New book deconstructs cultural boycott against Israel
A new book artfully explains how the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has infected the entertainment industry and turned art into a political cudgel – and how to fight it.
In her May 2022 book “Artists Under Fire: The BDS War on Celebrities, Jews and Israel,” Lana Melman, who heads the organization Liberate Art, which opposes cultural boycotts of Israel, lays out the tactics used by those who boycott Israel. Melman begins by recounting the 2014 Scarlett Johansson and SodaStream controversy, in which BDS activists accused the actress of “being complicit in crimes against humanity” since SodaStream operated in the West Bank. Johansson had also been an ambassador for Oxfam, a British charity working to end global poverty, until the international non-profit organization announced under Johansson’s biography on its website that it was against all trade with Israeli settlements. Johansson stood firm and ended her years-long relationship with Oxfam, and Oxfam fared worse.
The Johansson-SodaStream incident is a microcosm of how BDS operates in the cultural sphere, writes Melman, noting that cultural boycotters attempt to “force them into submission” by exploiting “artists’ desire to avoid shame public”. Specific tactics of cultural boycotters include statements focusing on artists’ professional and charitable work, open letters that are effectively pressure statements disguised as “personal advocacy,” and turning artists’ songs into propaganda videos. “Using the song ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’, BDS supporters intercut clips of Neil Young’s performances with stills and videos depicting scenes of war, and a concrete wall (to reiterate: only about 5% of the security fence is concrete) among other visuals charged with insinuating that if he was performing in Israel he was supporting an apartheid state and therefore not ‘Rockin’ in the free world,” writes Melman: Boycotters will also accuse minority artists of ‘betraying their community’ if they perform in Israel
For older, more established artists, such tactics are unlikely to work. But the boycotters have had more success in their efforts to intimidate young artists like Lorde and Lana Del Rey, who bowed to BDS pressure and canceled their scheduled concerts in Israel. Demi Lovato has apologized for visiting Israel and posting photos of her trip on social media after facing backlash from BDS online. “Young artists tend to be more responsive to conversations on social media in general,” Melman writes. “They experienced first-hand the power and importance of this medium. Young artists like Lorde and Demi Lovato, who have had fewer life stories, are more likely to bend under pressure.
Melman also names and shames the most notorious boycotters – whom she calls “BDS zealots” – including Danny Glover, the late Alan Rickman and David Icke-infamy’s Alice Walker. But his most scathing criticism is of Roger Waters, the former bassist and frontman of Pink Floyd. Calling him “the man behind the curtain,” Melman devotes an entire chapter of his book to delving into Waters’ journey to becoming an Israel hater. “Extreme politics is in his blood,” writes Melman. “Both of his parents were communists and supported far-left causes. His father, who died when Waters was a baby (fighting the Nazis as he likes to say) sympathized with the Arabs in skirmishes with the Jews when he was teaching in Jerusalem between 1936 and 1938.” Ironically, it was Waters who found himself on the side of BDS backlash when he performed in Israel in 2006; this backlash prompted him to meet BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti and travel to the West Bank. Eventually, Waters bonded with Barghouti, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), and other “Israel critics,” which made him one of the most famous figures of the BDS movement.
Waters tends to have a pattern when trying to pressure artists to cancel upcoming performances in Israel, Melman notes. “He expresses his admiration for their professional work and commends them for their social justice causes before urging Israel and offering what appears to be a thinly veiled threat to their reputation,” she wrote. “Waters’ private, please, then degrades into personal attacks on the public pages because, like Glenn Close in Fatal attractionRoger Waters goes not Being ignored.” As an example, Melman pointed to Waters’ private request to Alan Parsons to cancel his 2015 show in Israel; Waters opened his message to Parsons by reminiscing about how Parsons had worked as “the great engineer on Pink Floyd’s breakthrough album “Dark Side of the Moon” before asking him to cancel the show. When Parsons denied the request, Waters posted his private correspondence on Facebook despite Parsons’ request to keep it private “Few artists give in to Waters’ intimidation and pressure to cancel,” Melman writes. “Some fight back, while others happily ignore his noise.”
Overall, Melman does a masterful job of succinctly summarizing the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and how Palestinians have consistently rejected Israel’s overtures for peace — while discussing the various classic blood libels against Jews. and how BDS accusations against Israel of murdering Palestinian children and engaging in Holocaust reversal are just modern variants of these blood libels. And she does so with humor and wit while emphasizing the importance of the issue, as artists help control the civic discourse of our society.
Melman concludes his book on a positive note, pointing out that there are many famous names – including Jay Leno, Bill Maher and Michael Douglas – who avidly support the Jewish state and the number of artists who cancel performances in Israel to cause of BDS. the pressure is low. But it’s all the more reason for supporters of Israel to stand up and start taking offense rather than being “almost exclusively on the defensive”, writes Melman, calling on supporters of Israel and the Jewish people to hold artists accountable when they engage in antisemitic hate speech.
As for Waters, Melman suggests that people make fun of him “because it will bother him.”