PennBDS: The Cultural Boycott

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference. Check out this landing page to find out more.

When BDS first came on the scene at the beginning of the last decade, it primarily focused on divestment (notably, on five years of failed efforts to get prominent colleges and universities, churches and municipalities to divest form the Jewish state).

Later, it added boycotts to the mix and rebranded itself to “BDS.”  This not only gave anti-Israel advocates a catchy TLA to pop into their mouths.  It also provided them a much wider range of targets they were ready to ask to participate in academic, consumer and cultural boycotts.

I’ll be dealing with academic and consumer boycotts in upcoming postings focusing on PennBDS agenda items covering those topics.  But before leaving them to the side, it’s worth noting that consumer boycotts have generally been focused on trying to get actual retailers to remove Israeli products from their store shelves vs. asking individual consumers to engage in personal boycotts. The reason for this is obvious once you realize that a boycott consisting solely of individuals choosing to not buy Israeli food or wine simply represents unremarkable (and, more importantly, un-newsworthy) personal choices.

But there is one group of people whose consumer choices do make news: celebrities.  After all, we buy the shoes they wear (and tout), follow their home and luxury purchases on cable TV, and analyze the gowns they show off at the Oscars and Emmy’s.  So why wouldn’t their choices vis-à-vis whether or not to come to Israel make news?

Efforts to get celebrities to shun performing in the Jewish state got a boost in 2010 when Elvis Costello chose to cancel the Israel leg of a tour after being subjected to protests by anti-Israel activists at his concerts (as well as online).  This followed similarly successful harangues of the older (and recently deceased) Gil Scot-Heron who had previously bagged out on his Israeli fans at the behest of BDS advocates.

As I’ve discussed before, what these two (and other pop stars fingered by the boycotters, including the 92-year-old Pete Seeger) have in common is that they are all well into or well past the end of their careers.  And given a choice between watching their last tours turn into public protests against their alleged immorality vs. a peaceful retirement, a few of them took the easy way out and caved into BDSers demands, turning into poster-children for the anti-Israel crusaders in the process.

The key word in the above paragraph is “few,” for while the actions of Scot-Heron and Costello in particular briefly made news headlines (and continue to be touted in BDS press releases), efforts to capitalize on these “successes,” were all for naught.  Loud demands that heavy hitters like Elton John and Paul Simon (also in the aging rock star class) similarly cancel their Israel gigs were met with simple rejection or, in Elton John’s case, ridicule from the stage while playing before packed Israeli concert halls.

In fact, defying boycott calls has become a sort of badge of cool since Costello let down his fans (and tried to explain himself by posting hundreds of mealy-mouthed words on his Web site).  It’s one thing when Johnny Lydon (former Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) gives you the finger for your cowardice in refusing to play Israel.  But when participating in BDS gets you dissed by Deep Purple you know the jig is up.

I’ve heard that a group of Hollywood impresarios has decided to counter the cultural boycott threat by creating an organization designed to bring celebrities to Israel and help dispel myths being peddled by BDS propagandistas.  And, as much as I applaud their efforts (or any efforts to expose more people to the truth), the main impetus driving defeat of the cultural boycott is that Israel is a pretty appealing place to visit and perform, which is why thousands of artists, musicians, theater and film stars visit the country annually, a number that’s been growing and growing year upon year.

Absent the ability to get all but the most obscure “stars” to follow their lead, the BDSers had one more resource to draw upon in their efforts to impact cultural events: their own limitless ability to act like assholes.  For it you can’t get American or European celebrities to bend to your will, why not show up at Israeli cultural events held in the US or Europe (such as performances by ballet dancers and concert musicians) and start shouting or blowing air horns?

Such “cultural boycott” protests did achieve one major goal of the BDS movement: the production of digital video of their naughty (I mean edgy) behavior to post on BDS YouTube channels.   But in terms of turning public opinion away from support for Israel, as Britain’s Cultural Minister tweeted during the disruption of a concert of the Israeli Philharmonic in London, “Demonstrators seem to have turned [the] entire audience pro-Israel.”

As we’ll see when we start discussing academic and consumer boycotts, it is very difficult to get people to abandon their principles (by rejecting academic freedom in the case of academic boycotts) or their ability to make personal choices (in the case of consumer boycotts) simply because partisan activists insist that this is their only moral choice.  And even celebrities, many of whom spend their lives insulated from the result of the choices they make, know to avoid the BDS like the rotting dead-fish that it is.

3 thoughts on “PennBDS: The Cultural Boycott”

  1. Thank you for this. Since I first came to an awareness of BDS because of a cultural boycott (TIFF), I've focused on this aspect of the movement in particular. I've been thinking there ought to be more publicity about the many artists who do play Israel — especially those who play Israeli and West Bank sites on the same tour — instead of just a few social-media dustups regarding the handful of artists who cancel dates in Israel.

  2. With regards to Elvis Costello, a friend of mine who's involved with the music business in Israel told me Costello's cancelling his concert was probably due to poor ticket sales and BDS was just his excuse to avoid looking like a washed up old rocker. His wife (Diana Krall) did perform in Israel a few months later.

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