Boycotting Ignorance

June 9, 2010 should be remembered as the day that the Pixies performed in Tel Aviv to a sellout crowd. Instead, the Pixies cancelled three days prior, excusing themselves from their commitment due to “events beyond [their] control”. Most can see through this poorly devised excuse and see the real reason for the cancellation. The Pixies were just the newest band to succumb to pressure from the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement and abandon plans to visit Israel. Their Israeli fans were left to make new plans for Saturday night.

The Pixies are widely regarded as alternative rock icons, cited as major influences by Nirvana and Radiohead, and named “one of America’s greatest bands ever” by U2’s Bono. Any band with such a following is fated to entice the anti-Israel community once they agree to perform there. The pressure was certainly heightened that week with the famed Gaza flotilla raid leaving nine activists from the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara dead. Suddenly, the trip to Israel made less sense for the Pixies.

The Pixies weren’t alone. Elvis Costello, Carlos Santana, and Gil Scott-Heron had all previously removed Israel from their tour.

While it is easy to criticize them, it is never easy for any band to come and perform in Israel. The trip is not cheap, as bands must pay for their flights and ship their equipment. Nor is the trip short, since Israel is a country stuck amidst a sea of ultra-conservative Arabic nations and as such, there aren’t many other potential tour stops in the region. And while there is a healthy population of music lovers, not all are willing to fork over hundreds of shekels for a concert. Add in a dose of political pressure and for most artists, performing here doesn’t make sense.

To analyze further, we must fast forward to this past week. Amongst the many panels at the Jerusalem Music Conference was a panel titled simply: Music as a Weapon for Peace. The panel featured four musicians, each with a history of attempting to follow the panel’s title and use their music to bring a positive change in the world around them.

The group was certainly an eclectic one. Shyne, formerly a gangster rapper with song titles such as “N—-z Gonna Die” and “That’s Gangsta”, now adorns a black hat and sideburns, calling himself Moshe Levi. On the flip side, Saz is an Israeli-Arab rapper with Palestinian heritage. They are joined by reggae artist Alpha Blondy from the Ivory Coast and Kobi Farhi, lead singer of an Israeli heavy metal band known for its performances in Turkey despite the current political disputes.

The panelists from left to right: Shyne, Alpha Blondy, Saz, and Kobi Farhiu. (photo credit: Shlomo Taitz)

Farhi opened the panel by sharing a story of his own. His band, Orphaned Land, was performing in Istanbul all while the Israeli embassy in Egypt was being attacked. In Turkey, thousands of Arab fans cheered on an Israeli metal band, while in Egypt, thousands of Arabs angrily stormed the Israeli embassy. While his story demonstrates many unfortunate truths, it also expresses one promising one- the bonding power of music. “At that moment,” said Farhi, “we saw good and pure people.”

Instead of hiding, Farhi suggests that we follow the ways of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Leonard Cohen. Cohen faced the same pressure as the Pixies, but rather than boycotting Israel, he chose to face the policies he stands against straight on. When challenged by the BDS movement, he responded with an offer to perform in Ramallah as well. When this offer was rejected, he created a fund that would support bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families. Following the concert, he donated all proceeds to that fund.

Cohen displayed a certain artistic integrity that seems to be lacking in those who boycotted Israel by cancelling their performances. When Elvis Costello initially booked his gig in Tel Aviv, he told the Jerusalem Post that boycotting Israel is “like never appearing in the U.S. because you didn’t like Bush’s policies or boycotting England because of Margaret Thatcher.” But the BDS pressure escalated and he caved in. In other words, he didn’t cancel due to personal beliefs, but rather because he was simply too lazy to stand up for them.

Saz, a rapper with Palestinian heritage, believes just that. [By] me being here, my people will boycott me, as will Israelis, but I represent myself,” said Saz. “I pay the bills, nobody pays them for me.” Despite the pressure from both sides to boycott, Saz had performed during the previous night’s showcase and received massive support from the crowd. After the successful night, Saz said he plans to keep performing for Israeli audiences.

Shyne and Saz share contact information. (photo credit: Shlomo Taitz)

And he may not be alone on stage. “Russell [Simmons] said you gotta do a record with a Palestinian guy,” said Shyne. “Now I found my guy.” Whether they end up working together or not, they both stand together against the BDS movement. While boycotts definitely catch the attention of the boycotted, it tends to alienate them further, rather than achieving the goal of pulling them closer. “Boycotts are a waste of time,” said Shyne. “You would do more by coming and talking to the audience regardless of the politicians or media opinion.”

Today, we definitely see the BDS movement’s impact diminishing. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have cancelled performances in the past, are finally primed to perform in Tel Aviv. Lady GaGa, Chris Cornell, Rufus Wainwright, and the Walkmen are among the artists who have made the trip over to Israel. Additionally, one of America’s biggest festivals, Lollapalooza, is set to hit Tel Aviv this summer.

Artists finally seem to be getting it. It’s easy to excuse oneself from the region as a stand against Israel’s policies, but a true artist would never do that. A true artist who disagrees with Israel’s policies would never relinquish the opportunity to speak to Israelis face to face. “You can’t run away from the fight,” said Shyne. “Talk to them rather than presume you know them.”

His simple statement captures a much greater truth- perhaps we are all too quick to run away from the fight. Maybe we all fall into the same trap that the Pixies did, presuming that we understand those to whom we’ve never bothered speaking to, rather than attempting to actually communicate with them ourselves. And maybe some of us who complain about the musicians boycotting Israel do some boycotting of our own in other ways. Ultimately, if we all obsess about ensuring the other sides dissatisfaction, everybody loses.

About the Author
Jason Chernofsky is a music and film lover who currently works at Oleh! Records, where he helps Israeli musicians make a name for themselves in Israel and abroad.