The BDS movement is all about pressuring artists like Lorde and Radiohead to boycott Israel in protest against the occupation of Palestine
When Lorde announced a slew of international tour dates in support of her second album Melodrama last month, a scheduled show at Tel Aviv’s Convention Centre drew immediate criticism. An open letter titled “Dear Lorde, here’s why we’re urging you not to play Israel” was posted to The Spinoff, with the New Zealand musician subsequently cancelling the show. “I pride myself on being an informed young citizen… but I’m not proud to admit I didn’t make the right call on this one,” she said in a statement.
The controversy may seem familiar to music fans. Last year, Radiohead ended up in a similar situation with a show they had booked for Tel Aviv – but unlike Lorde, they went ahead despite the backlash. In recent years, artists from Lana Del Rey to Nick Cave have all drawn controversy over their decisions to either perform or not perform in Israel, while last August, more than eight artists withdrew from Berlin’s Pop-Kultur festival over its partnership with the Israeli Embassy.
To anybody not familiar with the ins and outs of the Israel-Palestine conflict, these situations might seem strange. What’s so controversial about a pop concert? And why are these artists being asked to cancel? To understand, it’s necessary to get to grips with the history of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement.
WHAT IS BDS?
Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, BDS is a non-violent, Palestinian-led campaign that protests the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. As Amnesty International report, Israel has occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza strip for decades in violation of various international and human rights laws.
BDS describes the situation as apartheid. Their key demands are the end of the occupation, the dismantling of the West Bank wall, the Palestinian Right of Return (a provision to allow some 7.25 million Palestinian refugees to return home), and an end to segregation. They encourage the withdrawal of investments in Israeli companies and international companies who violate Palestinian rights, and also pressure governments around the world to hold Israel to account. BDS also encourages a cultural boycott, where artists send the right message by not exhibiting or performing in Israel.
IS IT REALLY SUCH A BIG DEAL TO PERFORM THERE?
BDS argues that the music industry should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other industry that’s operating within Israel. PACBI (the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) agrees, saying that Israel uses culture as a weapon and a form of propaganda to whitewash, or ‘art-wash’, the actions of the state. “The cultural boycott of Israel is inspired by the South African anti-apartheid struggle,” says PACBI’s Stephanie Adam. “(During the 1980s) international artists refused to play Sun City in response to the calls of Black South Africans not to do ‘business as usual’ with apartheid.”
Art-washing, Adam says, is the use of art and culture to cover up oppression and present “a false sense of normalcy in a situation of grave repression.” Adam says that Israeli government officials have been open about the use of art-washing, such as when a spokesperson from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that art and culture were used to “show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”
WHO SUPPORTS BOYCOTTS, AND WHO’S AGAINST THEM?
Many musicians have supported the cultural boycott. Scheduled concerts from Lauryn Hill to the late Gil Scott-Heron have all been axed in the past, while Princess Nokia cancelled her slot at Kalamazoo Festival last year. Outside of Israel itself, BDS asks artists to decline participation in anything sponsored by the Israeli government, which is what happened at Berlin’s Pop-Kultur last year. This year, over 100 artists (including Brian Eno, Kathleen Hanna, Talib Kweli, and Roger Waters) have signed an open letter supporting Lorde’s decision to cancel her Tel Aviv show, while rapper Vic Mensa recently penned an op-ed describing his experiences in Palestine.
However, many musicians have gone ahead with scheduled performances in Israel despite calls to cancel. Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, and Macy Gray have all played (though Gray later said she regretted it), while two high profile examples last year came from Radiohead and Nick Cave. Speaking at a press conference in Jerusalem, Nick Cave said he wanted to “make a principled stand against anyone who wants to censor and silence musicians.” When Radiohead went ahead with their Tel Aviv show, frontman Thom Yorke issued a statement: “Playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing the government… We don’t endorse (Israeli Prime Minister) Netanyahu any more than Trump, but we still play in America. Music, art, academia is about crossing borders not building them.”
CAN A CONCERT REALLY LEGITIMISE A GOVERNMENT?
Yorke’s statement isn’t untrue, but whether a musician likes it or not, a performance in Israel often takes on a political dimension when it wouldn’t elsewhere. Israeli politicians and diplomats have often been quick to make political capital out of a musician’s decision to play there, like when Gilan Erdan, Israel’s strategic affairs minister, told CNN “we salute Radiohead” when they pressed on with their show. When Nick Cave decided to perform despite protestations from the likes of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Israel Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon wrote on Twitter, “Bravo Nick Cave for resisting BDS! Roger Waters may be a great musician but he promotes an ideology of boycott and hatred and does not promote peace.”
“An artist’s politics and personal view of the Israeli government matter little once they’ve agreed to perform in Israel,” says PACBI’s Stephanie Adam. “The Israeli government will endorse their performance and use it to undermine Palestinians’ non-violent resistance to Israel’s occupation, colonisation, and apartheid policies.”
WHAT ARE THE OTHER ARGUMENTS AGAINST BDS?
When Lorde cancelled her show, Itzhak Gerberg, Israel’s ambassador to New Zealand, requested to meet her to discuss it, writing that by cancelling, she was “succumbing” to a “hateful agenda”. Most notably, American rabbi Shmuley Boteach took out a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post decrying Lorde’s decision as “anti-semitic” and calling her a “bigot”. Words like ‘bigoted’, ‘hateful’, and ‘anti-semitic’ are often used by critics of the BDS movement, who liken the tactics to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses. Others have accused BDS of smears and of using bullying tactics against their opponents. BDS, however, describes itself as “an inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement” who oppose “all forms of discrimination, including anti-semitism and Islamophobia,” and insist that their criticisms are focused on the actions undertaken in the name of the state rather than targeting specific individuals.
Anti-semitism is a very serious problem, and there have been voices in the anti-Israel movement who’ve either explicitly or implicitly used anti-semitic framing in their arguments. In particular, the role of Israel in global affairs has been a familiar staple in right wing conspiracy theories, with the state depicted as ‘pulling the strings’ in international affairs – a dogwhistle that feeds into longer standing anti-Jewish conspiracy narratives. There are, however, many critics of the Israeli government’s actions who are themselves Jewish. It’s also important to scrutinise who is making accusations of anti-semitism to judge whether they’re fair or not. In his advertisement in the Washington Post, rabbi Shmuley Boteach described Lorde as joining “a global anti-semitic boycott of Israel”, but Boteach has also written for websites like Breitbart and praised its former editor Steve Bannon, who once called the publication “the platform for the alt-right”.
Other critics of Lorde’s decision to cancel the show suggested that she was unfairly punishing her fans in Israel. Not all Americans are on the Trump train, and not all Israelis support their government – so why should they miss out? “This raises the question, whose justice are we concerned with here?” asks Stephanie Adam. “Israeli youth’s ‘right’ to enjoy a concert, or the UN-sanctioned rights of the Palestinian people who have had to endure Israel’s colonisation, occupation, and apartheid policies for 70 years?” It’s a response that echoes the musician Brian Eno, who, responding to Nick Cave comment that BDS activists were trying to “censor and silence musicians”, wrote that “this has 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”.
Speaking of Lorde’s decision to cancel, Revital, 22, from Tel Aviv, says: “In a similar way to when Lana Del Rey cancelled her concert a few years ago, I feel disappointed on a personal level. On a general level though, it’s harder.” Revital posits that artists could make a bigger impact by talking more about the conflict and their reasons for cancelling rather than “simply cutting off Israel completely”, adding, “perhaps a stronger change will come from artists performing outside Tel Aviv – in places like Umm al-Fahm or Baqa al-Gharbiyye, for example.” Danielle, an Israeli musician from Tel Aviv and a BDS activist, fully supports Lorde’s decision: “I’m thrilled. I admire the way Lorde has proven to be a true artist and a true human being, standing with the oppressed, and not letting a corrupt government use her name to whitewash its crimes… Boycott helped end apartheid in South Africa, and it will also help end apartheid in Israel.”
IS THERE AN ETHICAL WAY TO PERFORM IN ISRAEL?
Musicians such as Nicolas Jaar have performed in Israel and not been criticised for the decision. BDS has guidelines on how artists can participate in cultural events in Israel while respecting the boycott – in Jaar’s case, he performed in a Palestinian-run venue in Haifa, while artists like Acid Arab, who’ve previously played in Tel Aviv, have said they would only consider performing in Palestinian venues in future. However, BDS stresses that artists should not be doing this alongside a performance in Israel: “Palestinians reject the idea that the damage done by an artist performing or exhibiting their work in Israel can in some way be compensated for by a parallel performance or exhibition in occupied Palestinian territory. This attempt at ‘balance’ undermines Palestinian rights.” PACBI also states that although there are grassroots venues that publicly recognise the rights of Palestinian people and refuse to employ discriminatory policies, no major Israeli institution or festival has done this.
As Lorde says, one day she’d like to perform in Israel – hopefully when there is a peaceful solution in sight. “Tel Aviv, it’s been a dream of mine to visit this beautiful part of the world for many years,” she wrote in her statement. “I hope one day we can all dance.”