The cultural boycott and the outraged artist

on 24 Comments

When you arrive in Israel as an internationally-renowned artist to give a concert or accept a cultural award, it is only natural that you not be spat at and knee-capped by Jews. I say this apropos of the odd comments made over the last couple of months by Margaret Atwood and Suzanne Vega regarding their crossing of the BDS picket line. In Israel, it is no surprise that people will be polite to you: “Recently I was in Israel. The Israelis I met could not have been more welcoming” (Atwood). You might even meet with excellent Israeli human rights organizations: “I went to Israel, I played two concerts there. I also met with B’Tselem” (Vega). And the general public will discuss politics with you: “I’d been told ahead of time that Israelis would try to cover up the Shadow, but instead they talked about it non-stop” (Atwood). All that is encouraging – after all it is some ‘shadow’ to live under!  

It is usually after these banalities that the artist’s tone abruptly changes and they become angry. Are they angry at the shocking institutional racism towards Palestinians that they witnessed? Is it the ongoing brutal occupation and theft of Palestinian territory? Is it the chilling eye-witness accounts of the massacre of innocents in Gaza? No, they are outraged with their critics. This would not be unexpected, for artists are sensitive and with a noble calling – “to spread love and peace, and bring people together”, as Elton John explained it. “Writers have no armies”, Atwood reminded us in her joint acceptance speech with Amitav Ghosh for the Dan David Prize, so they are vulnerable to attack by unscrupulous governments (and resistance movements too presumably). What makes them special, we are told by their fans, is that their art transcends politics. These fans are the reasonable ones – they are not apparently dogmatic and they don’t scream at the artist, which is a relief after what the artist has been through. “Like most, I’d avoided conversations on [Israel/Palestine] because they swiftly became screaming matches," Atwood explains. In fact, supporters are generally very pleased to see the artist and to chat amicably about democracy and reconciliation with the ‘other’. What really outrages the artist is the Israelis and internationals who support – and ask her/him to heed – the Palestinian call to BDS – “Any group that uses hatred and humiliation to persuade is not a group I want to be part of. So I am not supporting the boycott. There are other ways towards peace.” (Vega); “I was recently attacked for accepting a cultural prize… This prize was decided upon, not by an instrument of Israeli state power as some would have it, but by a moderate committee within an independent foundation…. The most virulent language was truly anti-Semitic” (Atwood).  

Leaving aside the fact that boycott supporters do not constitute a ‘group’ and there are numerous examples of respectful open letters on the web, I want to establish two basic facts so the artists insinuations don’t distract us. First, anyone who resorts to racism in an attempt to persuade the artist to boycott Israel is not representative of the Palestinian individuals and groups in whose name he/she writes and whose call is based on international norms of justice. Second, people are angry and they are incredulous at artists’ decisions to participate in the normalization of the occupation, and while highly personalized attacks on anyone in the public eye are deplorable, people are ‘attacking’ you because you are crossing a picket line and taking a side, even if you refuse to acknowledge it. You have sided with those who have a vested interest in covering up the oppressive colonisation of an indigenous people and the occupying country’s slide into fascism.

Those who ask the artist to join them in this non-violent disruption of normalization use strong terms like ‘massacre’, ‘apartheid’, ‘Israeli state terror’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, and of course boycott. This makes them seem more radical, zealous and hard-line than the admiring fans who in polls, when the artist’s non-political backs are turned, calmly support collective punishment for Palestinians living under occupation, and laws that treat Palestinian citizens of Israel as the enemy from within. One should also ask whether “non-stop" talk by the ordinary Israeli Atwood encountered amounts to much, when very concrete actions have to be taken by these privileged citizens against the violent acts committed in their name every day. Given the nature of Atwood and Vegas’ visit here, including socio-economic and cultural filters, the Israelis they conversed with were not expected to be the most virulent and racist members of Israeli society in the first place, but if they are under any illusions as to how sensitive Israelis are to the suffering of Palestinians under the occupation, they should look at the composition of Israel’s current government to see where popular sentiment lies. 

I can imagine that in South Africa during the apartheid era there were many hospitable white South Africans welcoming of artists, and appreciative of their boycott-busting visits. Indeed, Elton John felt welcome enough to play in Sun City, just as he did recently in Arizona after there were calls for artists to boycott the state over the new racist immigration laws. John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, is scheduled to perform in Israel on 31 August in a line-up with LCD Soundsystem and The Drums. Rotten has been the subject of much boycott action, and besides his now notorious racist comment in the Independent magazine interview, he had this message for the 20 or so people who were protesting outside his gig in Liverpool, UK, last month: “… To think that Mr Rotten would be backing Apartheid, that’s really f*ckin’ dumb c*nts for ya. Yes I fully intend to go to Israel. I support no f*ckin’ government anywhere – never have, never will.  And here’s a nice little fact for the fools in the wooly t-shirts: Jews are people too…”. Mr. Rotten with all due respect, that is the dumbest rejoinder I have heard from a boycotted artist. Your faux-anarchism is of great comfort to the Israeli government, whether you intend it to be or not.  

As Judith Butler wrote of her visit to Israel many years ago, “the rector of Tel Aviv University said, ‘Look how lucky we are. Judith Butler has come to Tel Aviv University, a sign that she does not accept the boycott,’ I was instrumentalized against my will. And I realized I cannot function in that public space without already being defined in the boycott debate. So there is no escape from it. One can stay quiet and accept the status quo, or one can take a position that seeks to challenge the status quo.” No artist, however talented, can transcend this co-option into a propaganda machine so powerful that it can persuade normally intelligent people around the world, let alone its own citizens, that the Israel state is the only democracy in the Middle East.  

Eleanor Kilroy is an artist and BDS activist living in London.

24 Responses

  1. hayate
    August 5, 2010, 11:16 am

    Didn’t know vega was a zionist. That’s another one to write off. I’d already written off the rest of those listed in the article.

  2. hayate
    August 5, 2010, 11:39 am

    As for this subhuman piece of dung:

    “… To think that Mr Rotten would be backing Apartheid, that’s really f*ckin’ dumb c*nts for ya. Yes I fully intend to go to Israel. I support no f*ckin’ government anywhere – never have, never will. And here’s a nice little fact for the fools in the wooly t-shirts: Jews are people too…”.

    He showed what he was made of already:

    “Bloc Party singer Kele Okereke was left with severe facial bruising and a split lip following an alleged racist attack by Sex Pistols singer John Lydon. The incident occurred on Saturday evening at the Summercase festival in Barcelona, with one witness claiming Lydon’s entourage behaved like “a gang of racist thugs”.”

    This low life buttplug should have been boycotted into obscurity years ago and no doubt belongs in prison, anyway.

  3. Antidote
    August 5, 2010, 12:21 pm

    “Like most, I’d avoided conversations on [Israel/Palestine] because they swiftly became screaming matches,” Atwood explains.

    Well, that’s how 99% of Canadians (rough guess) feel about highly controversial and emotional subjects.

    I thought Atwood’s piece in Haaretz was quite good. Note this passage, hayate:

    “The Shadow is not the Palestinians. The Shadow is Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, linked with Israeli’s own fears. The worse the Palestinians are treated in the name of those fears, the bigger the Shadow grows, and then the fears grow with them; and the justifications for the treatment multiply.

    The attempts to shut down criticism are ominous, as is the language being used. Once you start calling other people by vermin names such as “vipers,” you imply their extermination. To name just one example, such labels were applied wholesale to the Tutsis months before the Rwanda massacre began. Studies have shown that ordinary people can be led to commit horrors if told they’ll be acting in self-defense, for “victory,” or to benefit mankind.”

    link to

    • hayate
      August 5, 2010, 12:38 pm

      “Note this passage”

      Actions mean more than words, Antidote. One can say all the “correct” things they want, but if their actions indicate something else, it’s meaningless noise. Ask any aipac bought politician.


    • DavidHeap
      August 6, 2010, 5:42 pm

      So who can credibly be seen as able to “attempt to shut down criticism.”? Surely not the BDS movement — in Canada, as Atwood could find out easily if she bothered to try, the BDS movement and its allies face a struggle just to have our points of view presented and discussed rationally in many public spaces (the Toronto District School Board banned Israeli Apartheid Week activities from its schools — when there were exactly none planned in any of its schools). There is on the other hand a national kangaroo court which is trying to criminalize all criticism of Israel or its policies as “anti-Semitic” (a pseudo parliamentary commission aptly dubbed “HUAC North” by blogger Dr. Dawg link to This just in Canada — the vicious backlash against Israeli academics who dare to support shows who is really interested in shutting down debate (and able to act on those threats).

      So where should our concern about shutting down criticism be directed? Perhaps at those that are actually doing it, i.e. the pro-Zionist lobby?

  4. Richard Witty
    August 5, 2010, 12:47 pm

    Artists, authors, are usually angry at the imposition, the censorship, the externally defined prohibition against contact.

    And, then the insulting or even violent way that the conformity is imposed.

    Its their choice. To even wish that they be guilted into conforming diminishes the movement that you claim to support.

    • Mooser
      August 5, 2010, 1:44 pm

      What “imposition”, what “censorship” what “prohibition” are you talking about, Witty. And then what “violent way” are you talking about.
      You are lying through your dentures, and as usual, even when you use actual words, you use them dishonestly.

      Again: what “imposition”, what “censorship” and what “prohibition” are these people being subjected to?

      “To even wish that they be….” yeah, yeah, it’s the same as putting Zyklon-B in their tea.


    • jimby
      August 6, 2010, 7:55 am

      Witty, WTF do you know about ART? You are an accountant, the bane of artists.

    • Chaos4700
      August 6, 2010, 10:30 am

      Its their choice. To even wish that they be guilted into conforming diminishes the movement that you claim to support.

      You forgot to include a stab at Phil Weiss’ relationship with his parents and his crimes against “Jewishness” for marrying a shiksa, Wittypocrisy.

  5. American
    August 5, 2010, 1:18 pm

    Well, as the man said…

    “Something happens….then you have to make a choice and take a side”..
    Graham Green, The Ugly American.

    Not taking a side is taking a side. Artist don’t get special moral exemptions any more than your ordinary person does.

  6. Oscar
    August 5, 2010, 2:20 pm

    Still waiting on Bono to take a stand. He is a great admirer of Bishop Desmond Tutu (see the U2 360 video leading up to “One”) and yet he remains deafeningly quiet when Tutu says the Palestinian situation is far worse than South Africa.

    • hayate
      August 5, 2010, 9:10 pm

      I thought I read somewhere that Bono is one of the artists who wont go to israel?

    • eGuard
      August 6, 2010, 10:26 am

      U2 has no performance scheduled in Israel. Their tour is doing Europe by now into October. U2/Bono has made no statement on this, as far as I know. Just no show in Israel.

  7. jan_gdyn
    August 5, 2010, 4:36 pm

    If I may share a related thought on the boycott…
    I heard an interesting account today by a London friend about an Israeli anti-zionist acquaintance’s (an academic) rejection of BDS. Her position is not uncommon among some anti-zionists and seems to stem, similarly to the artists described in your post, from a certain delusion (“There are many of us who oppose Israel’s policies, it’s unfair to punish us too” – when in fact they are so few in umber it’s depressing). But in this case the delusion was unfortunately accompanied by a bit of ego-centralism: “I have worked so hard against Israeli oppression; I’ve written books and papers, I’ve taught students abroad; I deserve recognition for my part, and here you are proposing I be banned from cultural/academic venues.” And the answer to that is, my friend surmised, Yes, your part is recognized, and yes, it’s not a happy situation—for many. But resistance movements require sacrifices. It should be about ending the oppression first and foremost and heeding the call for BDS as a strategy for liberation and not of collective punishment.

  8. Richard Witty
    August 5, 2010, 6:39 pm

    Not taking a side in an either/or war is the stand of humanism.

    • American
      August 6, 2010, 12:37 am

      I am going to come to your house witty and throw you out.
      Then I ‘am going to bulldoze it to rubble.
      And rip every living thing out of the soil of your land.
      I’am going to do this as your children watch.
      I will shoot and kill your children if they look sideways at me.
      I am going to see to it there is no medicine if your family becomes ill.
      I going to steal your water for my swimming pool.
      If you try to go anywhere I will strip search you and your wife and humilate you in front of others.
      I am going to starve, beat and humilate any shred of dignity or self respect out of you and prevent you from providing even the rock bottom necessities of life for your family.
      And I’am going to be doing this every day for decades and decades till you lose all hope and die.
      And no one will care.

      So just give me your address, we need to get this re education boot camp going for you right away cause I can see you aren’t a fast learner.

    • Chaos4700
      August 6, 2010, 10:31 am

      Thank you for confirming, then, that you are definitely not a humanist for your unbridled support of the IDF.

  9. sherbrsi
    August 5, 2010, 7:27 pm

    These artists are blind and delusional if they find Israel hospitality to be equivalent to Israeli humanity. If they wanted to know the true picture, they should have gone to Gaza and seen the destruction being wrecked by Israel there (considering they aren’t denied entry). Or perhaps a trip to Shiekh Jarrah to witness the ethnic cleansing of Arabs in EJ. What about the relentless demolishing of Palestinian villages and houses in the WB, and the war-battered and minefield-laden Southern Lebanon? Is that not a source of outrage, or do these “artists” live in ignorance of these activities? Instead, the artists have us believe that they are the victims here, of the “attack” they suffered through criticism of activists. It’s time these so-called artists stepped out of their bubble. Before commenting on society they must first actively engage in it.

    Yet these “artists” find comfort and hope in their conversations with the Israelis. Would these people still have any credibility if, instead of Israel, they were to visit segregated-era America and avoid the Southern parts? Would their sympathy still hold any water if it was with the white Americans they talked to, over the scared white folks living under threat of the violent black on the prowl? Their rejection of BDS would be acceptable after an independent assessment of Israeli war crimes and the Palestinian living conditions as imposed by the Israelis. Anything less is little more than appeasement and empty words written from their ivory towers.

  10. hophmi
    August 6, 2010, 3:27 am

    Except that:

    a. A lot of the BDS movement is driven by the hatred you deny (exhibit A, this blog)

    b. The Israelis are not the demons BDS movement members constantly try to make them out to be.

    c. Your allegation that those who perform in Israel “side with those who have a vested interest in covering up the oppressive colonisation of an indigenous people and the occupying country’s slide into fascism” is unsupportable neo-McCarthyite nonsense.

    • Chaos4700
      August 6, 2010, 10:32 am

      And how many children burned to death from white phoshporous we launched?

    • DavidHeap
      August 6, 2010, 5:17 pm

      a. There is no “hatred” evidenced on this blog (there is some hateful stuff from the Zionist apologists who comment, but the poverty of their rhetoric is hardly the blog’s fault).
      b. Nobody is demonizing individual Israelis, just the policies of the governments they elect.
      c. No, McCarthyism used the authority of the state to repress dissent (rather like Israel does…). The international BDS movement has no state authority, and relies only on grass-roots people’s organizations.

Leave a Reply