And the Band Didn’t Play On: Why a Cultural Boycott of Israel is Wrong


In what one concert promoter has called “cultural terrorism which is targeting Israel and the arts worldwide,” more musicians seem to be trumpeting the latest Palestinian efforts to undermine movement in the peace process as they cancel scheduled tour dates in Israel.

How ironic that these artists are boycotting Israel, a nation that has a lively and vibrant cultural arts scene, to make a political statement about Gaza, a region where “cultural police” inhibit free expression.

The cancellations have come both before and after the May Gaza flotilla incident, where Israel successfully prevented ships sponsored by terrorist organizations from breaking a security blockade of Gaza.

When Elvis Costello cancelled his June and July shows, weeks before the “Free Gaza Now” effort to break the safety blockade of Gaza, he blamed Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. In the wake of the flotilla conflict, The Pixies, Gorillaz Sound System, and Klaxons have withdrawn from their scheduled appearances.

All of these cancellations fit into a Palestinian divestment and boycott strategy which includes ongoing demonization and deligitimization of Israel.

Not everyone is taking the divestment bait, of course. Many international performers are still planning to play in Israel this summer. But the pressure on artists to bypass Israel is part of an intricate puzzle that includes calls for academic and commercial boycotts and overall divestment.

This divestment and boycott effort undermines the peace process. The Palestinians cannot have it both ways—by entering into proximity talks, there is an accompanying requirement of good will. But if the Palestinians do the diplomatic "hokey pokey"—putting one foot in, leaving one foot out (via boycotts and divestment), why would Israelis think the Palestinians are serious about peace?

On his website, Costello said he cancelled his June and July concert dates because of the “suffering of the innocent” and later wrote that he was certain there would be audience members who might agree with him.

But his concern for the “suffering of the innocent” is misplaced. Surely the Israelis who live in such towns as Sderot and Ashkelon, where thousands of Hamas rockets and mortars have rained upon Israeli civilians in the last decade, are innocent. As are all Jews, who are characterized in the Palestinian school system as “sub-human,” and as “pigs” and “monkeys.” And so is the vast majority of the Israeli population, who still have to worry that taking a bus, going to a café, restaurant, or mall, could be a deadly gamble as suicide bombers could lay in wait as Israelis try to go about their daily lives.

Apparently, in Costello’s world there is no Israeli suffering. For Costello, as for too many in the international community, Israel is held to a different set of rules and standards.

Those musicians who cancelled in the wake of the flotilla incident should be aware that Israel repeatedly offered to have the ships dock in a safe port, where Israel could run security checks on the ship’s cargo, before trucking it into Gaza. The Free Gaza Movement revealed its true motives in rejecting that offer.

There are some basic, irrefutable truths that Costello and the other artists seem to ignore. At every turn, Israel has pressed for peace with her neighbors, giving up land for the promise of a lasting, peaceful existence. And at every turn, the Palestinians have rejected Israeli overtures. Notwithstanding proximity talks, it has been all take and no give by the Palestinians. And when one side of the conflict’s tangled triangle is ruled by Hamas, a terrorist group that seeks to delegitimize and demonize Israel and maintains in its charter that Israel has no right to exist, there is an inherent imbalance. And Israel suffers.

Do these musicians know about Israeli aid efforts in Gaza? Contrary to public perception, relief supplies reach Gaza from Israel on a regular basis—about 15,000 tons of aid per week.

A pernicious cultural boycott is well underway and sadly, those falling for this cultural divestment are misled and ill-informed.

Costello and the others are seemingly indifferent to the fact that Israel is a democracy and Israeli-Arabs have full voting rights. Israel opens its capital to all religions to worship at holy shrines. Israel is a shining testament to ingenuity and work ethic. Israeli innovation and products permeate the global work and social environment. Israel, a tiny, resource-poor nation of approximately 7.5 million is surrounded by mostly hostile neighbors—the Arab population in the region is about 350 million.

A cultural boycott makes for good headlines, but the tunnel vision of any boycotting artists could have broader impact. In this age of instant information, often delivered in staccato bursts, an ill-conceived boycott publicized at face value and without facts, can, in its own way, affect prospects for peace. Notwithstanding their various musical successes, these artists have struck a sour note with their decisions not to play.

Daniel S. Mariaschin is executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International


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