Rock Steady
Wed, 05/28/2014
Israel Correspondent
Madonna, performing in 2012 in Tel Aviv. Courtesy of MDNA/Young
Madonna, performing in 2012 in Tel Aviv. Courtesy of MDNA/Young

Jerusalem — They plan the events months, even a year, ahead. They launch a publicity blitz and may already have sold tickets. And then — boom! — it all starts to unravel when the musician or artist or writer is pressured by activists in the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement to cancel the gig and not play in Israel.

Many of Israel’s concert promoters and festival organizers have dealt with just such a scenario during the dozen or so years the BDS movement has been active. Stuff happens, they say, but insist that the ones who don’t cancel more than make up for the few who do.

Led by activists in the Arab world, the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, the BDS movement — which has been gaining momentum for more than a decade — is an outgrowth of the Arab League anti-Israel boycott that began in the 1940s but fizzled out amid peace talks in the mid-1990s.

With no solid statistics to go on, it’s impossible to tell just how many foreigners are caving to BDS pressure; some decline to attend an event but don’t give a reason. But judging from the large number of foreign participants in Israel-based cultural and literary events every year, the effect seems relatively minor.

David Brinn, the Jerusalem Post’s managing editor and music reporter, told me there has been a “surge” in international performers coming to Israel in recent years, despite the efforts by the BDS activists.

While some of this may simply be due to the fact that Israel seems a lot safer than it was during the first and second intifadas, Brinn thinks it has more to do with Israeli professionalism.

“In general, in terms of payment, production quality and audience reception, Israel has built a credible, dependable image in the music world. Managers and agents know that their artists are going to be treated professionally, receive top dollar and appear before an incredibly welcoming crowd.”

That’s the reason Elton John, Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alicia Keys and Guns N’ Roses have performed in Israel in the past couple of years, and why the Rolling Stones, Justin Timberlake and Neil Young will be appearing here in the near future. This year hundreds of other artists have or will be taking part in numerous film, literary and music festivals.

Even Jay Leno came last week to host the first Genesis Prize Award ceremony honoring former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Asked about the gig, Leno told Fox News that Israel is a “great country.” He added that “at some point you have to sort of take sides. I tend to side with the Jewish point of view on many things, especially issues like this one; I realize how important Israel is.”

Brinn says the promoters have learned from the past; now they thoroughly brief the artists and their representatives on what to expect in terms of pressure on them to cancel and what they will be told by anti-Israel activists — before the contract is signed.

“Most artists are apolitical anyway,” Brinn said, “and most of the time, the answer I get when I ask them about bowing to pressure to cancel their show or not book one in the first place is, ‘If I didn’t perform in a country where I didn’t agree with its government policies, then I wouldn’t be able to perform anywhere, including the United States.’”

Because of this, he continues, “the BDS movement as well as statements by the likes of Roger Waters, [a BDS cheerleader and former front man for Pink Floyd] is very marginal, and getting slimmer all the time,” he insisted. 

Still, those who refuse to do business in Israel or with Israelis tend to generate the splashiest headlines.  

When African-American author Alice Walker turned down a request by an Israeli publisher to print her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple” in Hebrew, her refusal was reported in almost every news outlet. 

Earlier this month, there was also a media buzz when actor Danny Glover and several others involved in the production of the documentary “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” demanded that the film be removed from the schedule of the DocAviv film festival in Tel Aviv.

The festival’s organizers refused. 

Sinai Abt, DocAviv’s artistic director, told me the demand from Glover and Boggs, who, at nearly 99, is still a vocal political activist, came suddenly, and not from the film’s producers, who simply informed the organizers about the protest.

“We ourselves never received any request to withdraw the film from the program, so we didn’t,” Abt told me. “The film was on the program for a few months, and we screened it as scheduled.”

Like many other Israeli festival organizers and promoters, many of whom are politically left wing and secular, Abt believes that one-on-one communication is the best way to end Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Depriving the Israeli public of the chance to watch a movie about political activism “has the opposite result of what the boycotters hoped to achieve. I don’t understand what purpose the boycott, any boycott, served.”

Tal Kramer, director of the 4th International Writers Festival, said some of the foreign writers invited to the biannual festival over the years have reported being pressured by the BDS movement — especially in England — but that to the best of her knowledge no one has ever declined or cancelled because of it.  

Like Abt, Kramer expressed the belief that the boycotters “miss the whole point” of cultural get-togethers.

“There can be no reconciliation without contact, but the boycott movement is trying to prevent this contact,” she insisted. 

The BDS movement has persuaded several performers from appearing in Israel, a fact that has made life very difficult for music promoters, including the Shuki Weiss booking agency. The firm has been responsible for bringing over some of the world’s most famous names, including, now, the Stones.  

Although it has encountered BDS on more than one occasion, the agency declined to be interviewed about it when I inquired. But Oren Arnon, the head promoter for the company, was more forthcoming with JNS.org.

In an interview Arnon told JNS that he has had “many positive experiences with conscientious and intelligent artists who choose to come and see for themselves rather than cave to the propaganda.”

He said that unless an artist has experienced Israel first hand, he or she is speaking out of ignorance.

“Bottom line, come here and tour and see the facts. Our success is having an artist tour, understand the difficulties, and understand that bad things happen here similar to anywhere else in the world. We encourage them to come,” Arnon said, “instead of not showing up.” 

editor@jewishweek.org