Music stars’ boycott rocks Israel

Vita Bekker, Foreign Correspondent

* Last Updated: May 21. 2010 10:53PM UAE / May 21. 2010 6:53PM GMT

TEL AVIV // Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is again drawing international condemnation – this time from the music industry.

In what activists for Palestinian rights say is a major boost to their goal of spurring a cultural boycott of Israel, the British rocker Elvis Costello this week became the latest in a list of music stars to call off his planned summer gigs in Israel, saying that he was protesting the “intimidation” and “humiliation” of Palestinians. The singer-songwriter’s cancellation follows similar moves in recent months by the rock guitarist Carlos Santana and the rap forefather Gil Scott-Heron.

Costello’s announcement was one of the first open endorsements by a mega-star of the campaign to persuade artists to boycott Israel because of the government’s right-wing, pro-settler policies, widely viewed as a key obstacle to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Such steps are adding to other tactics used by activists, such as divestment from Israeli companies, demonstrations at speeches of top Israeli officials in the US and Europe, legal actions against Israeli politicians abroad and calls to boycott Israeli universities and academics.

Sarah Colborne, the director of campaigns and operations at the UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said Costello received thousands of e-mails from supporters of such campaigns in the UK and US during the past few weeks. She added: “This is a message to the Israeli government that artists are not prepared to be used to whitewash Israel’s occupation.”

It is too early, however, to speak of a cultural boycott against Israel. The country has been visited by high-profile performers including Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen, Madonna and Depeche Mode in the past two years. Additionally, in the coming months Elton John, The Scorpions, Rod Stewart, Rihanna and the Pixies are all scheduled to play here.

Nevertheless, activists say a full-fledged cultural boycott against Israel could isolate the country and help persuade it to end its control over Palestinians, just as it is credited with contributing to the collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the six-year-old Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, based in Ramallah, said the recent cancellations by high-profile performers within a period of a few months indicate that the potential for other artists to catch on was “quite good”.

Indeed, a report this week in a New York-based Jewish newspaper, The Forward, cited an unidentified music industry executive as saying that in recent months, he had approached more than 15 performing artists with proposals to give concerts in Israel in return for “high levels” of financial compensation, but none had agreed.

Campaigners have next targeted Elton John, who is due to perform in Tel Aviv in mid-June. A new video clip version of his 1976 hit Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word has been circulating on the Internet, replacing those words with Always Seems to me that Boycott Seems to be the Hardest Word, and urging him to cancel his concert.

Mr Barghouti added that an escalation of a cultural boycott may eventually hurt the Israeli economy. “The logic of cultural boycotts … is that they hurt the image of the oppressor state, making it and its products less appealing to the international public. The impact on the economy is slow, gradual and not linear – but it is inevitable.”

For activists, attempts to trigger a cultural boycott are in tandem with other measures being used to pressure Israel.

Israel’s business arena has already felt the heat of the campaign. Israeli media reported in August that New York-based BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, last year sold its shares in Africa-Israel Investments because the Israeli real estate company’s activities in the occupied West Bank were opposed by several Norwegian banks that offered BlackRock funds to their clients.

High-profile Israeli political figures have also been targeted. An arrest warrant was issued last year at the request of Palestinian groups in London for former foreign minister Tzipi Livni in connection with alleged war crimes related to Israel’s Gaza offensive, prompting Ms Livni’s cancellation of her trip to the UK. Moshe Yaalon, a cabinet minister and former military chief of staff, cancelled a trip to the UK in October because of concerns he would face possible charges for his involvement in a 2002 assassination of a top Hamas military figure that killed 14 other people, including children.

Requests for such warrants in Britain are allowed under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which permits domestic courts around the world to try cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity even if the infraction occurred abroad and the suspect is not a citizen.

But triggering a cultural boycott remains a key goal.

Costello’s cancellation came as a surprise to many Israelis, especially since two weeks ago he was quoted in an interview with the right-leaning newspaper The Jerusalem Post as suggesting that he opposed efforts to boycott performances.

In a statement posted on his website, Costello said he made his decision despite realising “that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security”.

While acknowledging that he did not expect to be invited to Israel again, he said his move was “a matter of instinct and conscience”. He added: “Sometimes a silence in music is better than adding to the static.”

I'm a teacher, writer, and activist based in Bangalore. I am dedicated to various issues including #BDS and Palestine, living Zero Waste, and reversing the effects of climate change.

Posted in BDS Success, Cultural Boycott
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