Steven Salaita

A message to artists who play Israel

Brian Eno, Roger Waters and others have criticised Nick Cave's decision to play Tel Aviv[Getty]

Date of publication: 25 November, 2017

Comment: Ignoring calls for international solidarity against Apartheid is the sort of decision that gets noted in obituaries, writes Steven Salaita.
I realise you have no reason to read this message.  

I'm an out-of-work professor quite beneath you on the world's hierarchy of importance. All the same, it's good to remember that people from below are most capable of pushing us to new heights. I push because you're already on my shoulders.

As you know, Palestinians have called for a cultural boycott of Israel. Because controversy now accompanies any performance in the country, booking a gig in Tel Aviv causes artists and their handlers major headaches. While you probably don't appreciate the hassle, bear in mind that Israel's depleted reputation is a good thing for those who suffer its aggression.

If you look at it the right way, adhering to the cultural boycott is good for you, too. It will boost your legacy, for starters. Think of the shame that still attends those artists who played Sun City. No serious person argues that they did the right thing. Ignoring calls for international solidarity against Apartheid is the sort of decision that gets noted in obituaries. 

It also allows you to amplify your voice in deeply meaningful ways. The worst thing to claim, as Nick Cave recently did, is that BDS silences artists. Using your voice is exactly what BDS activists are asking you to do, just not in a way that benefits your ego or pocketbook.

You command large audiences. Fans and haters alike care about what you do. People like to proclaim that celebrities have no business discussing politics, but we both know they're wrong. They only yell "just shut up and play!" when they disagree with you. 

" When a colonised people asks you to respect its picket line, they're forcing you to accept the consequences of influence "

Besides, every time you record a song, write a lyric, choose a studio, hire a producer, draft a marketing scheme, visit a city, book a TV show, or support a particular charity, you're engaged in politics.  Sure, you can say - naively - these things aren't politics per se, just normal aspects of managing a career in entertainment. 

But when colonised people asks you to respect its picket line, they're forcing you to accept the consequences of influence. 

And you know what? They have every right to do it. They earned that right the moment you agreed to become a marketing ploy for their oppressor. Don't chortle; it's true.

The Israeli government invests considerable resources into luring acts with the sort of cultural capital that will make the state look like a beacon of modernity amid those itching to drag humanity back to the stone age.

Israel wants many things: Land, resources, influence, domination; the usual desires of any settler colony. But more than anything, it wants legitimacy. That's where you come in.  Your performance in Tel Aviv could be anywhere - New York, Rio, Berlin, Tokyo, London - which is exactly the point.  

Israel tries to pass itself off as an innocuous presence in the community of nations, so the world needn't worry over land expropriation, war crimes, water theft, blockades, inequality, torture, ethnocracy and home demolition.

" Your art, no matter how brilliant, won't inspire peace and reconciliation "

The effort to sanitise this brutality even has an official name: Brand Israel. The idea is to transform the image of Israel from hostile to cool. You must be aware that something is afoot. You don't think Israel pays more than your normal fee out of the kindness of its heart, do you?

Cultural boycott follows a simple logic: Artists shouldn't allow themselves to be conscripted into propaganda on behalf of a nation-state with an abysmal human rights record. The call to boycott comes from the very people who suffer the blunt-end of that abysmal record and would find it helpful if you didn't gratify their oppressor. 

Playing Israel isn't the everyday merriment of a normal performance. By doing it, you help absolve what South African activist Desmond Tutu, a longtime BDS supporter, calls "an apartheid state". No amount of lucre is worth cosigning inhumanity. 

And let me intervene before you even think it: Your art, no matter how brilliant, won't inspire peace and reconciliation. Those things will happen after Palestinians acquire their freedom. 

How can your art bring people together when one of the parties can't even attend? Palestinian movement is severely restricted by checkpoints, segregated highways, closed borders, religious profiling, and zones of residence. Many of those lucky enough to enjoy freedom of travel don't have the resources to frequent big-ticket events.

Read more: Why artists should not perform in Israel

Two million people in the Gaza Strip can't get medicine to treat cancer, much less attend movie premieres and concerts. They are locked into a tiny space with an inadequate supply of food and other items necessary for a minimally decent life, always waiting to be targeted by Israeli warplanes and chemical weapons

Take away the impervious border Israel maintains around the territory and it's an easy drive to Tel Aviv. 

Before departing, let's return to the theme of silencing. Those of us who practice BDS - lawyers, professors, baristas, poets, salespeople, students, small business owners - work without remuneration or mainstream recognition, often at great risk to our own security.  

No government backs us. No foundations give us grants. We're way too toxic for any form of charity.

" More than anything, Israel wants legitimacy "

In short, we don't have the power to silence anybody. But our opponents are trying their best to silence us. Israel's apologists have introduced legislation around the world that would outlaw or even criminalise BDS. If they get their way - and they might, as politicians seem to love the idea - professions of freedom will be illegal.  

It's a common tactic, in any case, to accuse the dispossessed of bullying when they finally have occasion to raise their voices. 

I confess that it confuses me when you speak of artists being silenced. Which "artists" do you have in mind? Surely you don't mean Palestinian artists. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but it seems important to point out that Palestinians, as any other colonised population, are excluded from these universal categories. 

Palestinian artists, like their compatriots of all professions (if they're lucky enough to be employed), don't get to jaunt about hither and yon, entrapped as they are by checkpoints, apartheid walls and closed borders.

They aren't cosseted by kingmakers in the industry because they're inherently dangerous by virtue of their identity. They don't enjoy the extravagance of celebrity because the needs of survival always interfere. 

Ask them if you should play Tel Aviv. They'll proffer no clichés about art as an apolitical healing ritual. 

They'll also tell you that sometimes silence is one of the most powerful statements an artist can offer. Not performing is a kind of performance, too, one that resonates powerfully among people who don't get to attend conventional shows. 

And that's something you miss by accepting Brand Israel's overtures, the beautiful opportunity to connect with a different type of audience. 

The Palestinian people are intelligent, hospitable, resilient, and impossibly kind. Few things are more rewarding than having them as fans.

Steven Salaita is an American scholar, author and public speaker. His latest book is Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom.  

Follow him on Twitter:
 @stevesalaita 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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