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May 9, 2013 3:52 am

For Popular Musicians, Performing in Israel Makes a Statement

avatar by Binyamin Kagedan /

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Madonna performs in Tel Aviv on May 31, 2012. Photo: MDNA.

Since the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement got its start in 2005, the decision to schedule an appearance in Israel has been become a difficult one for popular recording artists. American and British performers who announce plans to stop in Tel Aviv or Ramat Gan as part of their world tour quickly come under fire from blogs, Facebook groups, and other BDS outlets that call upon them to immediately cancel these shows.

Some artists in recent years have complied with the BDS movement’s demands or even adopted its Israel-as-apartheid discourse. The most recent incident involved Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters, whose April 30 event at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, “A Conversation With Rogers Waters,” was canceled following opposition efforts from the pro-Israel community. Waters last fall accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” “apartheid” and “international crimes” in an address at the United Nations (UN), and he also spearheaded efforts to boycott an Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Last November, Stevie Wonder backed out of a performance at the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces gala in Los Angeles, following a BDS petition that garnered more than 4,600 signatures and a recommendation from the UN to withdraw.

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Yet, despite the potential of BDS backlash, many of the biggest acts in English-language music have played for Israeli audiences over the last decade. Paul McCartney performed in Tel Aviv in 2008, despite not only condemnation from boycott advocates but also a publicized death threat from an Islamic militant in Lebanon. The Black Eyed Peas came to Israel in 2006. Aerosmith and Leonard Cohen performed in Israel in 2009, Elton John and Metallica both played Tel Aviv in 2010, and Paul Simon and Justin Bieber came to the Jewish state in 2011.

Most recently, 2012 saw Israel host to Madonna, Lady Gaga, Metallica, Rihanna, Chris Cornell, Linkin Park, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Israeli fans, meanwhile, have shown themselves to be a force to reckoned with. In an ironic twist, Israeli Metallica devotees boycotted an upcoming appearance in Tel Aviv, protesting high ticket prices, and succeeded in persuading the band to intervene with concert promoters.

For some artists, resisting the pressure to divest from Israel means simply not responding to the blogs and online petitions. Others have gone a step further by vocally defending their choice. Elton John, whose 2010 concert came in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident, affirmed on stage to his adoring audience that music is the wrong place for playing politics.

“Musicians spread love and peace, bringing people together,” he said. “That’s what we do. We don’t cherry-pick our conscience.”

John’s statement was both one of support for Israelis and a jibe aimed at several popular musicians who had recently canceled tour dates in Israel, such as Santana, the Pixies, and Elvis Costello. Costello, announcing his decision to cancel on his official website, said his decision to pull out was “a matter of instinct and conscience.”

Like John, others in the music world have answered protests by citing the unique ability of art to unify people across class and culture. Sharon Osborne said in a video released to reporters ahead of a 2010 concert that she and Ozzy were proud to be playing in Israel.

“Music goes beyond politics because it is the international language of the world,” she said.

Paul McCartney performs in Tel Aviv in September 2008. Photo: DMY/Wikimedia Commons.

Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson, in response to calls for the band to cancel its 2010 Israel concert series, wrote on the band’s website that being told to boycott Israel “serves to strengthen my resolve that some degree of peace and understanding will result from my and other artists’ professional and humble efforts in such places.”

In an effort to harness and publicize the opinions of more Israel-friendly celebrities like these, a group of music and film executives and industry workers launched the Creative Community for Peace (CCP) in 2011.

Attempting to balance the discourse of cultural divestment in the public sphere, the CCP’s website features a sizable wall of quotes from popular musicians and film and television actors defending the choice to visit or perform in Israel, and expressing their positive impressions of the country and its people. The group also provides consulting services to talent agents and band managers on the unique logistical and public relations challenges of coordinating celebrity appearances in Israel.

“We may not all share the same politics or the same opinion on the best path to peace in the Middle East,” the CCP states on its website. “But we do agree that singling out Israel, the only democracy in the region, as a target of cultural boycotts while ignoring the now-recognized human rights issues of her neighbors will not further peace.”

Binyamin Kagedan has an MA in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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  • One small correction:

    the BDS movement was founded at the infamous 2001 Durban UN “Conference against Racism”, at which the parallel NGO session called for a program of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. That’s an important point because the anti-Semitism displayed openly at Durban is built into the DNA of the BDS movement. It’s also indicative of a longer track record of failure– 12 years vs 8 at this point.

  • Ethan Coane

    One must remember that performing artists, of any medium or style, are oftentimes either politically oblivious and/or ignorant. They’re mostly focused on their art and the business of supporting themselves through their art. Those that choose to boycott Israeli audiences may just be responding to the loudest and most vitriolic, though not diverse, voices. It’s up to the Israeli public (the artists’ audience) to counter the “boycott Israel” efforts.

  • Lynne T

    Good on artists like Ian Anderson and Elton John for their rebukes to BDS. Bob Dylan played Ramat Gan either in 2011 or 2012, shortly after giving a pair of concerts in China. Interestingly, it was his performance in China that became controversial as it was alleged that he gave into state censors with respect to his play list. Dylan issued a firm statement to the contrary and there wasn’t a whisper about the Ramat Gan show, possibly because the usual BDS suspects feared a highly articulate and damaging rebuke.

  • Peter

    Wish Stephen Hawkings would have followed such reasoned advice.