Friday, May 21, 2010

Elvis Costello’s Cultural Boycott of Israel: Rank Hypocrisy and Naiveté

Elvis Costello’s recent decision to cancel his two upcoming shows in Israel because of his concerns about the plight of the Palestinians, and Israeli government policy towards them, is problematic and offensive on so many levels; I scarcely know where to begin. But let’s hear from the man himself, who just recently told The Jerusalem Post, "I know from the experience of a friend who is from Israel and from people who have worked there that there is a difference of opinion there among Israelis regarding their government's policies. It seems to me that dialogue is essential....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 U.S. because you didn't like Bush's policies or boycotting England because of Margaret Thatcher."

That’s exactly why Costello should have kept his engagements in Caesarea, Israel, so why didn’t he? Who convinced him to give in to the odious boycott of Israel and what does it mean that musicians like Costello and Gil Scott–Heron, as well as filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard who, after Palestinian protests, pulled a film of his out of a Tel Aviv student film festival last year, are lining up to treat Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, in such a cavalier and dishonest manner? (Personal note: I like Costello’s music a lot and just wrote a fulsome tribute to two of his early live albums on Critics at Large, so to say I’m disappointed in him would be to put it mildly.)

Simply put, especially in the case of Costello, who doesn’t seem to harbour any animus towards Israel, the boycott seems more to be a matter of naiveté, though his hypocrisy is also on display here. Clearly, he recognizes, or did when he gave that interview to the Israeli newspaper, that boycotting Israel because of its politics and/or leadership doesn’t make any more sense than doing so to the U.S. or England. But on his website, his rationale for caving in to the boycott is muddled, indistinct and hard to decipher, suggesting a serious lack of thought on the matter. Here are a few sentences from his statement.

“One lives in hope that music is more than mere noise, filling up idle time, whether intending to elate or lament.

Then there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent.

I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security.

I am also keenly aware of the sensitivity of these themes in the wake of so many despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation.

Some will regard all of this as unknowable without personal experience, but if these subjects are actually too grave and complex to be addressed in a concert, then it is also quite impossible to simply look the other way.”

What does any of this actually mean? Why would Costello’s performing in Israel suggest a lack of concern for the Palestinians? Does performing in Germany mean he doesn’t care about that country’s mistreated Turkish community? Why, if Costello admits that many Israelis question their government policies vis a vis the Palestinians, does he then punish them by withholding his musical services? What does his reference to ‘despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation’ (read Palestinian acts of terror) mean exactly? Those words seem to be implying that Israel has legitimate reasons to do what it does in terms of national security and its policies towards the Palestinians, which again begs the question, why drop the concerts? But then Costello goes on to say that since he can’t address his concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a concert, better to not one give one at all. I wasn’t aware that political concerns need to be addressed in concerts anyway? Does he want to sing or pontificate? And how will not performing in Israel help resolve the conflict or help the Palestinians he claims to care about?

Costello also goes on to apologize to the concerts’ organizers and advance ticket holders for his decision, praises the Israeli media for illuminating him on Israel’s cultural scene and expresses regret for the fact that he will likely not be invited ever again to perform in that country. All this makes it sounds like this decision was an incredibly reluctant one for him to make, which doesn’t excuse his actions, but makes me wonder exactly why he decided to do what he did. Journalist Tom Gross has suggested that Costello caved when pressured by anti-Israeli activists in Britain.

In one respect, the whys and wherefores for Costello’s’ decision don’t matter as he now plays into the hands of those who do truly wish Israel ill, people like musician Brian Eno, filmmakers Ken Loach and John Greyson and writer Naomi Klein, among too many others. The Global BDS Movement, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions organization, which is behind these perpetual attempts to enforce a boycott of Israel whenever a musician or filmmaker decides to play or show a film there, seeks to isolate the Jewish state by falsely labeling it an apartheid regime, akin to South Africa’s past odious government. This is a blood libel that is patently not true. Unlike in South Africa where blacks were legally deemed second class citizens, barred from that country’s institutions and professions and forcibly kept apart from South Africa’s white populace, Israel’s Arab population, about a fifth of the total, have equal rights, can live where they wish, serve in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), hold down jobs as doctors, lawyers and judges and participate fully in the arts. Israeli Arab actors like Salim Daw (James' Journey to Jerusalem) and Sasson Gabai (The Band’s Visit) work regularly in Israel’s cinema and Arab Labor, a controversial TV show created by Israeli–born Palestinian journalist Sayed Kashua, which aims its critical and satirical arrows at the country’s treatment of its Arab citizens, is one of the country’s most popular TV series. Does any of this sound like apartheid? Obviously, that label cannot apply in the case of Israel, anymore than it can to Canada, France or Italy, even if, as in all Western countries, its minority isn’t always treated as well as it should be.

The BDS campaign also advocates for the Palestinian Right of Return, which would have all Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their millions of descendants return to present day Israel, thus creating a situation whereby the Palestinian Arabs would outnumber Israel’s Jewish citizens and, in effect, wipe clean the Jewish state, replacing it, with, likely, another Arab dictatorship whereby those few Jews allowed to stay, would be rendered second class citizens, or dhimmis, as Jews and Christians were treated under Islam in the past. If peace comes to the Middle East, the Right of Return is one of the issues that the Palestinians will have to abandon, just as the Israelis will have to relinquish most of the settlements they have established on the West Bank. Both sides will, thus, have to make the necessary compromises for peace. The BDS, however, doesn’t want to do that and prefers instead to try to stigmatize and deligitimize the Jewish state of Israel. And the Costellos of the world, George Orwell’s "useful idiots," seem hell bent to aid and abet them. (Ironically, Costello's wife, jazz musician Diana Krall, has booked a concert in Israel this summer and, as of the writing of this piece, is still set to perform there.)

None of this should suggest that Costello and the other recent boycotters of Israel are in the vanguard of a movement that is gaining traction in the entertainment and cultural world. Far from it, in fact. A few weeeks before Costello’s ill-advised decision, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and Indian author Amitav Ghosh were awarded the prestigious Dan David literary award, which was given to them in Tel Aviv. Despite the predictable entreaties by the Palestinians and their allies for the pair to boycott the ceremony, they refused, with Atwood defiantly telling The New York Times, “We don’t do cultural boycotts. Artists don’t have armies. What they do is nuanced, by which I mean it is about human beings, not about propaganda positions.” Refusing the Israeli honor, she added, would be tantamount to “throwing overboard the thousands of writers around the world who are in prison, censored, exiled and murdered for what they have published.” Well said, Margaret!

And while it’s hard to gauge exactly how many musical artists, if any, are deliberately boycotting and snubbing Israel - it often doesn’t pay to tour that part of the world as the intolerant Arab regimes are generally not open to Western acts, as can seen in the Islamist attempt to ban Elton John, so far unsuccessfully, from performing in Morocco because he’s openly gay, though he was banned in Egypt for the same reason - some major musical acts have happily performed in Israel in recent months, including Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen and Madonna, who went so far to drape herself in the Israeli flag while onstage, an act that B'nai Brith Canada CEO Frank Dimant correctly labeled "courageous.” Hell, that action alone could get her killed by some fundamentalist fanatic.(Elton John, incidentally, also plans to give a concert in Israel, where his sexuality is not an issue.)

Leonard Cohen, for his part, after cries rose for him to boycott Israel, decided to add a concert in the Palestinian West Bank, so as to reach both peoples in the region. But that concert, which was supposed to be co – sponsored by Amnesty International, was kiboshed by various Palestinian groups, who, against the wishes of many of their brethren, who, understandably wanted to see Leonard perform in their neck of the woods, managed to scuttle it since Cohen refused to do what Costello did and cancel his Tel Aviv show. Amnesty, to its discredit, went along with the boycott point of view by pulling its support of the planned Palestinian event, which was supposed to donate the proceeds to peace groups. (Cohen decided to donate the proceeds from his Israel concert to a new charity he formed that is dedicated to peaceful co-existence of Israelis and Palestinians.)

Even the roster of signatories of a petition, the so-called "Toronto Declaration," unveiled during last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, which tried in vain to get TIFF to cancel its planned spotlight on Tel Aviv program, were mostly from the academic environs, who don’t live in the real world anyway, with significantly few of them from the entertainment sector. Yes, a handful of actors and musicians, Viggo Mortenson, Julie Christie, Harry Belafonte, David Byrne, Danny Glover, did sign on, but most of the Hollywood left, including such stalwarts as Michael Moore, Woody Harrelson, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and George Clooney did not. Naomi Klein, who, along with John Greyson led the anti-Israel brigade at TIFF, has claimed that many Hollywood folk didn’t sign the declaration because they were supposedly "bullied" with threats of what would happen to their careers if they did. But it’s far more likely that they, and others such as John Cusack (a personal friend of Klein’s) refused to sign on because they knew how bogus the declaration was and how as artists, they could not legitimately be privy to a plan to boycott, censor and shut down filmmakers, many of whom were as critical of their own country as they themselves were of the United States.

Of course, Elvis Costello could still make up for his misguided actions by doing what actress Jane Fonda did and change his mind and reschedule the planned concerts in Israel. Granted, he’ll look like a right fool by doing so, as Fonda did when she reneged on her signature on the declaration and admitted that the petition was extreme and not conducive to the peace process, but isn’t it better to look foolish than to be a dupe?

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.


  1. It weakens your argument considerably to state that Naomi Klein, John Greyson, Ken Loach and Brian Eno wish Israel ill. You may think that their solutions would hurt Israel more than they're already being hurt but you coarsen the argument when you attribute such evil intentions to your opponent. They want peace. Like I do. And like you do. And like Elvis Costello does. We may have wildly different plans for getting there. But we surely won't get there by polarizing the argument even further.

  2. Naomi Klein won't even say on record that she supports the idea of two states, one Palestinian and one Israeli, in the region, which likely means she is in favour of the one state (non - Israeli / non - Jewish) 'solution'. The others never ever say, after slagging Israel incessantly, that at least the Israelis should have a right to live in peace and security, alongside the proposed Palestinian state. So what am I to think about their intentions towards Israel? They certainly don't sound good. As for polarizing the argument even further, when Klein et al use terms like apartheid and racist to describe Israel, they've pretty much done exactly that, not to mention trying to deligitimize the Jewish state. Nor do they ever criticize Hamas or decry violence on the part of the Palestinians, which is one reason there is no peace in the region. On the other hand, I've always been honest about Israel's faults - Shlomo Schwartzberg