The boycott against Israel: which side is music on?

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Is art a vague, individualistic pursuit of human creativity, divorced from any other reality or social accountability? Can we act as artists and ignore others being starved, beaten and imprisoned around us?

These are questions central to the culture boycott on Israel, in solidarity with Palestinians. Most prominent artists keep their distance from politics and will perform anywhere for an audience. But a few brave artists and academics have taken a stand, and have urged their colleagues to follow their lead.

The BDS boycott. A broad coalition of Palestinian trade, professional, and artist unions and feminist groups launched the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in 2005. Its mission is to use boycott as a form of civil resistance to Israel’s military occupation, colonialism and apartheid policies in Palestine. In its simplest form, BDS calls on academics and artists to refuse to perform, speak, publish or attend conferences in Israel. BDS efforts have greatly contributed to better public understanding of the Middle East.

Bravo to some musicians! Roger Waters, one of the founders of Pink Floyd, has strongly supported the boycott since its inception and has urged fellow artists to join him. He has studied the issues and speaks eloquently about them. Gil Scott Heron, long time leftist musician and poet supported the boycott and Palestinian rights up until his death in 2011. Annie Lennox and Pete Seeger have made overt political statements in support of the boycott.

Several prominent artists were originally going to perform in Israel, and were eventually pressured to cancel their engagements. Stevie Wonder, who has written some profound music about struggle and justice, was going to play a benefit concert for the Israeli Defense Forces in 2013 until he was persuaded to cancel. Elvis Costello, The Pixies and Devandra Barnhart also cancelled under pressure. Jazz singer and pianist, Diana Krall, however, kept her engagements in Israel.

The privileged apolitical. Generally, when it comes to big-time popular music artists and politics, we should probably keep our expectations low. If they do take a position, it is more likely to be so mainstream that it’s practically no stance at all.

For them, the cultural boycott of Israel is more “out of sight, out of mind.” Pop star Rihanna, the Rolling Stones, Alicia Keys, Paul McCartney, Cyndi Lauper, Paula Abdul and the actress Scarlett Johansen ignored the boycott. They received a little heat in the press, but it was nothing that their substantial image management resources couldn’t just “make go away.”

Others such as Elton John and Madonna made a point of starting a number of their tours in Israel, claiming that “politics” divides, that people just have to “come together.” Politics do divide — the haves from the have-nots. And one big happy family is not possible between the dictator and the dominated.

Art is political. Art is an expression of the human experience, which is full of struggle and striving. In all ages there are artists that pander to the elite. And today, very rich prominent artists seem content to be just “entertainers,” bigger than life and above the fray except for endlessly reported personal dramas and addictions.

Most artists are working class, but the incomes of the few superstars are so high that their affiliation is most likely to be with the ruling class. And beyond that, high profile artists like Rihanna, Madonna, and Elton John are full tilt divas. It’s about them, you see, so don’t expect them to be political, or very principled if they do take a stand.

The BDS campaign needs every artist, of every stature, to strengthen the boycott. Its most powerful allies are those who remain rooted in the working class. They deepen BDS’ political program — musicians from every genre and combination of genres who express the best of humanity and rise above narcissism.

Working people always need to come together: Arabs and Jews and all other racial and ethnic groups, women and men, wherever they are, united against their common lords and masters. The only functional family is the international working class, with its guts and creativity, and unremitting demands.

If ever it was crucial for artists on all fronts to once again stand up for justice and equality it is now — times of great, preventable misery.

Given Israel’s grave attacks on Gaza, it is especially critical to build this cultural boycott. For information, check out the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Facebook page.

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