Proponents of the cultural Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel claim that their cause is human rights and their methods are non-violent. Yet most international entertainers who want to perform in Israel face threats to their careers, their reputations, and even their lives.
Contestants in Eurovision’s song contest, hosted this year in Israel, were bombarded by BDS calls to withdraw from the event. Ireland’s contestant, Sarah McTernan, described the harassment both before and after the competition: “I got threats, I got letters. … I had hundreds and hundreds of people messaging me. … ‘Watch where you go,’ ‘You never know where I’ll be,’ ‘Be careful who you’re with.’”
BDS is a far-left political movement that seeks an economic, academic, cultural, and athletic boycott of Israel. Initiated in the early 2000s, the campaign is active in swaths of the West, including England, Spain, and Canada, as well as on US college campuses.
The cultural boycott campaign impacts the world of entertainment and the arts. When an artist books concert dates or trips to Israel, BDS launches a multifaceted offensive campaign pressuring him or her to cancel. When an international venue invites an Israeli artist to perform or exhibit his or her work, BDS pressures the venue to rescind the invitation.
The goal of the BDS campaign is the destruction of Israel. The strategy of the cultural boycott is to demonize Israel and use the celebrity of artists to spread its lies. Its tactic is to attack both the Jewish state and the artists who wish to go there. The pattern is to associate Israel with all things evil — including racism, apartheid, colonialism, and genocide — and then taint the artist by association.
Typically, these attempted character assassinations are template letters repurposed to appeal to causes close to the heart of the entertainer. American songstress Alicia Keys was targeted with slanderous accusations involving the alleged Israeli torture of children.
Assaults often get even more personal. In a 2013 Rolling Stone interview, Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd, issued a call to his fellow musicians and artists to boycott the Jewish state. Since then, he has publicly attacked entertainers who disagree, calling Dionne Warwick profoundly ignorant, Nick Cave arrogant and indifferent, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead whiny and detached. He derided Scarlett Johansson as lacking strength and integrity. As Nick Cave notes, musicians who perform in Israel are now forced to “go through a sort of public humiliation from Roger Waters.”
To spread the slander as wide as possible, BDS creates a media storm. Open letters and petitions are circulated on social media, and representatives are flooded with phone calls and emails. Stories about the campaign are picked up and disseminated by mainstream and industry media outlets such as ABC and Billboard Magazine. Comments and inflammatory memes on Facebook and Twitter incite responses by Israel’s defenders, transforming the artists’ peaceful social media pages into political battlefields.
Boycott proponents both implicitly and explicitly threaten to damage careers and strive to create a violent public reaction.
Before his 2008 concert, Paul McCartney was warned by Islamic activist Omar Bakri Muhammad, “If he values his life Mr. McCartney must not come to Israel. He will not be safe there.” Eric Burdon, lead singer of The Animals, cited threats and intimidation as the reason for canceling his Israel performance before ultimately changing his mind and performing. One heavy metal band leader wrote a concert promoter, “I won’t risk my life in order to perform in Israel.”
Managers for Salif Keita, an albino Afropop singer-songwriter, canceled his scheduled tour in Israel for fear of personal and professional harm. Posting on Facebook, his management said BDS groups “threatened to work diligently at ruining the reputation and career that Mr. Keita has worked 40 years to achieve.”
The malicious demonizing of Israelis has inevitably led to a dramatic rise in antisemitism and violence against Jews everywhere. BDS exploits classic antisemitic tropes associating Israelis with theft, blood libel, and the cause of war. Brandeis University and the AMCHA Initiative studies reveal a direct correlation between BDS activities and antisemitism on US college campuses, and a 2019 poll from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found an established link between the BDS movement and antisemitism in Great Britain.
Critics accuse President Donald Trump of exciting antisemitism on the extreme right. There is no doubt, however, that antisemitism is coming from both sides of the political spectrum, and that BDS is leading the rise on the left.
Utterly absent in BDS rhetoric is a call for artists to foster peace and reconciliation. Artists are routinely shunned for their attempts to bring both sides together or any sign of a balanced perspective.
Support for peace typically comes from entertainers who refuse to boycott the Jewish homeland. Music legend Leonard Cohen donated proceeds from a 2009 Tel Aviv concert to organizations working for peace. Ian Anderson, lead singer of the rock band Jethro Tull, donated earnings from three separate concert tours to charities including the Polyphony Foundation, which brings together Arab and Jewish children for the study and performance of classical music.
BDS has demonized Israelis and artists, fomented antisemitism, and made peace a more distant dream.
If you think BDS is a nonviolent campaign with humanistic goals, think again.
Lana Melman, CEO of Liberate Art Inc., is a leader in combating cultural boycotts against Israel. A 20-year veteran of the entertainment industry, Ms. Melman is a writer, speaker, and Hollywood liaison connecting the international creative community with Israel.
A version of this article was originally published by The Jewish Press.