Israeli Musical Diplomacy: A Victory Over BDS and Israel-Naysayers
JNS.org – Steven Goldstein’s connection to Israel predates his now-renowned acting and operatic career. He first came to Israel at the age of 15 and has returned many times, including through what would become his initial formal opera-singing training. But now, amid an ongoing push by supporters of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to pressure artists to avoid Israel, Goldstein hopes to use his talents and experience to combat these efforts.
His current visit, hosted by the Israel Vocal Arts Institute, brought Goldstein to Tel Aviv to teach a master class in acting, singing and directing, with a focus on content, language, acting and delivery. His participation in the 2016 Summer Opera Program, held at the Israeli Conservatory of Music, has become a sort of musical diplomacy, as he says, “I feel like I am an ambassador for Israel, for the Jewish people, and for humanity, in some ways.”
Goldstein also has family in the country and personally seeks out opportunities to visit often.
“I love to be in Israel and do opera at the same time,” he says. “Israel’s vocal music scene has grown. There is a small presence of Israeli singers on world stage, but it is continuing to grow. They have done some wonderful things lately, including the sadna (international summer program), which has been very important to my own education.”
To Goldstein, such international exchanges are critical for understanding other people and places.
“There are so many internationals here that it is important for music and arts in general, to bring these people from other places together. We are very, very aware of some of Israel’s image that is happening now in the United States and in Europe, so I think it does help that to bring people here,” he continues.
When artists visit Israel, he maintains, they see it for what it is: an amazing country with problems like any other country.
“I remember one time I sang at the opera house, and there was a singer from the US who was living in Basel, Switzerland – an African American singer. He saw that in Israel, we have problems that need to be fixed, and it’s not perfect, but he said it was the only place he didn’t feel like he was being looked at as a black man. He felt free of that here, whereas he didn’t feel that in Europe and he certainly didn’t feel that in the US. But here, somehow, it wasn’t really the lens in which he was seen,” Goldstein says.
As an advocate for musical diplomacy, Goldstein is a believer in free cultural exchange and a strong critic of the BDS movement against Israeli artists. Although he has never experienced a push to boycott Israel like other American actors and musical performers, he strongly critiques the BDS movement, which he says censors artistic exchange.
“Putting everybody in one group dehumanizes, and there are people on both sides who are trying to make good. BDS, the movement of boycotting and sanctioning culturally is totally misguided,” he says. “Not only misguided, but dangerous. When JVP [Jewish Voices for Peace] starts decrying for musicians to pull out of a concert […] that’s censorship. Musical diplomacy should be diplomacy everywhere.”
Ultimately, as a strong voice in the world of opera, music and show business, Goldstein hopes to “help peel away some of the baggage that western society sometimes sees in Israel.”
“I would love Israel to be the liberal cause again. I think it still is and still can be. I want the world to see that this is a bastion of liberal, progressive thought. It is a place that’s meaningful and inclusive; that’s dealing with some issues, like every place,” he says.
As an unofficial diplomat, Goldstein also hopes that humanity will come through in the music he is performing and teaching.
“If we share music together, we can realize what we share in common, while recognizing our differences. In the end, music speaks to us on a different level. It shows humanity,” Goldstein concludes. “The only way to solve problems is to recognize each other’s humanity.”
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Israel Girl” column for JNS.org. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.