When I heard that the internationally acclaimed singer, songwriter and record producer Lorde was reconsidering a decision to play in Israel I had a gut feeling that she would cancel the show. This weekend, she did just that. “[I]’ve received an overwhelming number of messages and letters and have had a lot of discussions with people holding many views, and i think the right decision at this time is to cancel the show,” she said in a statement.
I believe history will look back at her decision as an important step on the path to freedom, justice and equality in Palestine/Israel.
Palestinian rights activists were quick to show their support. But not everyone agrees with Lorde’s decision, and a glance at social media reveals the beginnings of the backlash that has already begun from Israel supporters. Roseanne Barr called Lorde a “bigot”, while others have slammed her for giving in to BDS “pressure” — curious language given she responded to a letter from fans and decided to forgo what would have surely been a lucrative concert.
If anything, the incentives were structured very heavily in favor of her playing Tel Aviv, as they are for every artist facing the decision to forego a lucrative opportunity. Any pressure she faced came only from her own conscience after learning, weighing and discussing the issue carefully. Lorde also seems to have taken into consideration the requests of fans, like an open letter by Jewish and Palestinian New Zealander fans of hers requesting she cancel her show, which is well worth reading.
Still, many have questioned her decision. One of her Israeli concert producers found a way to insult her in the process of explaining her decision, saying he was “naive to think a singer of her age could handle the pressure.” Keep in mind, Lorde is 21, and in Israeli society, 18-year-olds are conscripted and deemed perfectly capable of handling the responsibility of making life and death decisions while armed with heavy machine guns frequently directed toward Palestinian children. Not only is Lorde an adult fully capable of making her own decisions, she made the right one and a much wiser one than some other artists who have regrettably failed to heed the boycott call.
I believe that all artists should make the same decision Lorde did. And it has never been more urgent for them to do so than now.
A few cases in particular are worth reflecting on. Take the murder of Ibrahim Abu Thuraya for example. A double amputee, Abu Thuraya had lost both legs in an Israeli airstrike a decade prior. Last week, he was shot by an Israeli sniper in the head while protesting inside the encaged Gaza Strip.
It should go without saying that there is no reason whatsoever to use lethal force against an unarmed double amputee. It should go without saying that his murder should shock the public conscience. But it didn’t. As per usual, the Israeli military investigation found no wrongdoing and Israeli society didn’t even blink. Some have even claimed Abu Thuraya was a terrorist; a wheelchair-bound man who provided for his family by washing cars and was known for climbing a power tower to display the Palestinian flag on high during protests really just had it coming to him.
Next, consider the case of Ahed Tamimi, also developing while Lorde was weighing this decision. Ahed, a girl of 16 from the village of Nabi Saleh, has been part of a family that has been at the forefront of protests against the Israeli occupation. For years, their village has protested the encroachment of an expanding illegal Israeli colony onto their land and Israeli soldiers, the henchmen of occupation, routinely use violence to repress the villagers on a weekly basis. Ahed has watched several of her family members die at the hands of this violent Israeli repression over the years and watched others get dragged away to Israeli prisons.
Last week, a video of Ahed slapping an Israeli soldier in front of her house went viral. Shortly before that recorded moment, Israeli soldiers had fired a rubber coated bullet into the face of one of her younger cousins, 14 year old Mohamed. The bullet was fired at a close enough range to shatter Mohamed’s jaw, leaving blood pouring from his face and resulting in emergency surgery to reconstruct his jaw and a medically induced coma. After the video of Ahed hitting the soldiers went viral, Ahed, her cousin and mother were arrested and are being held, for days now, without charge.
Meanwhile, what was the response in Israeli society to video of a girl who has lost so much putting her life on the line before a soldier, who could take it in an instant? It was not to ask “How dare we?” but rather “How dare she!”
Israel’s Defense Minister, a settler himself, declared “Everyone involved, not only the girl but also her parents and those around them will not escape from what they deserve.” Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the guy responsible for educating Israel’s children, said this Palestinian child should spend the rest of her days in prison. This is the same Minister who said that an Israeli soldier, Elor Azaria, who committed cold-blooded murder captured on video, should not serve a “single day in prison”. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. Michael Oren, a Knesset member and former American and Ambassador to the US questioned whether the Tamimis were even a real family, and focused on Ahed’s suspicious American clothes. Apparently, Palestinians that don’t fit neatly into the racist stereotypes in Oren’s mind must be mythical.
Judging by the words of their leaders and the press, Israelis by and large were unable to see this moment in Nabi Saleh for what it was: an instance of a brutal military occupation. Instead, they saw an unarmed 16 year old girl as the aggressor, and the heavily armed agent of occupation, whose army kills and arrests her family members and facilitates the theft of her land, as, somehow, the victim. “When I watched that, I felt humiliated, I felt crushed,” said Miri Regev, an Israeli Cabinet minister and former military spokeswoman, who called the episode “damaging to the honor of the military and the state of Israel.” Think about that for a moment. Israelis, with the world’s largest per capita nuclear arsenal and one of the most capable and powerful militaries in the world that wields its advanced planes, tanks and ships against stateless Palestinians, was left dishonored, crushed and humiliated, not by another army but by the empty palms of a 16 year old girl.
Things like the reactions of Israelis to Ahed Tamimi or their lack of response to the killing of Abu Thuraya demonstrate how the Israeli conscience, when it comes to the Palestinians it controls, has withered, rotted and died.
And it is moments like this that demonstrate exactly why the decision Lorde made is so important and justified.
Israeli leaders argue to their people that their policies and behavior toward the Palestinians are justified. They are aided and abetted in this enterprise by an international community that instead of sanctioning Israel has trade relations with them, and by a United States which instead of holding Israel accountable for its violations, continues to send $3.8 billion in aid year after year.
In other words, Israeli society is being told both internally and externally that their brutal oppression of Palestinians is A-OK. If Israelis are ever going to end their oppression of Palestinians, it needs to start with dramatic wake up call to Israeli society, leading to a realization that there are costs to denying freedom and equality to millions of Palestinian human beings. Palestinian civil society has embraced non-violent economic action in the form of BDS as tactics to convey this message and calls for international solidarity in doing so.
Lorde’s choice to heed this call helps send Israel the message that this situation is not normal and cannot be normalized, and that they cannot continue to ignore the injustices that they visit upon Palestinians. She joins a growing list of artists and performers who have made the same decision, and many more will follow in her footsteps.
Just as in the case of South Africa, artists have an important role to play in the quest for peace and justice. And, just as in the case of South Africa, some of the same arguments that defenders of Apartheid South Africa used unsuccessfully against BDS efforts then are being recycled today to defend Israel’s apartheid policies in the West Bank. These efforts, too, will be unsuccessful.
One of those arguments deployed against Lorde’s decision has come from the “Whataboutist” camp. On Twitter, opponents were quick to point out that the singer is canceling her concert in Israel but not in Russia, also guilty of human rights abuses, and thus her boycott efforts and those of BDS more generally are hypocritical. This too is recycled South African Apartheid regime propaganda. In those days, anti-boycott advocates would point to other countries in Africa and Asia with poor human rights records, just as Israel defenders engage in whataboutery today to displace responsibility for the denial of Palestinian rights. The truth is, Apartheid South Africa did not have the worst human rights record in history, but it was the worst human rights abuser of native South African blacks. Likewise, Israel may not be the worst or only human rights abuser in the world today, but it is the worst human rights abuser of Palestinians.
Tactics like boycotts are specific to the context and are deployed for their utility. These tactics were embraced by Palestinian civil society, and increasingly international civil society, because the international state system has failed to hold Israel accountable for its violations. Unlike Russia or other states like North Korea, Myanmar or others where the US and others have deployed economic sanctions, Israel receives billions in weapons from Washington and receives blanket protection at the United Nations. With that said, should an oppressed population anywhere in the world organize a call for international solidarity against their oppressors who are flouting international law and have nonetheless found a way to evade any accountability from the state system, like sanctions or arms embargoes, then cultural icons should heed their call, just as they did for South Africans and just as they should for Palestinians.
One day, freedom, justice and equality will finally reign for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Then we can all sing and dance without a backdrop of racism, discrimination and brutality. I dream of the first concert in my homeland after freedom, when all the artists who boycotted can finally come back and play. I look forward to seeing Lorde there as part of a historic line up alongside Roger Waters, Lauryn Hill and many, many more.
This freedom concert will be well worth waiting for precisely because freedom is something well worth fighting for.
Yousef Munayyer, a political analyst and writer, is Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.