When Elvis Costello this week canceled two upcoming shows in Israel, Twitter lit up with praise and condemnation.
Just two weeks earlier, the singer-songwriter had said he was against a cultural boycott: “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,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “It’s like never appearing in the U.S. because you didn’t like Bush’s policies or boycotting England because of Margaret Thatcher.”
So what brought about Costello’s change of heart?
This effort to sever ties with Israel only reinforces ultra-nationalistic and hawkish forces within Israeli society, who perceive the world as innately hostile to the Jewish state.
By his own account, the musician searched his soul. And although he said he understood the complexity of the issues involved, his decision boiled down to a matter of “instinct and conscience.”
“It is after considerable contemplation that I have lately arrived at the decision that I must withdraw from the two performances,” Costello wrote in a letter on his website. “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.”
• Click here to read Margaret Atwood's ResponseIsrael’s sport and culture minister, Limor Livnat, criticized Costello’s decision. “An artist who boycotts his fans in Israel is not worthy of performing in front of them,” Livnat said in a statement.
Costello is just the latest high-profile musician to cancel a concert in Israel. Late last month, the performer Gil Scott-Heron, who many regard as the progenitor of rap and hip-hop, announced that he was canceling a planned appearance.
And in January, Carlos Santana called off a summer concert.
Santana’s publicity people, however, refuted reports that the famed guitarist had been pressured into a boycott, telling The Daily Beast that the concert had simply been postponed. “He is planning to perform in Israel in the future. When…and where is still to be decided,” a representative of Santana said.
(Costello’s wife, jazz singer Diana Krall, hasn’t followed her husband’s lead and still plans to play a concert in Israel in early August, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.)
In Costello’s case, it appears that the British musician decided to cancel the concerts after strong political pressure from pro-Palestinian groups.
Sarah Colborne, director of campaigns and operations at Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said members of her group had “deluged” Costello with letters and emails, “expressing their concerns.” “We urged Elvis Costello to respect the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions on Israel,” she said.
The U.S.-based Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel posted an ad on its website that called on Costello not to be “silent about apartheid Israel.” The ad shows a picture of the singer with his finger on his lips in a gesture of silence, while his sunglasses reflect wounded Palestinians. The ad argues that to perform in Israel is to provide “de-facto endorsement of Israel’s occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine.”
Costello is undoubtedly a big fish for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. But other notable artists and intellectuals have refused to take the bait. Earlier this month, the distinguished novelists Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh were awarded the 2010 Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University. Prior to accepting the award, they received scores of emails and open letters urging them to “stand up for their principles” and decline the lucrative prize. Both writers rejected the call and argued that a boycott is morally wrong and counterproductive.
“I would like to state clearly that I do not believe in embargoes and boycotts where they concern matters of culture and learning,” Ghosh wrote in response.
“On the contrary, I believe very strongly that it is important to defend the notion that institutions of culture and learning must, in principle, be regarded as autonomous of the state.” Ghosh added: “I do not see how it is possible to make the case that Israel is so different, so exceptional, that it requires the severing of connections with even the more liberal, more critically minded members of that society.”
As Ghosh argued, beyond the problem of double standards, a blanket cultural and academic boycott of Israel is misdirected because it alienates many of the artists and intellectuals within the country who are working for peace. Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian intellectual and president of Al-Quds University, made a similar point in 2006: “If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we’ve had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals… If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach.”
Moreover, this effort to sever ties with Israel only reinforces ultra-nationalistic and hawkish forces within Israeli society, who perceive the world as innately hostile to the Jewish state. In South Africa, as Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery has pointed out, boycott efforts reminded black South Africans that the world was with them; in Israel, it is likely to have the opposite effect. If they believe the world is against them, Israeli Jews are less likely to be willing to make the difficult concessions that peace with the Palestinians calls for.
By spearheading a boycott of the arts, these campaigns to boycott Israel take away one of the most useful tools for humanizing the enemy and engendering understanding. Whether through music, novels, poetry, film, paintings, or photography, great art calls on people to transcend the concerns of the individual or the group, and kindles a generosity of spirit.
Movements genuinely interested in peace should help artists and intellectuals strengthen associations with Israelis and Palestinians both, instead of severing connections.
In his statement, Costello said: “One lives in hope that music is more than mere noise, filling up idle time, whether intending to elate or lament.”
He is right. And so, rather than walking away from his fans, Costello should take heed of the dictum: “Where words fail, music speaks.”
Roi Ben-Yehuda is an Israeli writer based in the U.S. His work has been featured in Haaretz, Al Jazeera and France 24. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.
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Margaret Atwood's Response
Greetings — Here’s a footnote --
Re: Elvis Costello cancelling in Israel:
I would like to correct the last line of your story. You make it sound as if we think all boycotts are morally wrong. But our choice was framed for us by the nature of the “dialogue” that was presented to us on this issue, and by the all-inclusive nature of the boycott we were ordered to join. It is specifically cultural boycotts we decline to do; that is because we are both members of PEN, which is against cultural boycotts for the reason that those very countries that are most repressive, and that one would be most inclined to boycott — and there are many of them -- are the very ones who are likely to have writers imprisoned for what they’ve written. If you boycott these countries, they are very unlikely to heed any call from you in aid of freeing those writers.
We have been much attacked for having taken this stand -- “freedom of expression” means nothing, we’ve been told, as long as Palestinians are in the oppressed position that they are in,PEN is a toothless organization that we are “hiding behind,” and in a choice between boycotting Israel and de-legitimising PEN by violating one of its core premises, we ought to have chosen to boycott Israel. We were accused of being hard-hearted, hypocritical, and a long list of other things for not having done so. But should we have abandoned PEN and the cause of the thousands and thousands of writers around the world who have been emprisoned, exiled, and indeed murdered simply for what they have written? Repression of writers is not confined to the Middle East. It’s endemic, and growing.Such organizations as Human Rights Watch track all sorts of abuses; PEN — which is composed of writers, and is largely volunteer — tries to support its imprisoned fellow writers, of whatever nationality and political stamp.
Mr. Costello was undoubtedly wise to have made the choice he did. He has spared himself much character assassination. But he is not a member of PEN.
Sincerely, Margaret Atwood