The campaign to pressure artists to boycott is part of a highly organised mass movement. As with pro-Palestinians generally, the so called BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanction) Movement continually draws parallels between apartheid South Africa and Israel. Although some try to qualify this by saying they aren’t exactly the same, comparisons between these states are clearly absurd. Yet the effort to label Israel as “apartheid” continues to grow.
The commonly stated aim of this endeavor is to improve the conditions of Palestinians. However, a sinister motive can be found behind the humanitarian language. When referring to the success in dealing with apartheid South Africa, they are of course talking about the successful role boycott played in destroying the state as it was. While few would think this was anything other than a good thing, the same “successful” methods are being applied to Israel, indicating the same conclusions are envisaged: the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. This stance is evident in the inferred or explicit opinions of those supporting boycott and found in boycott documentation. To quote an average (relatively moderate) BDS document by the “MA’AN Development Center” (sic) called “Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions – lessons learned in effective solidarity”:
The similarities between apartheid South Africa and Israel are, sadly, well known. However, one analogy may prove particularly useful: South Africa’s resistance history offers useful lessons around local and international civil protest and more notably regarding the potential impact a coordinated campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) could have. Just as occurred in South Africa, existing solidarity for Palestine needs to be galvanized to transform current feeling. By increasing awareness of the movement and drawing upon the successful South African experience, the report aims to inform civil society movements of how to better harness the mass outrage felt by so many over Israel’s violations of the rights of the Palestinian people. … these efforts must occur at all levels; locally, regionally and internationally. Moreover, boycott, divestment sanctions is a tactic that can be adopted by individuals, companies and governments, meaning we all have the agency to make a difference.
There is a peculiar assertion in the document: “Boycotting Israeli products cannot be successfully accomplished without a transition to, and promotion of, Palestinian products.” Numerous organisations have been established such as PalTrade, which promotes trade of Palestinian products locally and internationally. Thus the aim is not only to weaken Israel. They want a strong Palestinian economy that could eventually shift the balance of power from a weakened Israel. This is clearly going beyond the stated aim of forcing Israel to improve the lot of the Palestinians.
The BDS campaign often crosses into outright bigotry by using anti-Semitic imagery. It attacks Israel’s essence as a Jewish state despite the presence of its explicitly Islamic neighbours. It condemns, à la extremist Palestinianism, instead of attempting to change policies in a constructive fashion. It is part of the strategy adopted by NGOs during the infamous Durban I Conference, which was supposed to combat racism but turned into an anti-Semitic hate-fest.
The prime figure of the boycott movement is Omar Barghouti, who is a founding member of PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) and one of the movement’s principal strategists and advocates. His words are a telling indicator of the extremism of the movement. For example, at a conference at London University he stated: “Those who imagine they can wish away the conflict by suggesting some forums for rapprochement, détente, or ‘dialogue’ – which they hope can lead to authentic processes of reconciliation and eventually peace – are either clinically delusional or dangerously deceptive.”
Barghouti opposes any association with Israel and seeks a one-state solution – the destruction of Israel: “It is not the occupation of the West Bank that is the problem, but the existence of Israel itself.” He also has links with terrorists, such as a family connection with Marwan Barghouti, who committed some of the more depraved acts of terror in the history of this conflict.
Omar Barghouti condemns academic and artistic collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians as “providing Israel with a figleaf covering up Israel’s relentless colonisation of Palestinian land and its crimes against the Palestinian people.” Palestinians who have engaged with Israelis are “guilty of moral blindness and political shortsightedness.” He thinks such people are tempted by the “lure of project funding, prestige and personal gain.” Thus, it should be a source of great amusement to know that he is studying a postgraduate degree in philosophical ethics at Tel Aviv University, at least partially to enhance his own prestige, and is reportedly being funded by Israel, the very same state he seeks to annihilate.
When an Israeli newspaper asked him for comment about his never-ending degree, he said: “My studies at Tel Aviv University are a personal matter and I have no interest in commenting.” It caused an understandable level of anger in Israel, but Tel Aviv University refuses to expel him despite a 65,000 signature petition. This is the same university that allows its academics to frequently cross the line by advocating the boycott of its own institutions, and of Israel generally. Their philosophy department houses the likes of Barghouti, lecturer Anat Kam, who presented herself as a heroine after stealing classified military information, and other lecturers that campaigned to prevent Colonel Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, formerly of the IDF law division and the target of a sustained pro-Palestinian smear campaign, from lecturing on law. Playing the victim card, PACBI called the Barghouti petition “McCarthyist,” and argued the accusation of hypocrisy is “an absurd position, given the complete lack of alternatives available” for Palestinians who endorse BDS, but study at Israeli universities. Peculiar then that this “Palestinian” was born in Qatar, grew up in Egypt, and moved to the West Bank in adulthood.
Some major Jewish groups acknowledge BDS is a genuine threat. Ben Cohen of the American Jewish Committee said, “There are clearly a number of episodes building up here that would allow advocates of a boycott to say that ‘slowly, slowly we are achieving what we want, which is the South Africanization of Israel,’” “it’s clear to me that this discourse of boycott is being increasingly legitimized, and it would appear that some companies are responsive to it.” Indeed, the movement has been remarkably successful. Buoyed by the success of the campaign, Barghouti stated, “In spreading and deepening BDS around the world, prompting advocates of Palestinian rights to feel that our South Africa moment has finally arrived.”
There is a particularly disturbing aspect of the boycott movement which may directly impact performers themselves. Islamist clergy in Lebanon threatened Paul McCartney’s life in 2008 when he insisted on performing in Israel, despite pressure being brought to bear on him by pro-Palestinian boycott campaigners. This was a serious incident affecting one of the most famous musicians of all time. Yet it has hardly been discussed in the mainstream media. Islamist, Omar Bakri Muhammad, who has been implicated with terrorism, explicitly threatened his life. He stated:
Paul McCartney is playing as a part of the celebrations. Our enemy’s friend is our enemy. Thus Paul McCartney is the enemy of every Muslim. We have what we call ‘sacrifice’ operatives who will not stand by while he joins in a celebration of their oppression. If he values his life Mr. McCartney must not come to Israel. He will not be safe there. The sacrifice operatives will be waiting for him.
In an interview, McCartney indicated he was pressured by numerous pro-boycott groups: “I was approached by different groups and political bodies who asked me not to come here. I refused. I do what I think and I have many friends who support Israel.” Omar Barghouti distanced himself and PACBI from the threats, realising that they could be a PR disaster for his movement because they were aimed at an individual held in very high esteem in the West. His disavowal should be viewed with scepticism in the context of his own extremism, and because the people who made these threats have largely the same values with respect to Israel as Barghouti does himself. It is somewhat speculative at this stage, but if McCartney’s own experiences are an indicator, threats from terrorist sources may become a last resort to deal with artists who refuse to submit to boycott. This may become a feature of the campaign as Israel becomes increasingly isolated with no artists visiting other than a hardcore few willing to break the boycott.
Pro-Palestinians often talk about “collective punishment” being visited on “innocent” Palestinians by military action and blockades. Is it not farcical to seek the lifting of restrictions in Gaza, which will benefit the terrorist organisation in power, while unrelentingly seeking the economic and cultural boycott of Israel on the grounds of the government’s alleged treatment of Palestinians? The war-mongering of the Palestinians, who freely elected Hamas in 2006 after they had declared a continued intent to assault Israel should be rewarded, while the Israeli citizens who have often elected candidates on a two state peace mandate, should be punished. A topsy-turvy world it has become.
Pro-Palestinians ferociously agitate to force foreign companies that have investments in Israel to “divest” their assets in the state. Could this stance be extended to musicians who refrain from performance in Israel but have material for sale in Israeli record shops? Indeed, why should it still be acceptable to purchase works by the same artists in the recorded equivalent of a performance? From the perspective of the boycotter, if these artists wish to be consistent in terms of their actions, they ought to completely boycott Israel by no longer distributing their CDs, DVDs, related merchandising, and prevent MP3s and other formats being downloaded for sale from Israeli locations. Thus, it is not in the interests of the artists themselves to engage in boycott, which, taken to its ultimate conclusion, is nothing other than cultural vandalism, a prejudicial attack on their fans. Concerts are often meaningful experiences that constitute defining moments in many a music lover’s life. Despite the platitudes and expressions of regret, these artists are showing contempt for their Israeli fans by refusing to give them the opportunity to hear the performers in person.
There can be no doubt that in musical circles, the boycott movement has had significant successes. Besides the aforementioned performers canceling shows in Israel, apparently Sting and Bono have done the same. Snoop (Doggy) Dogg also pulled his concert due to “contractual difficulties.” It does appear that the explanations given are usually excuses. It is not always clear whether such decisions are a response to boycott pressures or the result of other issues such as slow ticket sales. What is clear however is that a significant number of acts have cancelled and, although known to tell a fib or two in the past, BDS activists have included these artists in a list of musicians that acquiesced to boycott pressures. However, a few musicians and bands seem to have kept the faith, for example, Depeche Mode who performed in Israel last year; Lou Reed, and Madonna who even had a meeting with Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu last year. Other high profile acts such as Bob Dylan and Metallica are still scheduled to perform this year.
Despite the obvious groundswell of support for boycott amongst artists, a significant number may still support Israel publicly. Eighty-five A-list actors, directors and other figures involved with film production in Hollywood issued a statement during the Lebanon War that was published as a full page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times in August 2006. The statement specifically targets Hizbullah and Hamas. The list of notables includes Nicole Kidman, Michael Douglas, Dennis Hopper, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Danny De Vito, Don Johnson, James Woods, Kelly Preston, Patricia Heaton and William Hurt, and directors Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Michael Mann, Dick Donner and Sam Raimi. Despite the presence of the advert in a popular newspaper, and the fact that such celebrity heavyweights took a strong political stand on a contentious issue, the story was almost completely ignored by the mainstream news media throughout the world, with the exception of Australian newspaper The Herald Sun. This is perhaps the most remarkable fact about this tale. It illustrates the extraordinary universal bias against Israel in the mainstream media.
Some constructive steps could be taken to prevent Israel from being isolated permanently. For example, it would be good to see a counter “musicians against boycott” movement developing in order to highlight the extremism of the BDS Movement for their fellow musicians since the increasing isolation of Israel will make it harder for those who do not support boycott to perform there. Such a group could also relate to other spheres of the arts like filmmaking. Fans could also express their support for any performer or band that intends to perform in Israel to help counter-act the pressure they are likely to be subjected to. BDS is a destructive movement. Artists that care about peace and justice need to be clearly advised that their decision not to perform due to pressure will in fact advance an extremist agenda.