For the last decade or so there has been an ongoing effort to promote a cultural boycott of Israel, especially among popular musicians. While this campaign by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement has achieved very few concrete victories, it has established widespread awareness and media coverage. Supporters of a cultural embargo use pressure tactics to dissuade artists from performing in Israel or to cancel appearances once they are scheduled.
There are noteworthy differences between statements by artists who say they will not play Israel as a matter of principle and the unspecified cancellation of a scheduled performance that may have nothing to do with principles and ideology. Cancellations are frequently the result of coercion which includes online bullying, threats to damage sales or reputation, sabotage, and death threats. BDS activists claim any cancellation as a testament to antipathy towards Israel in the global artistic community.
In July, legendary performer Neil Young was scheduled to play his first concert in Israel in almost 20 years. The event was canceled by Israeli police because Hamas rockets were falling all over Israel and there were serious safety concerns. Yet the BDS movement characteristically took credit for preventing another concert in Israel. Ironically, their petition to bully Young into cancellation had failed, and the counter-movement, led by Facebook pages like “I support Neil Young against the haters” page, received about 10,000 “likes.”
Liran Kapoano, former Director of the Center for Israel Engagement at Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, actively counters BDS pressure on celebrities, and spearheads social media campaigns for communal support for artists who defy BDS intimidation. Kapoano founded CTC Media, a digital advertising startup specializing in Internet “cause” marketing. Using viral social media campaigns and traditional media tactics, CTC Media’s mission is to target anti-Israel terminology and “change the conversation” about Israel.
He created the Facebook page “I Support Neil Young against the haters,” and similarly titled pages for Scarlett Johansson, The Rolling Stones, Justin Timberlake, and others. Similarly, #RockinDespiteRockets, was produced to counter the BDS attempt to stifle music in Israel. On July 17, the day of the canceled concert, Young’s supporters around the world celebrated him and enjoyed his work.
The official page stated: “While there is no substitute for the real thing, we at the ‘I support Neil Young against the haters’ group on Facebook refuse to give in to terror. So we compiled a playlist of some of Neil’s greatest songs and will be #RockinDespiteRockets on 7-17-14. We hope you will join us on Facebook at: www.facebook. com/SupportNeilYoung.”
The group posted the playlist live at the exact time the canceled concert was scheduled to begin and the enormous response, reached 50,000 viewers. Says Kapoano, “We had dozens of people sending us pictures and videos. We even inspired a local Israeli cover band to have a Neil Young concert at someone’s house that night. However, we refrained from posting them once the invasion launched out of respect for the soldiers. We reached about 50,000 people on the 17th and by the time all is said and done we’ll have reached over 100,000 people.”
This social media pushback has turned regular people into activists. Ridgewood resident Jamie Kreitman, a fashion designer, describes being “drawn back into these issues” by Kapoano’s Johansson and Justin Timberlake initiatives. “I’m really pro-creative freedom in Israel. Israel, especially Tel Aviv, is an explosion of creativity, and it’s a draw for artists all over the world. We should celebrate that.” Kreitman said. “I want to be part of this movement to counter anti-creative expression, and social media is just the way to offset the way BDS has made it hip and trendy to be anti-Zionist.”
Even before anti-BDS initiatives like Kapoano’s were around to voice support for artists resisting BDS pressure, a number of major performers continued to schedule and play concerts in Israel. The honor roll of such artists since 2008 includes Paul McCartney, Elton John, Rihanna, Alicia Keyes, Rod Stewart, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Madonna, Guns ‘N Roses, Metallica, and Justin Bieber. In some cases, artists received direct appeals from influential and aggressively vocal artists encouraging the boycott, most prominently Roger Waters, influential founder of the legendary rock group Pink Floyd, and Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple.
In June 2013, Keyes resisted Walker’s heavy-handed attempt to shame her into cancelling as a fellow “woman of color.” When Waters attacked the Rolling Stones for their concert in Israel this past June, the Stones flouted Waters’ tirade; Stones’ guitarist Ronnie Wood, revealed that Bob Dylan had encouraged them to include Israel as a tour stop.
Various artists have confirmed that they received death threats. It takes great courage to declare, “I will play in Israel despite receiving death threats,” as Paul McCartney did. The pro-Israel community owes such artists tremendous appreciation for their courage in the face of intimidation, and of course, for sharing their music with eager Israeli audiences.
By Lisa Matkowsky