Editor’s note: See Chronicle editorial, Where was Elvis before? in Opinion section.
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.
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 Forward.com.)