Soft Targets

Like many of you, I’ve received a fair share of alerts that Elvis Costello has joined the ranks of entertainers planning to boycott Israel until the boycott “movement” gives them the all clear. A number of these alarms have been accompanied by condemnations of Costello as a hack, a has-been and a hypocrite, coupled with calls to counter-boycott the singer and (if it can be done with MP3s) burn his recordings for good measure.

In truth, I have a slightly softer spot for Elvis Costello than I do for Carlos Santana, another rocker who has decided to dabble in moral consciousness at the expense of the Jewish state, if only because I saw E.C. in concert once (at Brandies as a matter of fact) and a friend one succeeded in impersonating the British singer to get into a sold-out comedy club. The fact that celebrity endorsements (even ones in favor of causes I support) have always seemed pretty vacuous and imbecilic also keeps the danger signal of Costello’s choice flashing yellow instead of red.

That said, if the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that BDS is pretty good at capitalizing on even small successes, at least in terms of keeping its militant project energized. So the recruitment of pop-stars as the latest anti-Israel bludgeon needs to be taken seriously. At the same time, placing this month’s BDS “triumph” in the context of how the whole boycott and divestment thing has been going over the last year or two might provide some guidance as to how to meet this latest challenge.

As this site has been documenting, BDS has had a pretty tough go of it since it got off the ground in 2001. College administrators (the only ones who could make actual campus divestment decisions) have their number. Leaders of the Mainline Protestant churches that once championed divestment have seen their activities condemned by overwhelming majorities of church members. Product boycotts tend to trigger counter-boycotts that drive up the sale of Israeli goods by thousands of percentage points. And if you pull back and look at the bigger picture, the decade that BDS has been in existence has seen a doubling of the Israeli economy and exports, coupled with a 20% rise in popularity of the Jewish state among Americans.

Behind these stories in the dynamic that defeat, like victory, creates its own momentum. Especially in today’s interconnected age, when one university administration or city government kicks BDS down the stairs, word gets out to other similar institutions, closing off that avenue for further exploitation by divestment advocates. Which is why new targets of opportunity must always be sought in hope that some decision that can be characterized as a BDS victory can be obtained somewhere.

In 2009, the divestniks tried to get around this dynamic by simply inventing victories out of whole cloth with a series of hoaxes regarding Hampshire College and various investment firms. But when such fraudulence refused to bear fruit, the BDSers got back to basics in 2010, finding new targets of opportunity in food co-ops (which gave them the chance to put boycotts onto member ballots) and student governments (which, unlike college administrators, were in a position to take purely symbolic votes on matters over which they had no actual responsibility).

Well we all know how those two campaigns turned out recently with rejection by Co-ops and failure with student governments, much of which played out in California this Spring. And with each boycott and divestment defeat, new precedents were created that will make it that much harder for the BDS-niks to find new unwitting institutions to exploit over the coming months and years.

Which leaves them once again with the need to find a new category of people or institutions into whose mouth they can stuff their “Israel=Apartheid” message. And thus aging rockers should be looked at not so much as a new front in the BDS wars, but as a soft target for potential exploitation by divestment activists.

It’s no accident that the three performers won over as participants in the cultural boycott were big in the 60s (Gil Scott-Heron), 70s (Carlos Santana) and 80s (Elvis Costello). This is not meant as some cheap crack at their expense, but to point out that two, three and four decades ago, people really cared what these folks did and said (well, maybe not Santana), rewarding them with not just booze and broads, but money and a media megaphone to trumpet any thought that came into their heads.

Flash forward to a new millennium when Hannah Montana outsells all three artists combined and you can understand why Mssrs. Heron, Santana and Costello would want to retire into some kind of Emeritus status where their cultural contributions could be celebrated with a certain level of reverential peace.

And into these artist’s lives come the BDSers bearing huge banners and megaphones, condemning these musicians for daring to bring their talents to the hated Jewish state. The threat, both implicit and explicit, is that a rocker who dares to not follow the boycotters dictates can expect their last years to be spent not with dignified nostalgia tours, but with protests everywhere they perform and a legacy that BDSers promise will be tarnished with accusations of hypocrisy.

And so, this new target caves. And why not since the cost doesn’t seem to involve anything more than screwing a few friends in Israel where you promised to perform? Isn’t that worth it if the alternative is to be denounced at every other venue you play anywhere else on Earth? And if you can convince yourself that your action is limited and based on principle, so much the better.

Unfortunately, these three rockers (and anyone else who falls into the same trap) are soon to discover the true cost of joining the BDS bandwagon (even unwittingly). Already the mediasphere is alight, claiming the cultural boycott a victory, with Elvis Costello the poster child for the Israel=Apartheid analogy that is the boycotter’s real narrative (not the simple human-rights story they managed to sell their victims).

So once again, a new community is at each other’s throats over the Arab-Israeli conflict. Once again, insults and accusations are hurled against people who never realized they could become a participant, much less a battlefield, in that conflict. And once again, another corner of our lives (this time, our old vinyl record collection) becomes needlessly politicized, just so that BDSers don’t have to admit to themselves that their political campaign is as bankrupt as their morals.

4 thoughts on “Soft Targets”

  1. Thanks Jon for your article on the new soft targets of aging rock stars. It seems the BDSers have got them right where they want them. I am more familiar with the thinking of Carlos Santana than the other two musicians. I can see how the BDSer appealed to the “peace-love: sentiments of Carlos and hooked him into thinking he was helping the so-called “Palestinian liberation movement.” It all sounds so hippy-dippy. However, Costello seems a lot smarter and he may genuinely think he's doing his fans a favor by not performing in Israel and making sure he's not offending the sentiments of those whi support the “innocent” Palestinians who are suffering under the “oppressive” hand of the Israelis.

  2. Jon:

    News of a small success of sorts in Toronto. The Gay Pride parade organization (TO has one of the largest in North America) has denied Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from participating in this year's parade. Toronto city counsellor Kyle Rae, a director of Pride Toronto, had this to say about QAIA:

    Mr. Rae said he has no problem with a group supportive of gay Palestinians. But “it’s my personal opinion that the Pride event is about fighting homophobia, and the group was not doing that. What they were doing is bringing in another issue into a queer community event.”

    Not strictly about BDS, but QAIA has a similar modus operandi as well as a similar misguided goal.

  3. Update on Seattle's Madison Market Coop boycott debate: as of the meeting last night, the issue is off the table. The Coop Board had stated that unless there was a proposal forwarded to the Board from last night's Product Issues Committee meeting, the issue would be dropped. This issue has proven to be, in the words of one of the Committee members, a “malignancy” to the Coop. Most of the Committee members seemed to agree that this issue has been too divisive to continue with it. A few members proposed that we institute a new committee to continue discussing the boycott, but that got little support. However, in order to be fair and balanced and to begin healing from this 6 month battle as well as to not insult the members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee and supporters from Jewish Voice for Peace who brought the motion to boycott, there was no vote taken against the boycott. So the issue is simply being dropped. There was a sentiment expressed by the Committee that the Board and the general manager make public statements to help the community heal from the trauma. Previously, anti-boycott readers of the Market newsletter complained the newsletter contained bias toward the boycott, so we hope to see more balanced communication in the future. I spoke after the meeting to one letter writer/shopper who said she has been so traumatized by this attack that she hasn't been able to go into the store during the debate, but plans to visit the store again. Let the healing begin.

  4. Mistake to down play this, people. Spain just kicked U of Ariel out of international solar tech competition. 150 artsy types, some of them who actually did something with their lives, just published a letter. And on and on it goes.

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