The how and why of boycotting a nation like Israel

The Guardian music blog publishes an interesting discussion about the rights, wrongs and issues over musical boycotts (South Africa, Israel etc):

Last week, Elvis Costello became the latest, though probably not the last, musician to pull out of a concert in Israel under pressure from various groups calling for a cultural boycott of the country over its mistreatment of Palestinians. Before him it was Gil Scott-Heron, whose recent London show was disrupted by protesters, and Carlos Santana. But Israel has by no means been struck off the international gig circuit: forthcoming attractions include Elton John, Mark Knopfler, Placebo, and Costello’s wife, Diana Krall. This is largely because there is no official cultural boycott of Israel equivalent to that imposed on South Africa during apartheid. Despite the rhetoric of the pro-boycott lobby, which talks of Israel’s “colonial apartheid”, it remains a matter of individual choice.

A successful boycott requires general consensus on two principles: one, that the cause is just, and two, that a boycott is an effective political tool. In the case of Israel, neither agreement yet exists. Talking to the Jerusalem Post before his U-turn, Costello argued: “The people who call for a boycott of Israel own the narrow view that performing there must be about profit and endorsing the hawkish policy of the government. It’s like never appearing in the US because you didn’t like Bush’s policies or boycotting England because of Margaret Thatcher.”

Costello could not be described as a Zionist hawk, and nor could Gil Scott-Heron. Leonard Cohen attempted to forge a compromise last year, when he donated proceeds from his Tel Aviv show to the Leonard Cohen Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace, which helps bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families, and scheduled a concert in Ramallah. But the Palestinian authorities nixed the Ramallah show, calling it a phony gesture towards “balance”. Some pro-Palestinian campaigners applauded the cancellation; others regretted the “missed opportunity” to raise awareness.

We are not dealing here with either pro-settlement cheerleading or ignorant greed. These artists decry aspects of Israeli policy without wanting to shun the entire country. As Costello explained on his website: “I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government.” I have traveled to Israel to interview both Jewish and Arabic musicians, and met the kind of liberal Jewish Israelis, such as the rapper Sagol 59, that Costello is talking about. A formal boycott would punish hawk and dove alike. What about another group I met, the Arabic hip-hop trio DAM, who rage against government policy from their home in the Israeli town of Lod? A full, South Africa-style boycott would ban them from playing abroad too.

Boycotts are always blunt tools. South African apartheid remains the most potent example of a successful boycott, but even that was not without complications. Take the example of Paul Simon’s Graceland. A few years after the UN’s 1980 resolution establishing a cultural boycott, Simon traveled to South Africa to record with black musicians. He obeyed the letter of the UN boycott, which governed live performances but not recording sessions, and, he believed, the spirit because he was bringing money and publicity to black musicians, and presenting a more positive image of South African culture to the world.

But he was careless about the politics and refused to seek the ANC’s approval, thus triggering a bitter war of words with anti-apartheid campaigners. Lined up against him were Jerry Dammers (writer of the classic song Nelson Mandela), Billy Bragg and Dali Tambo, son of ANC leader Oliver Tambo. But he was supported by South African exiles, and tireless campaigners, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Graceland was enormously popular among black South Africans and Masekela resented the stringent boycott: “Agencies overseas don’t feel that they have to consult with South Africans while they’re helping them. Like the cultural boycott – nobody approached us, nobody asked us!”

Simon handled the affair badly — “if he had come to us first and discussed this, none of this shit would have happened”, said Dali Tambo — but it exposed the cracks and ambiguities in the boycott. Anyone attending the Graceland revue at the Royal Albert Hall in 1987 experienced the bizarre sensation of passing noisy picket lines (which included the writer of “Nelson Mandela”) in order to hear Hugh Masekela perform the pro-Mandela Bring Him Back Home. The songs had the same message, but the musicians who wrote them were, at least temporarily, on opposing sides.

Last year, Jerry Dammers explained his hardline stance to me: “No matter how much you love South African music, the people who make that music are going to be better off when apartheid is abolished, so the message is solidarity.” But solidarity has its victims. At the same time as the Gracelands furore, the UK Musicians Union, which had maintained a boycott against South Africa since the 1960s, endeavoured to block UK shows by the Malapoets, a group of black Sowetans, and the multiracial Savuka, whose own anti-apartheid record, Asimbonaga, had in fact been banned at home. Once again, people with the same politics were forced to be at each other’s throats.

You might believe that the current Israeli regime is as brutal and unreasonable as Botha’s South Africa, and merits similarly extreme measures. And you might argue that the only way for any performer to protest Israeli policies is to avoid the country completely. But a boycott is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel, and it does not divide people neatly into right and wrong. There will be casualties.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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