Opinion

Palestinians reject Madonna’s ‘fig-leaf gestures of solidarity’

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The veteran pop star Madonna performed her guest-gig in the Israel-hosted Eurovision on Saturday, despite calls for boycott by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) urged Madonna to reconsider her participation, arguing that “true solidarity means heeding the call of the oppressed”:

Would you have played in Sun City at the height of Apartheid in South Africa, crossing the boycott picket line set by the majority black population? 

A very good question – to which Madonna answered:

I’ll never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be.

This is a hugely problematic answer. The Eurovision in Israel was already a highly politicized event, which was even pointed out by Netta, last year’s winner, who said after her win that “we have done something crazy [fantastic] for Israeli Hasbara”.  Just one small sign of this was how Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster, used the occasion for marketing occupied Palestinian and Syrian territories as “Israel”.

And the fact that the BDS movement has been calling for a boycott of Israel since 2005 makes participation in such an event inevitably political – just as it was for Frank Sinatra when he performed in Sun City in defiance of the anti-apartheid boycott in 1981, for the sum of $2 million.

Madonna added:

My heart breaks every time I hear about the innocent lives that are lost in this region and the violence that is so often perpetuated to suit the political goals of people who benefit from this ancient conflict. I hope and pray that we will soon break free from this terrible cycle of destruction and create a new path towards peace.

Here Madonna (who also calls herself “Esther” due to her Kabbalist interests), is applying not only emotional kitsch, but also subtle historical distortion. By calling the “conflict” “ancient”, Madonna seems to erase the settler-colonialist reality of Zionism. Calling it a “conflict” in general blurs the reality of the oppressor vs the oppressed, and “cycle of destruction” suggests a rather equal power-relation. In other words, Madonna is peddling “peace” Hasbara.

And there’s money involved. Over a million dollars. Israeli-Canadian businessman Sylvan Adams is reported to be footing the bill, estimated at about $1.3 million. Adams has contributed to the recent failed Israeli spacecraft landing on the moon, and now he sought to land Esther in Israel for the Eurovision.

That’s what was behind PACBI’s additional statement:

Artwashing Israel’s brutal oppression of Palestinians for a million dollars must be among the most immoral political agendas.

But Madonna was not only artwashing Israel — she had to artwash herself after having committed the immoral deed. A hint of her soft critique was presented between the two songs she sang at the Eurovision (see 5:00 in video). Here she held a little recitation:

They are so naïve. They think we are not aware of their crimes. We know, that we are just not ready to act. The storm isn’t in the air – it’s inside of us. I want to tell you about love and loneliness, but it’s getting late now. Can’t you hear outside of your supreme hoodie, the wind that’s beginning to howl?

This statement, reflected against Madonna’s intransigence, comes across as particularly chauvinist, patronizing, naïve and coy. Is Madonna not ready to act? Just like she puts on her massive shows, she can also decide to decline, but she doesn’t. Her decisions to violate the boycott picket line are not “inaction”, but rather active, witting violations, for a political agenda that is Israeli, not Palestinian.

Madonna dancers wearing Israeli and Palestinian flags.
Madonna dancers wearing Israeli and Palestinian flags.

Madonna inserted another, more explicit “critique”, where two of her dancers had small Palestinian and Israeli flags patched on their backs, and they walked hand in hand. This bit was widely noticed and commented upon as a ‘radical’ statement. An official Eurovision statement said this was not part of rehearsals and had not been cleared with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) or public broadcaster Kan. “The Eurovision Song Contest is a nonpolitical event and Madonna had been made aware of this,” the statement said. But the Eurovision has already been highly politicized. That statement is as lame as the statement in response to the marketing of occupied territories as “Israel”, in which EBU simply repeated the old mantra of the Eurovision being apolitical, even without rebuke of the Israeli Kan Public Broadcaster.

So Madonna is somehow being viewed as a “radical” after all. As an ending of her performance, where the second song was sung together with the rapper Quavo, the words “WAKE UP” were projected on the scene. Who should wake up? Madonna does not define the culprits and the victims. Everyone should just wake up – Esther has a prophetic message of peace.

And that is how Madonna, aka Esther, tried to have her cake and eat it too.

Like Madonna, the Icelandic group Hatari demonstrated a faint gesture of “solidarity” by lifting Palestinian banners featuring the Palestinian flag with the writing “Palestine” on it, and they did so with sad faces when they were hearing the final point results, and it was obvious they were not winning.

PACBI was not impressed:

Palestinian civil society overwhelmingly rejects fig-leaf gestures of solidarity from international artists crossing our peaceful picket line”… “Artists who insist on crossing the Palestinian boycott picket line, playing in Tel Aviv in defiance of our calls, cannot offset the harm they do to our human rights struggle by ‘balancing’ their complicit act with some project with Palestinians. Palestinian civil society overwhelmingly rejects this fig-leafing,” the group said. “The most meaningful expression of solidarity is to cancel performances in apartheid Israel.”

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Palestinian success seems to bank on taking down the American political system, a pretty high hurdle. The US Senate, as I recall voted 100 to 0 on moving the embassy. Trump moved it to West Jerusalem saying, “In making these announcements, I also want to make one point very clear:… Read more »

It’s all left to personal interpretation but look closely how dancers representing palestinians and dancers representing Israeli look like. Palestinian dancers are dressed in white virginal gowns wearing gas masks with crowns of flowers on their heads. Israeli dancers are dressed in all black, looking menacing. Madonna was paid by… Read more »

In my view, showing a Palestinian flag is better than nothing, although I wish the boycott would grow faster ….

Thanks for this article, Jonathan. I’ve been going cross- eyed reading the coverage of the ‘protests’ by Iceland’s band and Madonna aka Esther who did the opposite of what Palestinian civil society asked. They put lipstick on the pig and that is all. It’s actually more detrimental to justice to… Read more »