The cultural boycott and the outraged artist
When you arrive in Israel as an internationally-renowned artist to give a concert or accept a cultural award, it is only natural that you not be spat at and knee-capped by Jews. I say this apropos of the odd comments made over the last couple of months by Margaret Atwood and Suzanne Vega regarding their crossing of the BDS picket line. In Israel, it is no surprise that people will be polite to you: “Recently I was in Israel. The Israelis I met could not have been more welcoming” (Atwood). You might even meet with excellent Israeli human rights organizations: “I went to Israel, I played two concerts there. I also met with B’Tselem” (Vega). And the general public will discuss politics with you: “I’d been told ahead of time that Israelis would try to cover up the Shadow, but instead they talked about it non-stop” (Atwood). All that is encouraging – after all it is some ‘shadow’ to live under!
It is usually after these banalities that the artist’s tone abruptly changes and they become angry. Are they angry at the shocking institutional racism towards Palestinians that they witnessed? Is it the ongoing brutal occupation and theft of Palestinian territory? Is it the chilling eye-witness accounts of the massacre of innocents in Gaza? No, they are outraged with their critics. This would not be unexpected, for artists are sensitive and with a noble calling – “to spread love and peace, and bring people together”, as Elton John explained it. “Writers have no armies”, Atwood reminded us in her joint acceptance speech with Amitav Ghosh for the Dan David Prize, so they are vulnerable to attack by unscrupulous governments (and resistance movements too presumably). What makes them special, we are told by their fans, is that their art transcends politics. These fans are the reasonable ones – they are not apparently dogmatic and they don’t scream at the artist, which is a relief after what the artist has been through. “Like most, I’d avoided conversations on [Israel/Palestine] because they swiftly became screaming matches,” Atwood explains. In fact, supporters are generally very pleased to see the artist and to chat amicably about democracy and reconciliation with the ‘other’. What really outrages the artist is the Israelis and internationals who support – and ask her/him to heed – the Palestinian call to BDS – “Any group that uses hatred and humiliation to persuade is not a group I want to be part of. So I am not supporting the boycott. There are other ways towards peace.” (Vega); “I was recently attacked for accepting a cultural prize… This prize was decided upon, not by an instrument of Israeli state power as some would have it, but by a moderate committee within an independent foundation…. The most virulent language was truly anti-Semitic” (Atwood).
Leaving aside the fact that boycott supporters do not constitute a ‘group’ and there are numerous examples of respectful open letters on the web, I want to establish two basic facts so the artists insinuations don’t distract us. First, anyone who resorts to racism in an attempt to persuade the artist to boycott Israel is not representative of the Palestinian individuals and groups in whose name he/she writes and whose call is based on international norms of justice. Second, people are angry and they are incredulous at artists’ decisions to participate in the normalization of the occupation, and while highly personalized attacks on anyone in the public eye are deplorable, people are ‘attacking’ you because you are crossing a picket line and taking a side, even if you refuse to acknowledge it. You have sided with those who have a vested interest in covering up the oppressive colonisation of an indigenous people and the occupying country’s slide into fascism.
Those who ask the artist to join them in this non-violent disruption of normalization use strong terms like ‘massacre’, ‘apartheid’, ‘Israeli state terror’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, and of course boycott. This makes them seem more radical, zealous and hard-line than the admiring fans who in polls, when the artist’s non-political backs are turned, calmly support collective punishment for Palestinians living under occupation, and laws that treat Palestinian citizens of Israel as the enemy from within. One should also ask whether “non-stop” talk by the ordinary Israeli Atwood encountered amounts to much, when very concrete actions have to be taken by these privileged citizens against the violent acts committed in their name every day. Given the nature of Atwood and Vegas’ visit here, including socio-economic and cultural filters, the Israelis they conversed with were not expected to be the most virulent and racist members of Israeli society in the first place, but if they are under any illusions as to how sensitive Israelis are to the suffering of Palestinians under the occupation, they should look at the composition of Israel’s current government to see where popular sentiment lies.
I can imagine that in South Africa during the apartheid era there were many hospitable white South Africans welcoming of artists, and appreciative of their boycott-busting visits. Indeed, Elton John felt welcome enough to play in Sun City, just as he did recently in Arizona after there were calls for artists to boycott the state over the new racist immigration laws. John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, is scheduled to perform in Israel on 31 August in a line-up with LCD Soundsystem and The Drums. Rotten has been the subject of much boycott action, and besides his now notorious racist comment in the Independent magazine interview, he had this message for the 20 or so people who were protesting outside his gig in Liverpool, UK, last month: “… To think that Mr Rotten would be backing Apartheid, that’s really f*ckin’ dumb c*nts for ya. Yes I fully intend to go to Israel. I support no f*ckin’ government anywhere – never have, never will. And here’s a nice little fact for the fools in the wooly t-shirts: Jews are people too…”. Mr. Rotten with all due respect, that is the dumbest rejoinder I have heard from a boycotted artist. Your faux-anarchism is of great comfort to the Israeli government, whether you intend it to be or not.
As Judith Butler wrote of her visit to Israel many years ago, “the rector of Tel Aviv University said, ‘Look how lucky we are. Judith Butler has come to Tel Aviv University, a sign that she does not accept the boycott,’ I was instrumentalized against my will. And I realized I cannot function in that public space without already being defined in the boycott debate. So there is no escape from it. One can stay quiet and accept the status quo, or one can take a position that seeks to challenge the status quo.” No artist, however talented, can transcend this co-option into a propaganda machine so powerful that it can persuade normally intelligent people around the world, let alone its own citizens, that the Israel state is the only democracy in the Middle East.
Eleanor Kilroy is an artist and BDS activist living in London.