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July 19, 2015 12:30 pm

If BDS Supports Tolerance, Why is it Trying to Suppress Free Speech?

avatar by Lana Melman

Anti-Israel Protestors. Photo: WikiMedia Commons.

Anti-Israel Protestors. Photo: WikiMedia Commons.

The cultural boycott against Israel strikes at the heart of freedom of expression. The Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement seeks to rob the world of one of its most valued treasures – freedom of expression – one artist, one performance, one  exhibit at a time.

Proponents of the cultural boycott against Israel want to prevent international audiences from experiencing Israeli art and want to cut the flow of world art going into Israel. They want to bar films from festivals, silence instruments, and take canvases off walls.

Whether they wish to engage or entertain, artists must have both the freedom to create and to share in order to thrive. They want as many people as possible to see their paintings, hear their songs and laugh at their jokes. This passion to connect is as natural as the moon’s pull on the ocean. Artists have been willing to go to jail rather than lose the opportunity to share their art.

In totalitarian regimes, artists are arrested to prevent them from sharing their art. In open, liberal societies getting an artist to cancel a performance or a venue to take down an exhibit requires other means.

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Index on Censorship, an international organisation that promotes and defends the right to freedom of expression, sounded the alarm about the threat and consequences of self-censorship at a UK conference in 2013. Causes of this threat, according to a report by Julia Farrington, include “the fear of causing offence, losing financial support, violent public reaction or media storm…”

The conference rightfully condemned the deleterious impact these social forces have on the creation of art. Regrettably, it completely failed to criticise the devastating consequences these forces have on the sharing of art.

Nowhere is this threat posed to artistic expression on more prominent display than in the cultural boycott effort against Israel.

BDS strategies are intended to instil fear in artists. Anyone who wants to perform for their Israeli fans is fair game for attacks on his or her character and reputation. Boycott proponents both implicitly and explicitly threaten to damage careers. When Israeli artists book international events, BDS proponents pressure venues to cancel; interrupt performances; charge the stage and intimidate participants. The vitriolic rhetoric is intended to create violent public reaction. Music, books, dance, visual art, theatre and movies are all piled on to a bonfire on our shoreline. The artists most impacted by such attempts to erode freedom of expression, however, are musicians on tour.

Actors and other celebrities typically fly into Israel without much notice. Vitriol can swell once they are there and after they have gone, but they have already experienced Israel for themselves and are not as vulnerable to misinformation.

Musicians on tour have to book a concert and sell tickets in advance. Schedules need to be arranged, shows promoted and money invested, so dates for a Israel visit are listed online often months ahead. This puts time on the side of BDS.

With advance notice, boycott proponents can orchestrate a multi-faceted campaign and foster a media storm. Social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are supplemented with written letters and phone calls to artists’ representatives. Petitions are circulated. Videos misusing the artist’s own music are re-purposed to put BDS words into his or her mouth. There is ample time to write propaganda-riddled blogs that are picked up and disseminated by mainstream publications.

And what about the impact this crusade has on artists both as human beings and creators?

The Index on Censorship report goes on to note that backlash from the general public and media “can be hard to handle and can leave those [artists] in the eye of the storm feeling isolated.”

Although the hundreds of artists who keep scheduled performances and visits to Israel each year can bolster resolve, each artist drowning in the tidal wave of the BDS onslaught can feel isolated and overwhelmed, a pawn in someone else’s political agenda.

Should an artist make a political comment in the public forum, his or her opinion, like everyone else’s, can rightfully be scrutinised and subject to challenge. BDS, however, victimises them for merely for wanting to share their art.

Sometimes people will make the irrelevant and unfounded retort that the artists targeted by BDS don’t really care how they are talked about – they are just playing in Israel for the money.

Artists play in Israel for the same reason they play everywhere else. Of course they want to be compensated for their work, but they also want to connect with their fans. They want to realise their unique ability to challenge us, make us think, bring us together, create a universality, and provide a bedrock for peace.

Success is not an anaesthesia. It does not make one immune to the pain and public humiliation of slander. The bigger the artist, the bigger the media storm and the more widespread the false accusations. To assume artists have no feelings is to disregard their humanity.

In addition, although conversation often focuses on high-profile celebrities, it is the less well-known artists who can end up bearing the brunt of the BDS effort. Tour dates and sales mean a great deal to them and their families. Threats to their careers, implied or explicit, strike home and BDS callously exploits this vulnerability.

When an artist suddenly embraces the BDS message after a torrent of public pressure, it is not much different than conversion by the sword. Art is integral to the human experience. It is a connective tissue between people and places.

It simultaneously reflects the world in which we live and serves as a vehicle for change. It is a flower we cultivate for future generations. BDS strategy seeks to intimidate artists and it strives to keep the rest of us distracted with each power play, each drama, every wave of activity they create, so that we don’t have time to look down at our feet and see that the beach upon which we all stand is slipping away.

The threat to freedom of expression anywhere is a threat to that freedom everywhere. BDS is creating a handbook for the repression of artistic expression in democratic societies. The world looks away at great peril.

Lana Melman is a lawyer and expert on the cultural boycott, and 25-year veteran of the entertainment industry. This article was originally published by the UK’s Jewish Chronicle.

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