It’s been years since music lovers in Israel have had the opportunity to see so many performers from overseas. A partial list of artists scheduled to perform here this summer includes Radiohead, the Pixies, Justin Bieber, Aerosmith, Guns and Roses, Rod Stewart, Nick Cave, Tears for Fears, Grandaddy, Jose Gonzalez, Fatboy Slim, Jean-Michel Jarre, Paul Young, Vanessa Mae, Emir Kusturica and Ace of Base. The list could include other top performers who have had good runs in Israel in recent years, including the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Alice Cooper, Rihanna, Sia and Elton John.
With so many performers now working in Israel, is it a sign of the cultural boycott’s failure? It’s true that along with this glittering array there were also some resounding cancellations, one of the more memorable ones being that of the Pixies’ concert in 2010 only a few days before their performance, shortly after Israel’s fatal takeover of the Gaza-bound ship Mavi Marmara. Since that cancellation they have performed in Israel several times.
Among the artists whose names are linked to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are Roger Waters, Elvis Costello, the Gorillas, Devendra Banhart and Annie Lennox. Some of them have openly stated that their reason for objecting to performing here was Israel’s domination of the Palestinians.
So, is the boycott working? “At first, many performers thought that appearing in Israel would hurt them financially, but then they saw that musicians were performing here without paying a price. They understood that the sanctions movement is a marginal one,” says a senior Israeli journalist who has been covering the subject. “Many times it’s the politicians on both sides who make waves about the BDS movement. Politicians on the right make gains by pointing to the whole world as being against us, stating that things here are in a mess because of the occupation. In practice, the success of the boycott movement is doubtful.”
Conversations with some of the prominent producers who bring international artists to Israel bear out these words. Some of them say that the boycott movement peaked following the Marmara incident, but as time passed the protest waned. Guy Besser, one of the owners of Blue Stone Productions, the company bringing over Guns and Roses and Aerosmith, says, “The boycott has only marginal influence on artists, and the ones who do come here leave as goodwill ambassadors. After their performance they realize that there is a huge gap between what they were told as part of the pressure they were subjected to and the local reality. We notice the weakening of the boycott from year to year, with Israel becoming a legitimate venue for performances. Ultimately, music vanquishes politics.
When we meet performers and suggest they come to Israel we bring up the political issue at the very beginning, telling them that this will rear its head. However, we propose that they don’t engage in political discussions and come meet their fans here just like they do anywhere else.
The market is on the upswing,” continues Besser, “There are many players trying to bring artists here, and audiences have shown that they are amazing consumers of culture, knowing how to enjoy performances. The rising competition has also brought down ticket prices, and performances have become more accessible.”
Guy Chadwick, soloist in The House of Love band that performed here last week, agrees with Besser, saying his band had no concerns over coming to Israel. He says he’s wanted to come to Israel for years and didn’t give much thought to the political situation, since he was interested in the local history and culture. He relates how his agent had told band members that there may be problems such as online petitions if they perform in Israel, saying that he’d had such experiences with other groups he had brought to Israel. However, Chadwick says that they encountered no opposition.
The fact that international artists perform in other countries like China, a country not exactly known for its human rights record, Indonesia where anti LGBT laws are in enforced, the Gulf States, and the list goes on. The hypocrisy is a little obvious when Israel gets singled out. Bjork, was supposed to have 16 concerts in China, but as soon as she opened her mouth and said something about human rights during her first performance, her whole tour was canceled. Now we’ll see what happens in the U.S., with Trump meaning to build a wall on the Mexican border. Do you think any of the major performers will stop appearing there because of that?
Artist such as Alicia Keys who was strongly encouraged to honor the boycott decided to perform here anyway. Not only did she come, she also had local singer-songwriter Idan Raichel on the stage singing with her. A few months later she appeared with Raichel and a Palestinian singer in a joint concert in New York’s Central Park. She saw both sides and did not ignore the complexity of the situation.”
Nevertheless, the boycott movement – whether one believes in its advantages or whether one views it as an impediment to a dialogue between artists and their audiences, whether one believes it’s working or not – seems to be failing when it comes to the appearance of major artists in Israel. If a band such as Radiohead, one of the most successful in the world, can be brought to Hayarkon Park when it can get any stadium in Europe within minutes, this means that it is consciously choosing to do so. This is also true for the Pixies, Justin Bieber and others.
Credit goes to Itay Sterne of the Haaretz publication for excepts of this post.