing herself from the letter.
The practice of using cultural figures to support policies has a long history in Israel. “Culture is a propaganda tool of the first rank,” was how a government official put it and for at least the past 13 years since the BDS campaign began calling for a cultural boycott, the idea of promoting “brand Israel” through culture has taken root across the Israeli government.
Tens of millions of dollars have been spent promoting Israeli artists abroad and encouraging foreign artists to play inside the country, the idea being to show “a different face” of the country. One such contract, leaked to an Israeli newspaper, explicitly noted that “the purpose [of the artist's state-sponsored trip] is to promote the policy interests of the state of Israel via culture and art”.
Still, many stay away. The number of cultural figures who have publicly pledged not to perform their work in Israel while the occupation continues now numbers in the thousands but behind them are many more who simply decline to do so without explaining why.
The great success of the BDS campaign has been to make playing in Israel an anomaly that needs to be justified. Those who stay away can simply do so quietly. It is those who attend who are forced to justify their reasons.
This silent boycott is one of the most feared aspects of the BDS movement for Israelis because it is so difficult to oppose.
Tel Aviv is not a major cultural hub in the way that, for example, London is; an artist who did not want to perform in Israel could easily refrain from doing so without explanation. It also applies to the rest of the entertainment industry. In 2016 Oscar nominees each received a goody bag with an all-expenses-paid 10-day trip to Israel worth $55,000. After a high-profile campaign by the BDS movement, not one of the 26 stars given the gift accepted the trip – but none explained why.
Performing in Israel always puts artists in a difficult position, even those who are not political at all. What the BDS campaign has really done is make performing in Israel a political act – the mere scheduling of a concert, exhibition or appearance in the country places the artist on the side of the Israeli government, not merely the Israeli people.
That is clearly where Portman found herself. She explicitly distanced herself from the country's prime minister and his policies – and it is an uncomfortable position for artists, even those, such as Portman, who are themselves Israeli and champion the country. Her refusal to accept such a prominent Israeli award has come as a shock to the country but it is the outraged reaction to her refusal that will have greater repercussions. As the boycott of Israel begins to bite, many artists will say nothing about the country's policies and just quietly stay away.