Israelis fear cultural boycott

By Tobias Buck in Jerusalem

Published: June 11 2010 16:49 | Last updated: June 11 2010 16:49

Judging by recent events, the global music scene has been gripped by an exciting new craze: boycotting Israel.

The fashion started this year, when Carlos Santana, the ageing guitar hero, cancelled his planned summer gig in Tel Aviv without explanation. It gained a new follower last month, when Elvis Costello, the British singer, said his “conscience” would not allow him to perform in Israel.

The trend really took off after Israel’s deadly assault on the Gaza aid convoy last week. In the space of a few days, the Pixies, Gorillaz and Klaxons – three bands representing musical styles ranging from late 1980s US indie rock to British dance punk – all cancelled concerts in Israel. Fans were left seething, while rightwing commentators were busy writing a new term into the Israeli political lexicon: “cultural terrorism”.

Lurking behind the controversy is a profound anxiety among Israelis of all political persuasions that their country is becoming an international outcast. Already isolated in diplomatic and political terms, Israelis have every reason to fear that cultural ties with the outside world might also be under threat.

For the time being, the artists’ boycott of Israel is something of a fringe movement. Numerous bands and singers – from Rihanna, an R&B singer, to Placebo, a UK band – decided to play concerts in Israel and more are expected to go ahead with their scheduled gigs this summer. A writers’ festival in Jerusalem was also studded with big-names from around the world.

But for a country that prides itself on its writers, film-makers, designers and contemporary dance companies, the mere threat of a cultural boycott is unsettling. Pro-Palestinian campaigners outside the country have taken note: artists planning concerts in Israel now find themselves under increasing pressure to call off their visits. Thanks to Facebook, the social networking site, and the internet, campaigns are easy to organise and can be highly effective.

At the same time, even many leftwing critics of the Israeli government argue that cancelling concerts in Israel and banning Israeli films from cinemas in Europe – as happened, briefly, in France this week – undermines the very minority that is fighting for change in the country.

“I am sure [prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [foreign minister Avigdor] Lieberman are not much concerned by the cancellation of a Pixies concert,” says Uri Misgav, a writer for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. “From what I can tell, acts like that just weaken and depress the already starving camp on the left.”

Uri Dromi, the director of Mishkenot, which organises Jerusalem’s writers’ festival, also warns against targeting what he calls Israel’s “soft underbelly” of culture. “For people here, this is a way of saying ‘You are not wanted in the world’ and that alienates people.” He adds: “I think this is morally wrong but it is also counterproductive.”

The recent trend is likely to be felt with particular anguish in Tel Aviv, a city that is widely perceived as a Mediterranean capital of cool on a par with Barcelona and Beirut. With its plethora of bars, beaches, boutiques and Bauhaus architecture, the city has become a popular destination for style-conscious travellers and fashion addicts from around the world.

But leftwing activists in Israel have long had mixed feelings about the city’s affluent pleasure-seekers, who stand accused of political apathy and living in the proverbial “Tel Aviv bubble”. Could the artistic backlash make a difference?

Didi Remez, an Israeli human rights activist and blogger, argues that the jury is still out. “It is pretty clear that life in Tel Aviv is very isolated from Israeli policies in the occupied territories,” he says.

What is much less clear, he adds, is whether the cancellation of concerts will do much to pierce the bubble: “Only time will tell whether this can help, or whether it just deepens the siege mentality.”

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