Elvis Costello’s bad boycott

Nathan Guttman writes in The Forward about Elvis Costello’s decision to boycott Israel:

“In reaction, a music industry insider confirmed that the winds could be shifting. The music executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity in light of his ongoing business ties with artists, said that in recent months he had approached more than 15 performing artists with proposals to give concerts in Israel. None had agreed. The contracts offered high levels of compensation. He called them “extreme, big numbers that could match any other gig.””

Grassroots boycotters at the bottom of their movement’s foodchain might not get it, but the cultural boycott of Israel needs to be recognised as part of a coordinated attempt to isolate Israel and undermine its existence. This boycott has never exhibited any promise or mechanism of ending the occupation and provokes a defensive reaction in Israelis. Nevertheless, it’s catching on and you get the impression that it now takes spine and a clear head to go through with performing in Israel. I’m wondering if by now it’s easier to simply leave Israel off the tour and even whether the praise you might gain for first agreeing to perform and then ostentatiously pulling out, citing the Palestinian cause, now outweighs the opinion of people like me that the cultural boycott is wrong.

I think Elvis Costello’s boycott is hollow. One reason for this is that he knew about the occupation when he arranged to play in Israel – what happened between then and his decision to cancel? Another is that is that his statement hardly relates to the matter at hand. He’s potentially a very precise communicator so I’m assuming this was deliberate. But in among the pained and indistinct verbiage is the conclusion that his name on an Israeli billboard will do more harm than boycotting Israel. I think the opposite is true.

Many Palestinians will feel that Elvis Costello is their friend, but this sympathetic outcome is the limit of what the boycott gesture can achieve. It’s outweighed by the negative side-effects of boycott recorded by Engage over the five years of our existence – five years in which the boycott campaign, predictably, has not led to any improvement in the overall situation. I don’t see how it could.

Does Elvis Costello believe that if he, Elton John, Joan Armatrading, The Pixies, Bob Dylan, or anybody else plays to their Israeli fans – and Elvis Costello supposes fans of his to be enlightened people – then pro-occupation campaigners will use the media to claim this as an endorsement of Israeli policies? That’s the same fools’ claim boycotters are making, and it’s not valid. Who says that artists have to go along with activists ventriloquising their political views? More likely Israelis and Jews would take the visit as proof that an unjust boycott campaign was failing to make the world’s only Jewish state a world pariah – and they would be entitled to celebrate that.

There is no mechanism through which boycotting Israel proposes to help end the occupation. Only a tiny minority of Israelis – Israelis who have abandoned the task of building the confidence for a peace movement in their own society and now find it more rewarding to build an international rejection movement instead – are calling for a boycott of Israel. Many more Israelis feel as David Horowitz does when he cites years of warfare and terrorism against Israel and points out that the ‘wrenching’ of settlers from Gaza was rewarded with the democratic election of Hamas, with its suicide bombers, missiles, and rhetoric of Jew-hatred.

According to many commentators, Israeli existential fear is so acute as to constitute a siege mentality, and this boycott has no prospect of alleviating that. Israel is a democracy – you have to persuade the voters to effect a change of policy. This boycott is the opposite of persuasion. Elvis Costello’s solipsism is so complete that he neglects to extend any worked out alternatives to occupation, and certainly no prospects for peace. Perceiving no alternative to the current approach of fortification and pre-emptive strike, Israelis are most likely to turn in on themselves and support what they feel the right-wing government they voted in has to do to protect them and secure the ongoing existence of their state. Israelis have good reason to fear Hamas, Hesbollah and their major theocratic sponsor and sworn enemy of Jews, Iran. This boycott has no argument with Israel’s enemies.

Does Elvis ‘instinct and conscience’ Costello think that by performing in Israel he risks contributing to the insufferable complacency of all those Israelis who divine their country’s morality on whether musical artists include Israel on their tour, as if reading the tea leaves? I don’t think any Israeli judges their country by that measure. Does he seriously believe that Israelis, so many of whom are drafted into national service, or whose relatives are, don’t understand that the occupation, in the piously facile words of Ofer Neiman in The Forward article, “has a price tag attached”?

So what is Elvis Costello thinking? It looks as if boycott campaigners are beginning to get a purchase in public opinion and it also looks as if, in the face of their pressure, explaining a decision to perform in Israel has become overly effortful and unpleasant for artists. You have to put up with getting called wilfully ignorant, callous, complicit, even Binyamin Netanyahu’s “gay Band Aid“. Easier to play to the figurative gallery than sweat out explaining your decision to play to the real one.

Shai Lahav (this Shai Lahav, veteran of Gaza during the first intifada, defending the soldiers who tried to bring to light Israeli military misconduct during Operation Cast Lead?) is a fan of Costello’s who wrote in Ma’ariv:

“You certainly know, Mr. Costello, that many ‘enlightened’ countries such as the US and UK are involved without respite in fighting in faraway countries, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan…You would never cancel an appearance in New York or London, while condemning the government policies for sending soldiers. You would have too much to lose by such a step. But a concert in Israel is a different story…In Israel, there is a great public of humanist people, who desire peace, yearn for a normal life, are willing to make painful concession and who are also cultural enthusiasts. Look at how fast your concert tickets were snapped up. Over the years, this public has fought bitterly to advance its positions and its dreams. It fights against extremists at home and against Muslim extremists, who are destroying any chance for peace. Your miserable decision directly weakens this public. You have given it another reason to despair, to be frustrated and to understand that the chance for sanity is slipping away. ‘Music is not mere noise,’ you wrote in your cancellation letter. But you have proved the exact opposite. Sometimes a musician would do well to concentrate on music, which, at least, he understands.”

Boycotters are probably right that the cultural boycott will distinguish artists with integrity from artists who prefer not to see what is going on. Only they have it the wrong way round – the artists with integrity will perform in Israel and deal with the flak.

10 Responses to “Elvis Costello’s bad boycott”

  1. Gil Says:

    Mira: ‘Grassroots boycotters at the bottom of their movement’s foodchain might not get it, but the cultural boycott of Israel needs to be recognised as part of a coordinated attempt to isolate Israel and undermine its existence. ‘

    Just from the comments to the article on Forward, it appears that most of the supporters of the boycott do indeed object to Israel’s existence as such. That is the point for them. The reasons for the boycott will mutate with each success they achieve. Which is why it’s important to call them out.

    Some of the comments are utterly malicious, including a vehemently anti-Israeli rabbi who appears to be fake. That said, some of the anti-boycotters appear to be crude, rude and an embarrassment. However, one wonders how many agent provocateurs are at work on these sites, only posing as extremists so as to evoke hatred and revulsion for the entire ‘side’ that the poster is coming from.

    Mira: ‘I’m wondering if by now it’s easier to simply leave Israel off the tour and even whether the praise you might gain for first agreeing to perform and then ostentatiously pulling out, citing the Palestinian cause, now outweighs the opinion of people like me that the cultural boycott is wrong.’

    Sorry, but the first sentence sounds too defeatist for my liking. There are many, many artists who are continuing to perform in Israel and will continue to do so. Why should we turn Costello or GSH into the icons that they are clearly not. Regarding the second part of the sentence, I don’t understand the point being made. Whether you don’t tour in the first place or you withdraw from a tour, either way it may outweigh your anti-boycott feelings.

    I also think that speculating or trying to tease out the reasons for EC’s refusal to perform is fruitless without knowing more. His statement on his website should be taken at face value-and it’s verbiage. For all we know he may have been pondering the issue for some time and wrestling with his conscience. Then he just decided to plump for the boycott option. That does not make his decision the correct one because his perceptions of the conflict and how to solve it are skewed and tinged with hypocrisy, but it is how many make decisions.

    • Mira Vogel Says:

      Gil: “Sorry, but the first sentence sounds too defeatist for my liking. There are many, many artists who are continuing to perform in Israel and will continue to do so.”
      I hope so. From where I’m standing anti-Zionism is mainstreaming, so I’m predicting that the boycott will also mainstream. So it is a defeat of sorts – of reason and understanding on the part of boycotters rather than anything else. Weighing up numbers who do and numbers who don’t is significant – but that aside, I care about what Costello, Gil Scott Heron, Joan Armatrading etc do, because they’re them.

      “Why should we turn Costello or GSH into the icons that they are clearly not. Regarding the second part of the sentence, I don’t understand the point being made. Whether you don’t tour in the first place or you withdraw from a tour, either way it may outweigh your anti-boycott feelings.”

      Well, The Forward was identifying his cancellation as a turning point, so I was taking that at face value. As for my second point, I figure if you cancel after tickets have been sold, it highlights a commitment to boycott that exposes you to criticism. You know it’s going to hurt you either way but you’ve weighed things up and you’re prepared to stick it to your Israeli fans and anti-boycotters rather than antagonise the boycotters. Conscience, sure – but only after having a load of contempt aimed in your direction. I think it means you are ignorant about the conflict and susceptible to wrong arguments if they are loud and make you look bad. Whereas if you simply leave Israel out, perhaps you’re a silent boycotter but nobody really notices.

      I do think it’s worth speculating. Boycotters are content to condemn artists and organisers of cultural events on the basis of involvement with Israel. If people like Elvis Costello are susceptible, then it seems important to make sure that pro-boycott arguments aren’t the only ones they hear in the run-up to their performance. But at the same time, I don’t want to make more of performances that do go ahead than the artist themself would do. An artist shouldn’t have to feel like a number or a committed ‘friend of Israel’, just because they play Israel. That would be the way a boycotter looks at artists – as tools.

  2. modernity Says:

    Strangely enough, MacManus’s wife, Diana Krall, won’t be boycotting Israel and has a show scheduled there in August.

    http://www.dianakrall.com/tour.aspx


    * his real name

  3. GideonSwort Says:

    So, only after having signed a contract to perform, watching the marketing machine sell tickets months ahead of the performance date, does McManus abruptly become aware of the IP conflict’s horrors. What a pretentious, poser pi55 ant.

    Never mind, the Pixies are on.

  4. David Rosenberg Says:

    Not quite off topic – Mike Gerber author of an acclaimed new book “Jews and Jazz” is giving an illustated talk on this topic on Sunday 23 May 7.30pm at the Indian YMCA, 41 Fitzroy Square, London W1

  5. Nachman Says:

    David Horowitz had a great editorial in the Jerusalem Post see

    http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=176045

  6. Absolute Observer Says:

    Contradiction no. 101

    What puzzles me is that in an age in which “Zionists” are believed to be able to dictate US foreign policy, they are incapable of stopping a commercial artist from reneging on their contract to play in Israel. How is this possible? Maybe the reason is that there are no Jews in the music business? How else to explain it?

  7. Editors – putting the ‘independent’ back into indie « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    [...] cancellation of his Israel gigs was called a ‘turning point’ in the Jewish chronicle, my thought was that it has now become easier to boycott Israel than to resist and that performing there would take [...]

  8. Jerusalem Online University.com | Online learning from Jerusalem» Elton John: Don’t Boycott Israel Says:

    [...] Israel is a democracy, voters – all Israeli citizens — choose parties and policies. As one group said, this boycott is the opposite of persuasion. In fact, cultural boycotts of Israel only enhance [...]


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