Singer’s boycott of Israel a matter of conscience

May 24, 2010

Pro-Palestinian activists gather at the Sarayburnu port to send off the Mavi Marmara cruise ship sponsored by Turkey’s Islamic and pro-Palestinian rights group.Click to play video

Palestinian support groups take their protest of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip to a new level as they board ships destined for the war-torn area.

Elvis Costello has joined a growing list of artists who are exercising their cultural muscle, writes Jason Koutsoukis in Jerusalem.

The decision by Elvis Costello to cancel two concerts scheduled in Tel Aviv next month has provoked outrage from Israeli music fans and officials.

Reversing an earlier commitment to ignore calls for him to boycott Israel, the British rock icon has announced that he will not perform in Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians.

”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,” he says in a statement on his website.

Costello adds that since the issues in the Israel-Palestinian conflict were too grave and complex to be addressed in a concert ”then it is also impossible to simply look the other way”.

”I hope it is possible to understand that I am not taking this decision lightly or so I may stand beneath any banner, nor is it one in which I imagine myself to possess any unique or eternal truth. It is a matter of instinct conscience.”

Only last week Costello told Israel’s biggest-selling daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that he intended to play in the concerts scheduled for June 30 and July 1.

”As soon as you play, you are going to get criticised,” he told the newspaper. ”I know that there are organisations who think that they need to boycott Israel to pressure it. I, as opposed to them, think that culture is the only way in which humanity shares experiences and that is why I need to come and perform here.”

Israeli officials reacted angrily to Costello’s change of mind. The Culture Minister, Limor Livnat, who is a member of the ruling right-wing Likud Party, says ”an artist who boycotts his Israeli fan base is not worthy of performing in front of them”.

A spokesman for Alive Production, the Israeli company that was responsible for bringing Costello to the country, said the decision came as a shock.

”In the course of the past number of weeks the artist has maintained continual contact with the production offices without even the faintest hint about his sudden and surprising decision,” the spokesman said.

In a sharply worded letter to Costello, Alive Production urged him to reconsider his decision to cancel.

”We deal in music and not political propaganda,” the producers said. ”Your step will foster the belief that victory can be achieved by means of cultural terrorism. We ask you to reconsider your position.”

Yedioth Ahronoth quoted one of Israel’s top music producers as saying Costello’s decision was ”major damage”.

”The Palestinians have very powerful emissaries who bombard all the artists who are in contact with Israel, and Costello was easy prey for them,” the producer said.

The Israeli writer Shai Lahav, an ardent admirer’s of Costello’s musical and political beliefs, also attacked his decision to boycott Israel.

”Of all people you, the artist who is so cynical, so sober, so not playing the game, you fell victim to the most simplistic kind of brainwashing,” Lahav wrote in the daily newspaper Maariv. ”But even worse – you proved yourself to be two-faced. Almost like the cover of another one of your great albums, Spike.”

Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights territories, and its continuing siege of the Gaza Strip, led to the establishment in 2004 of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). In a statement, the campaign warmly welcomed Costello’s decision not to perform in Israel.

”Costello’s decision is a great victory for the ethical responsibilities of international cultural figures, a key factor in the cultural boycott of Israel,” the PACBI said in a statement.

”It comes after similar cancellations by [poet] Gil Scott-Heron, [guitarist] Carlos Santana and Bono/U2 upon appeals by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and its international partners.”

The American rapper Snoop Dogg recently pulled out of a concert in Israel citing contractual difficulties.

Last June an English filmmaker, Ken Loach, a long-time supporter of the boycott campaign, withdrew his film Looking For Eric from the Melbourne International Film Festival because the Israeli embassy was a sponsor.

Others who have come out in support of the campaign include the Indian writer Arundhati Roy, British novelist John Berger, the poet Adrienne Rich, and the Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein.

The PACBI is part of a wider international economic campaign known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Against Israel aimed at ending the ”occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands”.

Numerous musicians, including Paul McCartney and Madonna, are among those who have ignored calls to boycott Israel and have performed there in the last two years.

Last year the Canadian singer Leonard Cohen was subject to intense pressure to boycott Israel but performed a single concert in Tel Aviv. Other performers under pressure to cancel upcoming concerts include Bob Dylan, British singers Joan Armatrading and Elton John, and the alternative American band the Pixies.

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