Israeli Raid On Gaza-Bound Flotilla Draws Mixed Artist Reaction

by David J. Prince, N.Y. | June 11, 2010 12:10 EDT

When the Pixies canceled their first-ever performance in Israel just three days before a scheduled June 9 gig in Tel Aviv, the veteran indie rock band became the latest in a string of acts to call off shows in the Jewish state.

The Pixies’ decision came a week after an Israeli commando raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla left nine activists dead and turned up the volume of international criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. U.K. acts the Klaxons and Gorillaz Sound System also called off gigs after the raid, while Elvis Costello and Gil Scot-Heron announced before the incident that they wouldn’t play scheduled shows in Israel.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which since 2004 has called on artists, musicians, writers and scholars not to play or study in Israel’ sees the recent spate of concert cancellations as the result of efforts to raise international awareness of the Palestinian cause, according to founding member Omar Barghouti, a choreographer and human rights activist.

“The net result is raising awareness and exposing Israel for what it is: a colonial and apartheid state,” Barghouti said in an e-mail interview from Jerusalem. “The ‘brand’ Israel has suffered as a consequence of ongoing campaigns of this sort, leading many artists to turn down lucrative offers to play Israel.”

Still, many top musicians have continued to perform in Israel. Last summer, Madonna and the Black Eyed Peas both played to sold-out stadiums. This year, upcoming gigs by Jeff Beck and Elton John remain on the calendar. Beck, John and their representatives declined to comment for this article. In a statement on his website, John said that music “builds bridges between people and I will continue to play concerts anywhere in the world where I can encourage that unity.”

Some of the artists who’ve canceled gigs have refrained from explicitly condemning Israeli policies, with the Pixies saying in a statement that “events beyond all our control have conspired against us,” while Costello observed on his website that “there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act.” Costello and the Pixies declined to comment for this article.

Cliff Chenfeld, the politically active co-founder of Razor & Tie Records, says he sees a level of hypocrisy in artists who’ve canceled concerts in Israel, noting that some have performed in countries with oppressive, non-democratic governments. One of the artists he works with at Razor & Tie, Suzanne Vega, performed in Israel last year and plans to return this summer.

“When an artist like Elvis Costello’ who people perceive to be a thoughtful, focused person’ does that, it has a lot of consequences,” Chenfeld says. “He has a responsibility to at least be able to understand this issue and articulate his position. I think these artists have some responsibility to say what it is specifically that they think is so offensive that is going on.”

Aryeh Mekel, deputy director general of cultural affairs for the state of Israel, says that “art and culture should go beyond politics; that is the whole point of what they do’ to unite people through their artistry and not to divide people even further.”

But Barghouti says he rejects arguments that music transcends politics.

“Elton John was on the wrong side of history during the South Africa cultural boycott when he put interest over principles and played Sun City when hardly any self-respecting artist would do the same,” he says. “He is choosing to do the same with Israel.”

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