Musicians Should Boycott Israel Until Palestinians Are Free
Brian Eno and Ohal Grietzer: "By calling for a boycott of Israel, Palestinians are only asking you not to help Israel oppress them."
Early in his US visit last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once again affirmed that he is "committed to two states for two peoples," while at the same time green-lighting a new wave of West Bank settlement expansions. This recurring contradiction has prompted many longtime supporters of Israel to abandon their conviction that the Israeli government is interested in peace.
Both of us started out being very sympathetic to Israel. Brian, who was born May 15, 1948, the very same day as the state of Israel was established, grew up in an English milieu where Israel was very positively perceived. In particular, he was enthusiastic about the Israeli kibbutz movement, which he viewed as an exemplary socialist society.
Ohal was born and raised in Israel in the 80s, getting her early political education from the same movement that Brian looked up to in his youth. Schools emphasized values of democracy and socialism in The Beautiful Israel, and youth movements presented egalitarianism as the underlying basis for a lineage that began with Zionist pioneers, and continues to this day.
Palestinians are not asking you to save them. By calling for a boycott of Israel, they are only asking you not to help Israel oppress them.
We knew that for Palestinians living under Israeli governance and military occupation things didn't look nearly as good, but we believed the Israelis intended a state shared by both peoples. By the 1990s, it was increasingly difficult to maintain this belief. The many attempts at solutions to what was now a crisis failed one after the other: Every round of peace talks was followed—or even accompanied—by settlement building, often on land that had been farmed by Palestinian families for generations.
It has become apparent that The Beautiful Israel is a lot less beautiful to Palestinians and has always been this way. Many of the kibbutz "utopias" are, in fact, segregated colonies built on the ruins of Palestinian villages that were ethnically cleansed in 1948. And Israel's social democracy has always been largely restricted to its Jewish citizens: There are areas controlled by the Israeli army where Palestinian residents are not allowed to walk on the street where they live.
This oppressive system is so harsh that South-African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said: "What I see here [in Israel] is worse than what we experienced—the absolute control of people's lives, the lack of freedom of movement, the army presence everywhere, the total separation and the extensive destruction we saw... Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation."
What is happening now in Israel and Palestine is eerily reminiscent of the American Wild West of the 19th Century: an indigenous people, relatively powerless, facing a heavily armed group of settlers backed by a large modern army and a government. The natives are pushed off their land, and when they resist, they're called terrorists. It's a familiar colonial story: The victims are turned into "the problem." One becomes acutely aware of this when visiting Israel and witnessing the glaring differences between Jewish Israeli and Palestinian lives—the inequitable distribution of resources, the daily humiliation and harassment that Palestinians undergo.
Israel would like nothing more than for people around the world not to pay attention to this reality. Its main strategy is to divert attention from what it's doing to Palestinians, and try to focus it on positive undertakings. The foreign ministry in Israel works hand in hand with show promoters in Israel, who offer skyrocketing monetary compensation for concerts. Their stated goal is to establish a "Brand Israel" associated with liberal pluralism.
It seems to us that artists who play Israel are enabling this strategy, even unwittingly. We realize that not all of our fellow musicians, including some people we really respect, see things this way. We fear that they are holding on to a distorted and outdated image of Israel. When urged to heed the Palestinian boycott call, and to refrain from playing in Israel, they often assert their qualms about boycotts. But the decades-long systematic, often violent and murderous oppression of the Palestinian people has led us and many others to believe that, as in South Africa, boycott is an effective measure for bringing about change and liberation to an oppressed people.
Palestinians are not asking you to save them. By calling for a boycott of Israel, they are only asking you not to help Israel oppress them. People around the world are not boycotting Israel because they think it is the only racist and oppressive regime in the world, but because they are responding to a call from Palestinians—the people oppressed by Israel in the land governed by Israel. In the current context, performing or not performing in Israel forces a choice between taking the side of the oppressor or the oppressed.
Even if we look at only the past 20 years, while bands from the US and the UK regularly come to Tel Aviv to sing to Israeli audiences about love and dialogue, conditions have only become worse for Palestinians.
When artists are asked to cancel performances in Israel by boycott activists, those who choose to go through with it usually say that they're coming to play for peace and encourage love and dialogue. Author J. K. Rowling recently wrote in a cosigned letter to the Guardian that what Israel needs is "cultural engagement [that] builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change." The suggestion that playing music shows in Tel Aviv has anything to do with promoting change toward a just social order is at odds with reality: countless music shows, some specifically "for peace" shows, from international artists take place every year in Israel. Even if we look at only the past 20 years, while bands from the US and the UK regularly come to Tel Aviv to sing to Israeli audiences about love and dialogue, conditions have only become worse for Palestinians.
Expecting this to be otherwise is unrealistic—no number of music performances in Sun City would have dismantled apartheid in South Africa. Musicians care deeply about their fans: No one wants to say no to an opportunity to share their art, and to disappoint them. But some of your fans are also calling for you to boycott Israel. Even if you do believe that art, by virtue of its own aesthetics, can bring about change, how long will Palestinians have to wait for it?
Today, a group of artists—among them Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, actor Kathleen Chalfant of The Affair, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, and visual artist Swoon—have released a video in support of the boycott. And we are glad to say that a growing number of artists from Canada, the UK, and now the US are following the tradition of Artists United Against Apartheid, and have lent their visibility and voice to the struggle to end the Israeli oppression of Palestinians. In respect to their fans, and for the sake of Palestine, musicians should refrain from performing in Israel until it abides by international law. Instead, they should join others and continue the proud tradition of artists building another link on the chain, and standing up to injustice.
Brian Eno is an English musician.
Ohal Grietzer is a musician and an activist with the Israeli group BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within.