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In the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla incident, a significant number of musicians have refused to perform in Israel. Performance withdrawals are attributed to changes of heart, scheduling issues, etc., but these moves are more likely to be driven by pro-Palestinian BDS campaigners, who are targeting artists aggressively in an effort to isolate Israel.
Prior to the flotilla incident, jazz performer Gil Scott-Heron gave in to pro-Palestinian pressure in April, and in January, Carlos Santana cancelled a performance reputedly due to pressure from anti-Israeli groups. Scott-Heron had his performance in London disrupted by pro-Palestinians who heckled him throughout to force him to cancel his Israeli performance. Pro-Palestinian pressure had been building on the Internet to make him cancel the date. Security was called, but Scott-Heron gave in to their demands on the concert stage, stating that he “hated war.” Fifty-plus boycott groups sent a letter to him stating, “You have chosen to stand on the right side of history” – a rather sinister thing to say.
Santana’s Israeli performance in early June, being promoted by the seemingly ill-fated Shuki Weiss, was to take place in a large soccer stadium in Jaffa. With excellent ticket sales, the addition of another show was being mooted until Santana’s management suddenly announced that the show would be put on hold for an unspecified period of time. They cited “unforeseen scheduling conflicts” despite other dates on the tour going ahead as normal. A senior member of Weiss’ production team stated that Carlos Santana had received messages telling him “’it’s better’ not to perform in Israel.” Such communications can easily be seen as threatening. The promoter added: “Our clarifications revealed that he received messages from anti-Israel figures who pressured him to cancel the performance. Of course, no one there claimed that any connection between these pressures and the show’s cancellation, but we are certain there is a very close connection.”
Heron and Santana are by no means unusual in organising concerts and then suddenly deciding to quit. Since the manufactured outrage over the Gaza flotilla incident, indie bands like The Pixies, Klaxons, and Gorillaz decided not to perform at Tel Aviv’s PiC.NiC Festival. The Pixies stated that “events beyond all our control” led to their withdrawal, but apparently the Israeli naval boarding of the flotilla affected the decision. This is a common theme in the statements of performers quitting Israel. In reality, pro-Palestinian campaigners probably got to them, especially with the surge of public outrage at the flotilla incident. Festival promoter Shuki Weiss issued a statement describing the decisions of these headlining bands as “a form of cultural terrorism which is targeting Israel and the arts worldwide.”
Elvis Costello’s cancellation a few weeks earlier was perhaps the most significant, as it garnered a lot of attention. On the 15th of May, Elvis Costello issued a statement where he wrote “It is after considerable contemplation that I have lately arrived at the decision that I must withdraw from the two performances scheduled in Israel…” He asserted, “There are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent.” This assertion is absurd since his concert will principally be seen as a political act by extremists who try to politicise such shows in the first instance. Israel is a society that affords all citizens free speech. Many of those citizens are in fact enemies of the state who hold important influential positions in that society, one of the most famous examples being Ilan Pappe. A large, and in fact, rather worrying group of Israeli Jews side with the Palestinian movement, and their freedom of expression is not curtailed. Consequently, a performance in Israel need not be seen as advocacy.
I must believe 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. I am also keenly aware of the sensitivity of these themes in the wake of so many despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation. Some will regard all of this an unknowable without personal experience but if these subjects are actually too grave and complex to be addressed in a concert, then it is also quite impossible to simply look the other way.
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