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entries tagged with: Elvis Costello


Boycott targets stars from Elvis to Elton

WASHINGTON – It was a feather in the cap of pro-boycott activists, but for Israelis a major setback.

With battle lines drawn across concert halls and stadiums hosting rock bands, the decision by mega-star Elvis Costello to cancel his planned concerts in Israel is being viewed as a game changer.

In a statement posted on his Web site, Costello described his decision as a “matter of instinct and conscience.” Israel’s culture minister, Limor Livnat, responded by saying that Costello “is not worthy” of performing in Israel.

Elvis Costello performing at The National in Richmond, Va. Mean daddy/Creative Commons

The movement for a cultural boycott of Israel has increased its activity in recent years, strategically targeting selected artists who are scheduled to perform there. Until recently the campaign has had limited success. It failed to dissuade musicians Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen from giving concerts in Israel, but took pride in positive responses from several authors and poets.

Numerous other stars, such as Madonna, have been unmoved by the cultural boycott campaign, performing in Israel even recently.

But Costello’s action is the first open endorsement of the boycott movement by an A-list artist in protest of Israel’s policies in the occupied West Bank and its siege of Gaza. In a detailed statement, the performer argued that he could not perform in Israel because by doing so, “it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent.”

“One lives in hope that music is more than mere noise, filling up idle time, whether intending to elate or lament,” Costello wrote in his statement.

He suggested that his decision had been complex and difficult.

“I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security,” he wrote. “I am also keenly aware of the sensitivity of these themes in the wake of so many despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation.

“I offer my sincere apologies for any disappointment to the advance ticket holders as well as to the organizers.”

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 executive said, though the contracts offered high levels of compensation -- “extreme, big numbers that could match any other gig.”

Another successful boycott campaign was directed at poet and performing artist Gil Scott-Heron.

Shortly after announcing his plan to perform in Tel Aviv on May 25, Scott-Heron, who is known for his political activism, was blasted by supporters of the boycott movement who called on him to cancel his visit. Pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted his April 24 concert in London, and at the end of the show Scott-Heron announced the cancellation of his Tel Aviv tour.

A letter sent to Scott-Heron by more than 50 pro-boycott groups and artists praised the decision as a moral one.

“You have chosen to stand on the right side of history,” the letter said.

Scott-Heron’s progressive views and outspoken political stands have made him a prime target of the boycott movement. Organizers explained that they have been focusing on artists who they believe could be open to the idea of culturally boycotting Israel.

“Obviously we can’t target everyone, so we single out those who we think will be more responsive and open to the issue,” said Hannah Mermelstein, a spokesperson for Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel.

But the groups also are going after other performing artists whose planned concerts in Israel are expected to sell tens of thousands of tickets.

Currently the focus is on singer Elton John, who is scheduled to perform in Tel Aviv on June 17. A video clip circulating on the Web shows a takeoff on Elton John’s 1976 hit “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” The parody replaces the song’s original lyrics with a call to cancel the planned show: “Always seems to me that boycott seems to be the hardest word.”

The song criticizes Elton John for performing in South Africa during the apartheid era and claims that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is using gay tourism to Israel as part of the country’s rebranding campaign. The clip urges John not to “let Bibi use you as his gay Band-Aid.”

Other high-profile artists being targeted are Bob Dylan, who plans to give a concert in Israel at the end of May, and Joan Armatrading, who is scheduled to give two shows in the first week of June.

But in the battle over public opinion, many other names also have been thrown into the debate. These include artists who either scheduled concerts in Israel or indicated their wish to perform there, but who later withdrew without providing reasons for their decisions.

Such is the case of guitar legend Carlos Santana, who had planned a stop in Israel as part of his tour of Europe and the Middle East. Thousands of tickets to the concert, which was scheduled to take place in a large soccer stadium in Jaffa, had been sold before Santana and his group announced that the concert had been canceled due to “unforeseen scheduling conflicts.”

The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot quoted unnamed sources from the Israeli production company organizing the concert as saying that Santana had been under “pressure from anti-Israel figures” to cancel the visit.

Another no-show is rapper Snoop Dogg, who pulled out of a planned performance in Israel due to “contractual difficulties.” It is not clear in this case whether the decision was a response to pressure to boycott Israel or the result of slow ticket sales.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activists, however, have included these artists on a list of musicians who declined to perform in Israel, hinting that their decision to cancel was driven by political considerations.

Mermelstein, the Adalah-NY spokesperson, said that even when artists officially cite logistical reasons for canceling their shows, it could still be a sign that they are responding to boycott calls.

“Most mainstream artists are not yet making public statements in support of BDS, but the movement is becoming a consideration, and artists are thinking twice before performing there,” she said.

Some artists have come out clearly in support of the boycott and have declared their refusal to appear in Israel. These include mainly poets, authors and scholars rather than performing artists. Indian writer Arundhati Roy, British novelist John Berger, poet Adrienne Rich, director Ken Loach, and author and activist Naomi Klein are among them.

BDS activists in the United States stress that by calling on artists to boycott Israel, they are following demands from Palestinians on the ground who believe that this is an effective way of pressuring Israel.

The movement also has supporters in Israel. Ofer Neiman, a Jerusalem activist, said the purpose is to show that occupation “has a price tag attached.” He rejected the notion that having leading artists come to Israel in order to express their disagreement with the government’s policies would be more effective than boycotting.

“How many people have taken [rock musician] Roger Waters’ anti-occupation statements to heart when he played here in 2006?” Neiman asked. “The main thing people remember is that he performed here.”

Despite recent successes of the boycott movement, Israelis still face a full slate of concerts and performances this summer. Elton John, Rod Stewart, Rihanna and the Pixies are among those confirmed to play in Israel.

Also in the works are plans to host MTV’s annual summer party, one of the music channel’s top productions, in Tel Aviv.

This article first appeared at


As Israel’s image sinks, whither Israeli PR?

Theresa McDermott, an Edinburgh postal worker who was a member of the Free Gaza Movement flotilla, speaks at a Boycott Israel demonstration in Edinburgh on June 5. Richard Milnes/Creative Commons

JERUSALEM – In the war of public relations for Israel, the past few weeks have been full of setbacks.

Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla sparked countless angry editorials, demonstrations, and condemnations. The assassination in Dubai in January of a Hamas operative by agents widely believed to have been Israelis — using faked passports — resulted in the expulsion of Israeli diplomats from the countries whose passports had been faked. Even leading musicians have canceled performances in Israel in recent weeks, citing political circumstances.

These developments have brought Israel’s growing image problem into sharp relief.

The fear is that Israel is subject to a growing tide of delegitimization that, if unchecked, could pose an existential threat. The nightmare scenario has the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement gaining more traction and anti-Israel opinion moving from Western campuses to governments, followed by a lifting of the protective American diplomatic umbrella.

More than ever, Israel needs an efficient PR machine capable of undermining the would-be delegitimizers and getting across the Israeli narrative.

That raises the question: Who is running Israel’s PR — in Hebrew, called hasbara — and why have they not been more successful?

The public face of Israel, the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak government, wins few points on the international stage. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely perceived as uninterested in making peace, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is seen as a racist bully, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak is seen as not doing enough to press for more peace-oriented policies.

Another problem is the large number of agencies within the government dealing with public relations. To name just a few, there is a directorate for PR in the National Security Council, and PR divisions in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and the Israel Defense Forces.

They are not always coordinated. For example, the Foreign Ministry’s quick response team and the IDF spokesman’s office argued over who should present the initial Israeli version of what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish-flagged ship that greeted Israel’s commando raid with violence. As a result, the Israeli account did not come out for about 10 hours after the incident, a lacuna the Turks and other detractors were able to take full advantage of.

Israel’s “rebranding” strategy also seems to have had little success.

For years, a Foreign Ministry team under Ido Aharoni has been trying to improve Israel’s image by branding it as a fount of “creative energy,” emphasizing Israel’s high-tech and scientific achievements, burgeoning economy, entrepreneurial zeal, energetic lifestyle, and vibrant diversity of opinion and culture. The core idea behind the campaign is that focusing on Israel beyond the conflict would deflect attention from its negative image as an occupying power.

Not only has the campaign failed to achieve its main goal, but politics has penetrated nonpolitical realms. Musicians such as Elvis Costello, the Pixies, and indie rocker Devendra Banhart have canceled concerts here, citing politics. The Madrid gay pride parade banned an Israeli float sponsored by the city of Tel Aviv, citing the raid aboard the Mavi Marmara.

Earlier this year the Reut Institute, a nonpartisan Tel Aviv-based think tank, issued a comprehensive report analyzing Israel’s delegitimization problem and the tools needed to combat it. The report argued that the time has come for the government to take the delegitimization challenge as seriously as it does the military threats facing Israel.

In its report, presented to the cabinet in February, Reut pointed to an increasingly effective alliance between Islamist rejectionists and radical left-wing groups in the West whose common goal is to destroy Israel by isolating it politically and economically, ultimately forcing a one-state solution with a Muslim majority. The delegitimizers are particularly active in places like London, Madrid, and the California bay area, which Reut called hubs, where they form grassroots networks of activists, NGOs, and fellow travelers against Israel. The tipping point in their work would be a growing international consensus for a one-state solution, the report said.

“Perhaps the existential threat to Israel is not yet around the corner, but as we know from history, state paradigms collapse exponentially,” Eran Shayshon, one of the authors of the Reut paper, told JTA. “Suddenly a few things happen to create an irresistible momentum, as happened with the Soviet Union or with apartheid South Africa.”

In order to meet the challenge, Reut proposes a complete overhaul of Israel’s foreign service. It argues that instead of an outmoded diplomacy geared toward handling states and continents, the new focus should be on the hubs where the delegitimizers are particularly active and where dozens of additional diplomats should be deployed to engage as many people as possible among the decision-making elites.

In addition, Reut recommends building anti-delegitimization networks worldwide based on Jewish and Israeli groups abroad, including NGOs. The main goal of the multifaceted campaign would be to prevent delegitimization from spreading from the fringes to the mainstream.

According to the Reut paper, the aim is to drive a wedge between bona-fide critics of specific Israeli policies and promoters of delegitimacy, thereby winning over the nonpartisan political center and creating a “political firewall around Israel.”

So far, there is no sign the government intends to adopt any of this. While pro-Israel NGOs from Jerusalem to New York are involved in trying to defuse deligitimization campaigns against Israel, some PR experts argue that the problem is more a question of government policy than organizational structures or efforts.

Israel will continue to suffer on the PR front unless it launches a major peace initiative, this school of thought says. That is one of the reasons Barak has been urging Netanyahu to come out with a new peace initiative, carefully coordinated with and backed by the Americans.

Such an initiative almost certainly would not impress the delegitimizers, but it probably would give Israel a better chance of stopping the erosion of its international standing by driving a wedge between them and the rest of the international community.


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