Artists calling the tune on Israel
Lorde’s decision to cancel concert draws attention to what can be a thorny issue for world’s musicians
In Israel, even concerts are political. For international superstars, deciding whether or not to show up might imply what side you’re on: Israel’s or the Palestinians’. And this week, the singer Lorde became the latest musician to cancel a performance in Tel Aviv after fans pressured her to do so.
Last week, two of Lorde’s fans in New Zealand — one of them Jewish and the other Palestinian — published an open letter to the Grammy-awardwinning singer, asking her to cancel the performance planned for June 5, 2018. It cited “the Israeli Government’s policies of oppression” and “apartheid”, and said that “we believe that an economic, intellectual and artistic boycott is an effective way of speaking out against these crimes”. The letter added that “playing in Tel Aviv will be seen as giving support to the policies of the Israeli Government, even if you make no comment on the political situation”.
The letter did not specifically mention the boycott, divestment and sanctions — or BDS — movement, but the views expressed within it are in line with that Palestinian-led campaign.
Since 2005, the BDS movement has urged academic and governmental institutions, companies, musicians and others to avoid visiting Israel and buying its products with the goal of getting Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and allow Palestinians to return to places they left when Israel was created in 1948.
At first Lorde responded to the letter by saying she would reconsider the concert date, and by Monday, she said in a statement, “I’ve received an overwhelming number of messages and letters and have had a lot of discussions with people holding many views, and I think the right decision at this time is to cancel the show.”
In recent years, several artists have cancelled tour dates in Israel, either for political reasons or because of ongoing violence. In 2010, the Pixies decided not to perform after the Israeli military raided a Turkish ship bringing aid for the Gaza Strip, an operation that killed nine people. (The band played in Israel in 2014.)
Elvis Costello also cancelled two shows in Israel in 2010, saying that “sometimes silence in music is better than adding to the static”.
In 2014, when Israel was in a 50-day war with the Hamas-governed Gaza, several artists — including Lana Del Rey, Neil Young and the Backstreet Boys — postponed or cancelled shows.
For as many artists who cancel shows in Israel, there are others who face criticism and still press on with their tour dates.
Since the BDS effort started, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Madonna, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jethro Tull and the Red Hot Chili Peppers all kept their concert dates in Israel despite public pressure to cancel them.
Once on stage, these megastars sometimes use their microphones for more than their lyrics. For example, during a 2012 performance in Tel Aviv, Madonna, who isn’t Jewish but follows the Jewish mystical practice of Kabbalah, wrapped herself in an Israeli flag and made a plea to rise above ego, religion and national allegiance to forge peace in the Middle East. “You can’t be a fan of mine and not want peace in the world,” she said.
Some artists keep their shows in order to make a statement critical of Israel. In 2006, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters moved a performance from Tel Aviv to a village jointly formed by Arabs and Israelis. On that trip, Waters travelled throughout the West Bank and to the wall separating it from Israel, which he tagged with graffiti of his song lyrics: “We don’t need no thought control.”
Waters has since urged other artists not to perform in Israel. In a 2016 interview with the Independent, he said that the music industry “has been particularly recalcitrant in even raising a voice” against Israel. “I’m hoping to encourage some of them to stop being frightened and to stand up and be counted, because we need them,” Waters added.
Waters and musician and producer Brian Eno got into a war of words last month with Australian rocker Nick Cave over Cave’s decision to play in Israel.
Cave told a press conference that anyone who played in Israel “have to go through a sort of public humiliation from Roger Waters and co”. He said his decision to play two concerts in Tel Aviv was to make a stand against people trying “to bully musicians, to censor musicians, and to silence musicians”.
In response, Waters wrote: “Nick thinks this is about censorship of his music? What? Nick, with all due respect, your music is irrelevant to this issue. So is mine, so is Brian Eno’s, so is Beethoven’s. This isn’t about music — it's about human rights.” He added,
Nick thinks this is about censorship of his music? What? Nick, with all due respect, your music is irrelevant to this issue. So is mine, so is Brian Eno’s, so is Beethoven’s. This isn’t about music — it's about human rights. Roger Waters on Nick Cave’s decision to play in Tel Aviv last month
“We hurl our glasses into the fire of your arrogant unconcern, and smash our bracelets on the rock of your implacable indifference.”
In response to Cave's comments on attempts at “silencing” artists, Eno said they were “rather grating when used in a context where a few million people are permanently and grotesquely silenced”. “Israel spends hundreds of millions of dollars on hasbara, and its side of the argument gets broadcast loud and clear. Coupled with the scare-tactic of labelling any form of criticism of Israeli policy as ‘antisemitic’, this makes for a very uneven picture of what is going on.”
Hasbara, the Jerusalem Post writes, literally means “explanation”, but it has become the Israeli term for a broad range of activities aimed at disseminating positive information about Israel, and promoting positive attitudes toward it.— Washington Post
Roger Waters has urged other artists not to play in Israel.