Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with members of the rock band Aerosmith at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 18, 2017. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with members of the rock band Aerosmith at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 18, 2017. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.
featureBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

Music to their ears? Entertainment industry group works to thwart cultural efforts of BDS movement

“Boycotts do not cause peace. Boycotts cause more division among people. More polarization,” says the New York director of Creative Community for Peace, which supports artists and encourages artists to perform in Israel.

Since its founding in 2005, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has targeted Israeli universities, businesses and cultural organizations. Most recently, its efforts against Israel’s music scene have made headlines.

The chatter circulated around American singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey, who was attacked by BDS supporters for agreeing to perform in September at the Meteor Festival in Israel, a decision she originally defended on Twitter with a lengthy statement on Aug. 19.

The “Summertime Sadness” singer said at the time that “music is universal and should be used to bring us together,” and that her “plan” was for the concert to be done with “a loving energy with a thematic emphasis on peace.” But after facing a tremendous amount of pressure to call off the show, Del Rey did just that on Sept. 1, a week before she was scheduled to perform, and said she will reschedule when she is able to play in “both Israel and Palestine.” Afterwards, 15 or so other artists also cancelled their performances at the Meteor Festival.

Del Rey’s original plan to perform in Israel came less than a year after New Zealand singer Lorde announced her intention to play in Tel Aviv, a move that also prompted an enormous amount of online pressure and resulted in the “Royals” singer canceling her show in late December. At the time, Lorde said her decision was made after an “overwhelming number of messages and letters” from those who opposed her performance. More than a few headlines about Del Rey calling off her concert attributed the cancellation, like Lorde’s, to “BDS pressure.”

“We believe Lana genuinely wanted to postpone her performance, and reschedule concerts for both Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately, BDS has made it clear if an artist books in Israel, they will not play in a Palestinian venue,” said Aviva Miller, New York Regional Director of Creative Community for Peace (CCFP), a nonprofit group comprised of prominent members in the entertainment industry who are “dedicated to promoting music and the arts as a means to peace and to countering the cultural boycott of Israel,” according to its website. The organization is in no way funded by the Israeli government or backed by any institution in Israel.

As CCFP’s New York director, Miller—an entertainment attorney by trade—is focused on cultivating a group of supporters and creating a “community” of supporters in the New York and on the East Coast. The community will consist of entertainment executives and other supporters who will become part of a global network. The goal is to helping CCFP forward its agenda that music and the arts are a healing and unifying force, prevent artists from cancelling their performances in Israel and support Israeli artists who are boycotted in the United States and elsewhere.

New York City and its surrounding areas account for 40 percent to 50 percent of the entertainment industry in the United States, she said.

CCFP co-founder David Renzer said the organization offers the support and information artists, and their representatives, need to “resist boycott pressure when they come across it.” He added that “as an entertainment-industry organization, we utilize our deep network of relationships to reach out to artists to make sure they are receiving a ‘balanced’ view of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, opposed to the misinformation that pro-BDS groups promote. …. Artists that boycott are not furthering peace and need to be educated about the true agenda of BDS.”

It was the CCFP who helped Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson in 2014 when she was barraged with requests from BDS supporters to cancel her contract as the global brand ambassador for SodaStream, an Israeli carbonated-beverage company. Johansson’s publicist and manager turned to CCFP and asked for assistance in creating a narrative that allowed the actress to defend her decision to maintain the endorsement deal despite facing pressure from the BDS movement.

“She did not listen to the BDS movement, but the chatter was so loud that it was horrifying,” recalled Miller. “They cut out photos of her sipping from a [SodaStream] glass … and they put it up against these horrifying pictures of people behind barbed wire and dead people—you don’t even know who these people were, but it looks as though she was standing in front of Palestinians who were being murdered and somehow oppressed.”

“What they’re doing is extremely irrationally and emotionally charged, and not based in reality,” Miller said about tactics used by the BDS movement.

Those who succumb to pressure and those who don’t

More artists perform in Israel than not, and among the musicians who lit up the stage in Israel this year were Jason Derulo, Flo Rida, The Backstreet Boys, Enrique Iglesias, Ringo Starr and Ozzy Osbourne. Last year’s performers included Boy George, Britney Spears, Aerosmith, Rod Stewart, Guns N’ Roses, Justin Bieber and more.

The British rock band Radiohead played in Tel Aviv in July 2017, despite a major campaign from BDS supporters that garnered headlines. Its lead singer, Thom Yorke, attacked BDS activists in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.

He told the publication: “It’s deeply distressing that they choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw s**t at us in public. It’s deeply disrespectful to assume that we’re either being misinformed or that we’re so retarded we can’t make these decisions ourselves. … I just can’t understand why going to play a rock show or going to lecture at a university [is a problem to them].”

Australian musician Nick Cave also performed in Israel in 2017, saying before his show that he wanted to play there to “make a stand against those people who are trying to shut down musicians, to bully musicians, to censor musicians and to silence musicians.”

This year’s Meteor Festival ended up being a major success and had nearly 130 artists in the final lineup. CCFP’s direct communication with artists Pusha T and Kamasi Washington helped ensure that they perform at the Meteor Festival despite facing BDS pressure, Renzer told JNS.

The indie rock band Why? also performed at the festival, and its lead singer, Yoni Wolf, explained his feeling about boycotting Israel: “I get what the boycott is about, but I felt that it’s not the right way to deal with things. How can you have a dialogue if you’re not there?”

Miller echoed similar sentiments and said that the Jewish state is a democratic country where people are “more than welcome” to express their views. She added: “Just don’t incite violence and create divides that are unnecessary or that already exist but don’t need to be further fueled.”

Miller said the BDS movement uses a tactic of overwhelming artists with their demands, and attacks to the point where some musicians will just give up and give in to BDS demands. Activists also use social media to make direct contact with the artists, and on top of everything, the BDS movement spews a false narrative about Israel that many artists believe because they are uneducated about the truth behind the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The CCFP works to combat all those elements.

The BDS movement also has artists advocating on their behalf, such as Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters, who has been the public face of the BDS movement for years. He wrote a personal letter to Del Rey on Facebook asking her not to perform in Israel, quoting activist and Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu’s line, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

“All they want to do is perform,” Miller said about the artists who schedule concerts in Israel. They merely book Israel as part of their tour and “suddenly, through no fault of their own, they’re bombarded by boycott activists on social media channels and they find themselves on the midst of the political battlefield when they had not intended to be.”

She said “it becomes very overwhelming. Nobody wants to be associated with what’s accused by the BDS movement as ‘oppressive’ ‘oppressors’ ‘killers,’ ‘murderers’—whatever the BDS portrays Israel as … some of them can’t handle the pressure, and they back out because they don’t want to deal with it. It’s not worth the fee to come in Israel and then have to be defending themselves in the media as somebody who just wanted to play in a democratic country.”

Miller explained that some artists cancel their performances in Israel following BDS pressure also because they are worried about losing fans, and that a small number of performers buy into the BDS false narrative because it can be “very convincing.”

Israel is labeled as a “massive oppressive government that is hurting and killing innocent bystanders every day,” Miller said, “and they categorize it as an apartheid state, a colonial state, and people who are always on the side of underdogs start to think, ‘Well maybe it’s true’ … and they start to buy into the BDS narrative without really doing an investigative analysis as to what is really going on in the country and how the conflict actually evolved.”

‘Starts to gather momentum like a wave’

While CCFP believes in coexistence and using art “as a tool to bring people together,” according to Renzer, the BDS movement uses “misinformation and preying on artists’ natural empathy for the downtrodden to politicize art and keep people apart in order to further their anti-Israel agenda.”

The general consensus is that the BDS movement is not interested in making peace, but rather causing friction and greater divides between people. Nowhere in the BDS movement’s rhetoric does it talk about Israelis and Palestinians living together in peace, pointed out Miller. Instead, the campaign focuses on vilifying Israel as oppressors and land occupiers. Miller said CCFP’s message is quite the opposite: “Let’s find common ground. Let’s build bridges not boycotts.”

Renzer said the BDS movement is “dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel.”

He explained that “artists are generally unaware that they are being bamboozled by a fringe movement attempting to hijack their stardom to use for their own nefarious cause. Also, many artists are not aware of the complicated facts and history surrounding the conflict. CCFP urges them to drown out the misinformation, and to play for their fans. They, through their music, have the power to elevate and bring people together.”

The BDS movement puts a heavy emphasis on attacks Israel’s cultural endeavors, and Omar Barghouti told the The Hollywood Reporter that calling on artists to boycott shows in Israel is “one of the most critical aspects of the BDS movement for Palestinian rights.” He claimed Israel uses culture “to cover up its decades-old regime of occupation and apartheid,” and he called culture a “central weapon in Israel’s propaganda arsenal.”

But Miller explained that the BDS movement has “no business” even getting involved in Israel’s cultural activities. Culture should “transcend anything that’s relevant to politics,” she insisted, and such boycotts only hurt the artists who miss out on performing for their fans, and his or her fans who are not given the opportunity to see their idols in concert.

Miller urged people not to be silent about their support for the Jewish state. She said CCFP does not attack BDS activists; rather the organization focuses on defending and countering the negativity they are creating—and that is what needs to be valued, supported and lauded.

Winner of the Eurovision 2018 song contest Netta Barzilai performs at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on May 14, 2018. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

“We cannot close our eyes,” she said. “When you don’t pay attention to it, it starts to gather momentum like a wave. We need people to come together. … People who not only care about Israel, but who care about all peoples; they care about the future of that region, [and] they care about really obtaining a resolution. It’s incumbent upon all of us to support peaceful measures, to support people who are saying rebuild bridges, don’t boycott because boycotts don’t work. Boycotts do not cause peace. Boycotts cause more division among people. More polarization.”

The next major cultural event set to take place in Israel is the 2019 Eurovision song contest, which Israeli singer Netta Barzilai won this year with her catchy hit song “Toy.” Israel confirmed earlier in September that the competition will be held in Tel Aviv.

Miller expects BDS supporters to make a commotion about it.

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