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.