Artists’ Boycott Strikes a Dissonant Note Inside Israel

Published: June 9, 2010

JERUSALEM – The announcement by the Pixies, an American alternative rock band, that they would cancel their long-awaited concert in Israel this week amid international outrage over Israel”s deadly raid on a Turkish activists” ship bound for Gaza, had an impact far beyond the 15,000 disappointed fans.

The British rocker Elvis Costello canceled concerts scheduled for June 30 and July 1.

Some Israelis took the cancellation as an indication of the growing isolation they believe their government”s policies are leading to. For others, it served as proof of how deeply Israel is misunderstood.

Either way, the cancellation mobilized the Israeli pop world and its supporters against the threat of a widening cultural boycott, which many here view as a misguided policy and unfair punishment that the Israeli public does not deserve.

Benny Dudkevitch, a veteran Israel Radio editor and popular music historian, described the Pixies” cancellation as “a slap in the face.”

“We have waited so long for them,” he added. “It hurts.”

The Pixies were scheduled to play on Wednesday night in Tel Aviv. They are the latest in a string of high-profile artists who have canceled performances in Israel this spring, including the British rocker Elvis Costello and the American rap poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron.

The announcement came with short notice, on Sunday, a week after the commando raid that turned violent and left nine activists from Turkey dead.

“The decision was not reached easily,” the band said in a statement. “We”d like to extend our deepest apologies to the fans, but events beyond all our control have conspired against us.”

Two lesser known bands billed to play at the same festival, the Klaxons and the Gorillaz Sound System, also dropped out.

A British band that did play at the festival, Placebo, subsequently faced boycott calls from activists in Lebanon who wanted the band”s Beirut concert, scheduled for Wednesday night, called off. The activists were particularly incensed over an interview the lead singer, Brian Molko, gave in Tel Aviv, in which he said that Israel had the group”s endorsement because he found the people “very attractive,” and that Israel”s endorsement was important “if you decide to go sailing.”

Shuki Weiss, one of Israel”s premier promoters and production managers, said he had been working to bring the Pixies to Israel for more than 10 years.

Music is a force that usually combats violence and hatred, he said. He calls the boycott movement “cultural terrorism.”

Like many here, Mr. Weiss argued that music and politics should not mix. “But if we do want to get into politics, I have a long list of countries that could be boycotted,” he said.

If the Pixies had something to say to Israel”s leaders, he and others noted, they could have come and said it here.

When Mr. Weiss brought Roger Waters to Israel in 2006, Mr. Waters performed in an Arab-Jewish village called the Oasis of Peace and sprayed graffiti on a section of the wall making up part of Israel”s security barrier near Bethlehem in the West Bank.

A loose coalition of pro-Palestinian activists around the globe has been lobbying artists not to come to Israel in recent years, inspired by the nongovernmental Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

A small group of Israeli activists also wrote an open letter to the Pixies in March, saying that despite being huge fans, they would “not cross the international picket line.”

“Are you prepared to perform in Tel Aviv,” they wrote, “while just under your nose millions of human beings are suffocating under a cruel Israeli military regime, denying them elementary human rights?”

In April, pro-Palestinian activists picketed Mr. Scott-Heron”s concert at the London Royal Festival Hall and disrupted part of the performance. He then told the audience that he disliked wars and that his tour would “end in Athens, not Tel Aviv.”

Two weeks before Mr. Costello canceled his performances, scheduled for June 30 and July 1 at the ancient Roman amphitheater in Caesaria, he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview that the people calling for a boycott “own the narrow view that thinks 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,” he said.

Explaining his reversal in a letter on his Web site, Mr. Costello wrote that it was “a matter of instinct and conscience.”

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

In what some saw as a bizarre confluence, around the same time in mid-May, the Israeli authorities refused to allow Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist and harsh critic of Israel, to enter the West Bank from Jordan. An Israeli official explained that as “a mishap.”

The American guitarist Carlos Santana also canceled a June performance in Israel, but it was never clear whether it was for political reasons or because of problems with his schedule.

Surprisingly, given the cancellations, 2010 has been a bumper year in Israel for international acts. Joan Armatrading, Rihanna and Metallica have appeared in recent weeks; Elton John, Rod Stewart and Diana Krall, the jazz singer and pianist married to Mr. Costello, are still slated to perform.

For many here, though, such concerts were never just about the music. The more high-profile the artist, the more Israel felt like a normal country, less defined by conflict; each performance was taken as a sign of global acceptance that Israelis so crave.

Perhaps that is why the Pixies” cancellation, while appearing to prompt little introspection, caused such an outpouring of indignation and distress.

The newspaper Yediot Aharonot devoted a full page of news and commentary to the unhappy event. One columnist, Raanan Shaked, sarcastically credited the Israeli government with “restoring our famous deterrence and preventing Weiss”s countless artists from trying to reach Israel”s shores.”

Another, Hanoch Daum, struck a more defiant tone.

“Life was pleasant enough without the Pixies, and it will continue to be so,” he wrote. Israelis have to stop “turning these concerts into a barometer of our national resilience,” he continued, adding: “You don”t want to come? As you wish. Don”t come.”

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