Silence is Deafening, Boycotts are Loud
Image Source: Pintrest
By: Aaron Gilchrist
This August, Lana Del Rey announced that she would be performing in Israel; just two weeks later, she changed her mind. Between these two moments lies a political controversy, almost undetectable in her public statements on the matter. In defense of the Israel show she tweeted, “I understand why many of you are upset,” but did not specify why. One fan defended the show by insisting that the audience would “have nothing to do with what is happening,” but did not say what was happening. Two weeks later, the tweet announcing her decision to postpone the show was similarly evasive. These statements suggest that there is an elephant in the room. The elephant is the government-sanctioned second class citizenship of Palestinians in Israel—polemicizing any artist’s decision to perform there. But you wouldn’t gather that from Del Rey’s tweets. In her statements, Del Rey stays politically neutral—avoiding direct references to political conflict might trigger debate. But political neutrality does have political impact. In the case of Del Rey’s tweets, it elided the topic of Palestinian oppression and turned the heart of the matter, into the elephant in the room. This dynamic is a microcosm of what happens when artists actually perform there. Concerts in Israel perpetuate an apolitical image of the country that is used to deemphasize the urgency of conflict. Artists must publicly boycott Israel to call attention to the institutions perpetuating oppression and the work being done to conceal it.
The Israel-Palestine conflict centers on the divide between a sector Israeli Zionists who believe God promised Israel to Jewish people, and Palestinians who believe that their initial occupation of the land entitles them to it. Though many Jewish people contest this ideology and the actions taken in its name, Israel and its colonial powers have historically worked to realize this ideal. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, 1949’s Armistice Agreements established a temporary ‘green line’ between Israeli and Arab states. But after the Six Day War in 1967, Israel settled past the line, seizing the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Later, they began subsidizing jewish settlements on the occupied land--many of which the UN has deemed illegal. In Israel, the government made checkpoints for Palestinians and a wall on the green line in the West Bank after a 2000 intifada. This year, Israel’s ‘nation state’ law gave Jewish people a ‘unique’ right to self determination in Israel--the law initially called for segregated jewish-only communities. But even without legal segregation, the ‘nation state’ law, the wall, checkpoints, and settlements ensure a second class citizenship for Palestinians in Israel and Israel-occupied territories.
Concerts in Israel obfuscate this turmoil by creating a depoliticized image of the country. Artists performing in Israel often argue that their performances are apolitical. “Performing in Tel Aviv is not a political statement…” Del Rey tweeted. Defending their 2017 Israel concert Radiohead stated, “Playing in a country isn’t ... endorsing its government...Music...is about crossing borders not building them.” But, it is the popular perception of entertainment as an apolitical force that makes it such a powerful political tool. In Israel, though violent rebellions against Israeli segregation occasionally disrupt daily life, forces like the wall and checkpoints largely isolate Israelis from the conflict. “It’s really easy, most of the time, to feel like you live in a normal place,” says Israeli musician Noga Erez. Because concerts are seen as apolitical, they perpetuate this illusion. As many Israeli musicians wrote in an open letter to Radiohead, “International performances in Israel serve the government’s agenda of whitewashing its war crimes against Palestinians by creating a ‘business as usual’ atmosphere.”
Radiohead’s concert was used to this effect when editor and publisher Richard Ferrer tweeted: “True melting pot crowd at @Radiohead concert in ‘apartheid’ #Israel tonight exposes @PACBI @BoycottIsraelUK for what they really are.” Ferrer’s reference to a “melting pot” mirrors Del Rey and Radiohead’s argument that music unifies people beyond politics. But here, Ferrer uses that argument to undermine critiques of Israel’s government and pro-Palestine groups The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). These artists may intend to unite audiences across political lines. But because concerts in Israel are used to silence Palestinian oppression, they often perpetuate more division.
Artists can control the political impact of their art by boycotting Israel just like artists boycotted South Africa during the apartheid. In response to Del Rey’s initial decision to perform in Israel, the PACBI tweeted “We doubt that you would have played in apartheid South Africa; likewise, artists refuse to play in apartheid Israel.” This comparison is apt as boycotts of South Africa provide a model for today’s activism. In Peter Vale’s Why Constructive Engagement Failed, he explains that Ronald Reagan was essentially “embarrassed” into imposing the sanctions on South Africa that led to the end of apartheid. Activists provoked a complicit government by displaying a distaste with apartheid so widespread, it made the government’s complacency seem out of touch and embarrassing. The method was threefold: boycotts led to institutional divestment and government sanctions. In the mid 80s, artists like Bono, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis popularized boycotts. A surge in institutional divestments from companies working with South Africa followed. Smith and Harvard announced divestments in 1986. The same year, the US government drafted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid act, which called for sanctions. During this era, boycotts called attention to an injustice in order to combat it.
In Palestine today, the complexities of the boycott, divest, sanction model play out in real time. Groups like the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions against Israel (BDS) urged artist Lorde to cancel her Tel Aviv show. Lorde canceled her show. When some of Lorde’s Israeli fans sued BDS activists over the cancellation, the activists created a crowdfunding campaign for the Gaza Mental Health Foundation, instead of paying the damages. Utilising the boycott, divest and sanction method, today’s activists know their history, and translate yesterday’s model into today’s socio-political landscape.
Last year, Donald Trump endorsed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. As domestic powers align with Israel, a strong stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict will become an increasingly important political statement for any American or US-based artist--particularly for outwardly anti-Trump artists like Del Rey. Because concerts are used to create a depoliticized image of Israel that undermines claims of oppression, artists are in a unique position to fight injustice by restricting access to the entertainment people use to isolate themselves from it. By boycotting Israel, artists can amplify the voices that their music is being used to silence.