Proponents of the cultural Boycott, Sanctions and Divestments (BDS) campaign against Israel claim that their cause is human rights and their goal is Palestinian self-determination.
Both assertions are belied by the facts, but resonate strongly with the generally progressive and liberal thinking of most artists. Artists like Lauryn Hill, who recently canceled her May 7 performance in Israel, however, are the unspoken victims of a campaign that disparages them, threatens them, interferes with their right to earn a living and regularly throws them under the bus.
Because artists and pop icons have the power to influence public opinion, they are increasingly becoming the weapon of choice in the war against Israel. When artists announce a trip or tour in Israel, boycott proponents place extreme pressure on them to cancel, eviscerating their role as peace ambassadors and impinging on a human right they so deeply cherish, their right to self-expression.
Nobody pressures artists to perform in Israel. Over 300 international artists perform in Israel each year because they want to. It is not an endorsement of the policies of the Israeli government any more than performing in the US or France is an endorsement of their policies. Artists want to connect with their fans and realize their unique ability to challenge us, make us think, bring us together, create a universality and provide a bedrock for peace.
The cultural boycott campaign seeks to create an intellectual dictatorship, using every means possible to compel artists to think in a certain way. Their way. Ingredients in their toxic brew include petitions, demonstrations, emails, phone calls, tweets and open letters, to name a few.
The first line of attack is on the artist’s reputation and character. They claim that anyone who wants to perform for their Israeli fans is giving a “stamp of approval” to false claims of colonialism, apartheid, oppression and ethnic cleansing. They single out minority artists inferring that if they don’t support the boycott, they are betraying their community. Their vitriolic comments on Facebook and Twitter incite responses by Israel defenders, perverting the artists’ peaceful social media pages into political battlefields.
They harass artists in their scheduled stops en route to Israel, shouting and picketing in front of their hotel rooms and concert halls. They drove a wedge between Scarlett Johansson and the charitable work she did with Oxfam International and sought to do the same with Alicia Keys, Neil Young and, most recently, British musician Robbie Williams. Their barrage of intimidation crossed the line into physical threats against artists Paul McCartney and Eric Burdon, and caused Afro pop musician Salif Keita to regretfully cancel his tour, not in support of the campaign, but out of concern for the physical safety of himself and his family.
They regularly threaten to impact artists’ music sales and concert events, and hound their representatives.
These attacks are not limited to those cloaked in fame and fortune. In fact, BDS turns up the heat on niche musicians who often struggle to make a living. The stars get most of the attention, but it’s the regular working artist who often pays the biggest price.
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BDS just doesn’t abuse artists, it uses them. The most recent casualty in this war against independent thought is songstress Lauryn Hill who has almost two million Facebook friends and over 140,000 Twitter followers.
Just days after her Tel Aviv concert was announced, her social media pages were flooded with anti-Israel posts urging her to cancel. Fallacious charges ranged from the political to the ridiculous (that Israel abducted 25,000 Ukrainian children to harvest their organs) to the blatantly anti-Semitic (a bloody graphic of Netanyahu cannibalizing a child). Their strategy was intended not only to persuade Hill to cancel but to use her social media platforms as a billboard for their own political agenda, much akin to graffiti for someone else’s favorite cause written across your front door.
Who the BDS activists are helping is not evident; who and what they are hurting is unquestionable. While Israelis are being unfairly maligned and artists are being used and abused, the condition of Palestinians fails to improve.
To date, the response from Israel’s supporters has been primarily defensive.
While correcting the misinformation and lies inherent in the BDS narrative is important, it does not change the conversation or detract from the appeal their propaganda has in numerous circles.
It’s time for us to re-frame the debate on behalf of the creative community and everyone who treasures the gifts artists give the world. It’s time to pin the badge of shame where it properly belongs – on those who callously place artists and freedom of expression in their cross-hairs, a tactic as repugnant as the use of human shields.
Abuse is a continuum. What begins as harassment on social media continues on a course of destruction.
When artists are gagged and freedom of expression is crushed, it’s not just artists who are impacted – the whole world suffers.
The author is an attorney and a 25-year veteran of the entertainment industry serving in both business and creative capacities at CBS, Warner Bros. and Paramount, and most recently as director of the nonprofit Creative Community For Peace.