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Should you boycott bands from Israel?

We Asked Tel Aviv-based shoegaze outfit Vaadat Charigim
August 8, 2014, 12:33pm

Pressure on Israel has never been greater in the wake of the ongoing and horrific situation in Gaza. Whether it’s the people with actual power tip-toeing around any real, effective sanctions, or families giving up their dust-covered Sodastreams, everyone has been forced to respond to the death of over 1,800 Palestinians (around 70% of which are thought to be civilians). The BDS movement now has British students on their side (which presumably means Nick Clegg is on board too). There’s even an app to help avoid Israeli food goods in the supermarket. It’d be tough to argue that the Israeli boycott movement has ever mobilised the usually apathetic in such numbers.

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Where do – or should - the boycotts begin and end though? The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) follow the methodology laid out by the anti- apartheid movement in South Africa before them, which pushed for economic, consumer, academic and global sport sanctions, leading to eventual, lasting change.

But how if one wants to stick to such principles, how do you go about it? Is it okay to watch Homeland (based on Israeli TV series Hatufim) but not acceptable to buy a Hewlett Packard (on account of the company supplying the IDF with printers)? And what about music? When people like Brian Eno stop releasing underwhelming albums to speak out about Gaza, it surely affects music listeners and their mindsets. Israel is set to lose around $20 million from gig cancellations this summer.

Okay, so your iTunes library probably isn’t filled with Haifa hip-hop or Tel Aviv trance, but it poses an interesting question: should boycotters tar all with the same brush as those in charge or support of the attacks? And is there any ethical difference between refusing to listen to Israeli music and a musician refusing to play in the country itself?

Juval is from the Tel Aviv-based shoegaze outfit Vaadat Charigim, who have recently attracted attention from the likes of Pitchfork, NME and, you know, NOISEY. He recently got in touch with us, stating that “by not speaking how I feel I am somehow enabling this snowball of madness”.

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“I see things in the news about the general mood in Europe now, protests and pro-Palestinian activists interrupting shows by Israeli performers and I worry for [our upcoming] tour,” he says.

“Though I understand the logic behind boycotting, I can’t help but feel like they are missing something by treating me as if I were some official government representative, as if I were the actual enemy, and not the governments/businessmen/arms dealers who are playing everyone like puppets, as they always do.”

We spoke to Juval some more about the boycotts and how it feels to be an Israeli musician at the moment, both inside and outside of the country.

How would you describe your political standing?

Generally I believe in a two state solution, and in finding peaceful resolutions and talking, rather than the use of force. I think the conflict in the middle east is rooted in many things including religious tension and old world idealism on both sides, which is in conflict with modern democratic thinking, and is the basic reason why every time there is violence or the hint of it, people's demons come out and everything becomes insane.

You have referred to yourself as a “left wing level-headed, pro-peace Tel Avivian”, do you engage in pro-peace activism back in Israel?

I wouldn’t say I’m too active. I never have been really. I go to peace rallies every time there is one. These days they are very close to my house in Tel Aviv. I don't know how much effect that really has but the speeches have hope and I like to see people around me with hope in their eyes. In the deepest place in my soul I am not the kind of person to think that problems have a binary solution of yes or no, which is why I am mostly suspicious of anyone who says that X will solve Y. It’s important for me to listen and interact. I think there are people far more educated than me on the conflict, both on the left and on the right, and I try to listen as much as I can to inform myself. Most of the media here is a nationalistic mess. It’s very hard to get facts, so my activism is mostly opening my ears, listening, and avoiding the kind of "confident" tone, which you hear these days from all sides of the political spectrum. At the root of that tone there is usually a secret wish that you are right and everyone else is wrong and I just find that it doesn’t sit well with me.

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You say that the media is a “nationalistic mess”, what’s the general political leaning of the underground music scene in Tel Aviv?

In simplistic terms, very left. The "scene" is made up of young people working and living in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa. It is a radical movement, always in struggle to survive. During this war, culture was put completely in a halt. It’s been this way for a month now. We just want to live in peace with the people around us, make art, try and make a living. This halt on business as the result of the war (a halt which was felt ten times stronger in the south of Israel) has been a death blow to culture. We say here that there is no continuity to the scene. Once every two three years there is a war, or something similar, and everything is put on halt. The history of Israeli music is like a chopped-up straight line from the past to the future, with little to no connection between the pieces.

You’ve never tried to hide your nationality as a band. Do you think identifying as an Israeli artist and singing in Hebrew is a hindrance at all?

Probably. But again, it’s not something I care to think about. It’s ironic, but 99% of bands here try to make it in the "world", and we are trying to make it in Israel , where there is only an underground rock culture. It is my mission to restart the "Israeli Rock" thing which was all the rave back in the early 90s for a domestic audience. I believe that if I achieve that, I will reach the kind of "world" success that I am looking for - the authentic kind.

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Do you ever feel frustrated by constantly being labelled as an “Israeli shoegaze band” rather than simply a “shoegaze band”?

No. I know it’s because the music scene is Anglo-centric, and though I don’t completely accept that (obviously we chose to sing in Hebrew), I understand it, and think getting frustrated over it is a waste of energy. I will keep making music in my language, about my culture, influenced by what is happening around me, and if the world needs labels it will use them for as long as it needs to. It has nothing to do with me.

How do you think the outside world perceives Israel at the moment and does this differ from your own perception?

Some perceive Israel negatively, some positively. Watching the news, it’s hard for me to identify with a person walking in the street with a flag around his body, be that flag an Israeli one

or a Palestinian one. I feel that if you look at the bigger picture of this ongoing conflict, there are shreds of truth in both ways of looking at Israel. Beyond those shreds there is a lot of

anger and frustration and I have enough of my own. I don’t need anymore. Like I said, binary solutions are very hard for me to accept, and therefore I find it hard to identify with either

way of looking at Israel from the outside.

For what reasons do you disagree with the boycotting of Israeli artists, like yourself?

Boycotting goods, I get it. Boycotting arms sales, sure, no problem. But boycotting artists, probably the only section within Israel which is in agreement to a certain degree with the pro-peace movement outside of Israel just doesn’t make any sense to me. If anything there should be conversation, not alienation. Art seems to me like a channel for communication, in times when religious fanatics and businessmen are running the show. On the other hand, as a pragmatic person, I can see how intellectual boycotting is effective, and I admit it might be just me being bummed out by it. In school I would always find a spot in the yard where other kids wouldn’t bother me. I guess I just don’t like being a part of a group I never joined by choice.

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How have you experienced the boycotts on a first-hand basis? Have your shows been interrupted in the past?

Not really. No. I have read of other artists who have been, but not myself.

Do you think there’s any hypocrisy at all of being both pro-peace and anti-boycott? Isn’t a key reason for a boycott to put pressure not only on the international community but also the people of that nation to force a change?

Yes, boycotting is a tool of force. I cannot identify with it because my nature is not aggressive. It might be a flaw, I admit. I’m not sure though if hypocrisy is the right word for it. It is definitely ambivalent.

How have Israeli citizens viewed the boycotts? Do you think it has the potential to change opinion within the country?

Reactions are mixed. Some blame anti-semitism, some say it’s legit. Truth is that boycotting Israel doesn’t have much effect on Israel internally, nor does it really affect the outcome of things in reality. It is an awareness generating tool. If you look at it logically for a moment, if I were to say to you - "I know you need me, but I think you are a horrible person, so I'm going to withhold you our relationship until you change", what would you do? Most people would get proud and defensive and say "well I don’t need you and I will be whatever I want". Very few people would go "You’re right, I really should work on that and change so that I can keep our relationship". People don’t really want to work hard. And change is hard work. Look at it for a moment like a romantic relationship if you will. We either choose to work hard, or there will be heartbreak. No relationship can work without both sides putting in the work to constantly change.

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Would you say that boycotts on some level share the same dividing mindset as that which they’re fighting against? Seeing an entire nation as a singular entity, rather than as individual people.

No, it’s not the same at all. I believe that at the root of every person against war there is a simple appreciation of life. War-mongering is a thirst for death. Seeing individuals as just an entity and erasing them as people to fit your concepts is wrong, of course. Nothing good can come of it. But where would we be if people wouldn’t demonstrate against war ? The real question is how we generate change, not just awareness.

How do you feel towards individuals who would not see your band strictly out of principle?

I really feel nothing. It’s people’s own business what they do or don’t.

You used to live in Berlin, what made you return to Tel Aviv?

The emotional need to create and influence where my initial energy was born, within the context of my origins, where my words and voice would feel most natural.

I can’t imagine it’s a place people are flocking to right now. How intense would the situation need to get to make you think about leaving Israel?

It’s pretty bad now. There is a serious loss of democratic legitimacy for pluralism. I've never seen such a thing. But then again what would I be if I left every time it didn’t suit my perfect picture of reality? I think at some point I decided that I either keep struggling, or I accept that life is pain and disappointment, and move on from there.

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