The BDS movement has been a total failure. It has not damaged Israel’s economy, it has not turned Israel into a pariah, it has not changed Israeli policy, and it has not destroyed the Jewish state. The BDS movement has tried to create the image of winning by claiming phony victories. It has also capitalized by convincing a handful of mostly B- and C-list celebrities to shun Israel. The fight to achieve these symbolic “victories” is the subject of Lana Melman’s well-researched book, Artists Under Fire: The BDS War Against Celebrities, Jews, and Israel.
Melman is an industry insider who has been on the frontline of the fight to educate celebrities and try to insulate them from the global assault waged against them by BDS advocates through relentless social-media campaigns, threats and disinformation. She does not mince words in defining antisemitism as “demonizing Israel.” The BDS campaign, she writes, “seeks to use the celebrity of artists a tool to destroy Israel and stir up hate against Jews worldwide.”
“Artists are public figures who need audience support to succeed, making them particularly vulnerable to attacks on their character,” Melman explains. “Artists are afraid that “false charges against them will stick like chewing gum on the bottom of one’s shoe” and ruin their reputations.
It’s more than reputations at stake. Sometimes, the threats are more serious, as when Paul McCartney was threatened by Islamic activist Omar Bakri Muhammad: “‘If he values his life Mr. McCartney will not come to Israel.” McCartney ignored the threat and played in front of 50,000 people in Tel Aviv in 2008. He told an Israeli journalist: “I was approached by different groups and political bodies who asked me not to come here. I refused. I do what I think, and I have many friends who support Israel.”
McCartney is by no means the only A-list celebrity (or Beatle) who has defied the boycotters to appear in Israel. Others include Ringo Starr, Rhianna (twice), Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Art Garfunkel, Chick Corea, Julio Iglesias, Herbie Hancock, Madonna, Bon Jovi (three times), 50 Cent (twice), Andrea Bocelli and Guns N’Roses (three times, most recently on June 5).
The A-listers can usually withstand the pressure and not worry about their careers being affected. Others are more sensitive and are bombarded with petitions, statements, open letters, criticism on social media and Photoshopped images “associating Israel and the artist with destruction, racism, apartheid, the murder of children and worse.” Demonstrators protest outside venues. Artists’ representatives are overwhelmed by malicious emails and calls.
“Tour dates and sales mean a great deal to them and their families,” Melman explains. “Threats to their careers implied, or explicit, strike home and BDS callously exploits this vulnerability.”
Some artists attempt to appease the antisemites by offering to perform for Palestinian audiences. The BDSers, however, oppose these concessions because, Melman says, “it is not enough for artists to care about the Palestinian people, they must unequivocally renounce Israel.”
The progressive left is terrified, Melman says, that if artists visit Israel, they will learn the truth about the country. A good example is Lady Gaga, who said after her 2014 performance: “Tel Aviv was magnificent. The world view of Israel is just not reality.” When the show ended, Gaga said, “I f*cking love you, Israel.”
She categorizes some critics who do not call for a boycott “Israel Bashers.” Her examples are Jon Stewart, Halsey, John Oliver, Mia Farrow, Viola Davis and Mark Ruffalo. She does not say they are antisemitic but asserts that “their comments clearly are.”
She calls artists who have turned the cultural boycott into a personal crusade “Zealots.” They include Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Ken Loach and Alice Walker. You’re probably familiar with Waters, who most recently dressed up in an SS-like uniform in his Berlin performance. Musician Eno is not much better, having, for example, compared Israelis to the KKK. Loach, an award-winning film director, has said, “Israel must become a pariah state.” Novelist Walker banned the translation of The Color Purple in Hebrew and urged Alicia Keys to cancel her concert in Israel (she didn’t).
A third category of artists she calls “Fellow Travelers.” They, “like Julie Christie and Mark Rylance, will join BDS organizations, sign group statements and make the occasional personal comment, but they are not preoccupied with the singling out of Israel. They make their impact by fostering the illusion that support for BDS in the artist community is widespread.”
Artists like Lorde and Demi Lovato are “Reluctant Supporters” who gave in to BDS pressure but haven’t joined the cause. “They have been ‘converted by the sword’ and feel they need to give a nod to the gods of cancel culture to save their reputations and careers.”
Some artists, Melman says, are merely “Unwitting Accomplices.” These artists cancel performances in Israel for reasons unrelated to BDS but allow the boycotters to claim victory by saying nothing publicly. An example is Sam Smith, who canceled his concert last month due to “unforeseeable technical and logistical problems” but said nothing after BDSers claimed it was due to their pressure.
Just as BDSers believe that they win regardless of whether campus boycott resolutions are adopted, they see victory when artists defy them. “It is the campaign itself that captures the imagination,” Melman observes. “The relationship is mutually beneficial. BDS gets a platform to spread its lies, and news outlets get stories with ‘star power.’ This has given BDS an outsized microphone and the ear of the world.”
Melman does not support cancel culture but notes that celebrities often become victims if they make offensive remarks against women or non-Jewish minorities. She quotes actor Joshua Malina who asks, “‘Why’s it so hard to get cancel culture on the line when the problem is antisemitism.’” She also cites NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who called out the double standard of looking the other way when the targets are Jews. “‘If we’re going to be outraged by injustice,’ he said, ‘let’s be outraged by injustice against anyone.’”
Melman offers recommendations at the end of each chapter for how to fight the boycotters. Not all are likely to make an impact, but several are much needed. One seemingly obvious act that the pro-Israel community often forgets is to thank those who stand up for Israel. This should go for journalists, politicians and anyone with the courage to buck the intersectionality trend. Jews are much more accustomed to railing against critics and enemies and don’t always recognize the power of two simple words: Thank you.”
One of the most viciously attacked celebrities was actress Scarlett Johansson for being a spokesperson for SodaStream. The company faced boycott threats because it had a factory located in the West Bank. That factory was closed and relocated inside Israel for reasons mainly unrelated to BDS. The severest impact was on Palestinian workers who lost their jobs (some were hired in the Israeli factory). Johansson never caved into the bullies; in fact, she went further and fought back, and ended her relationship with the charity Oxfam because it supports BDS. Melman organized a “gratitude campaign” to support the actress and thousands of thank-you notes were sent to her.
She ends the book on a positive note, reassuring readers that the entertainment industry is much more supportive of Israel than people think. “Although their comments and actions do not get the same coverage as disparaging remarks against Israel (and do not seem to linger in the public consciousness as long), artists do support Israel and speak out against BDS.”