Lana Del Rey's Israeli Concert Cancellation Inflames Boycott Fears

Lana Del Rey Sziget Festival - Getty - H 2018
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The singer's decision is one of a growing number of A-list no-shows that have sparked praise and condemnation along the way.

When Lana Del Rey revealed in mid-August that she was set to perform at the inaugural Meteor Festival in Israel, the singer was no doubt aware of what might follow: sustained pressure from activists who are urging high-profile artists not to play in the country over protest of its treatment of the Palestinian people. 

Del Rey's plans came less than a year after Lorde had announced her intention to play in Tel Aviv, a move that prompted a week of online pressure and an open letter jointly penned by a Jewish and a Palestinian activist — one that cited the Israeli government’s “policies of oppression, ethnic cleansing, human rights violations and apartheid” and also discussed the impact cultural boycotts had in the fight against Apartheid in South Africa. After seven days, Lorde did an about-face, canceling her show in late December and claiming her decision was made after an “overwhelming number of messages and letters.” She even thanked her fans for “educating” her. “I’m not too proud to admit I didn’t make the right call on this one,” she added.

With Del Rey, there was a similar pattern. Several days after news of her festival booking appeared, she posted a lengthy statement on Twitter on Aug. 19 defending her decision. Although she said she understood the criticism, her performance was not, she claimed, “a political statement or a commitment to the politics” in Israel, where she admitted there had been “certain travesties.” But on Sept. 1, just a week before she was scheduled to perform, Del Rey also backed down, saying it was “important to perform in both Israel and Palestine and treat all my fans equally,” something she couldn’t, at present, arrange.

The move was met with praise from pro-Palestinian individuals and organizations and condemnation from supporters of Israel and Israeli politicians. The Meteor Festival itself issued an immediate response on its Facebook page, thanking Del Rey for “choosing us to be a part of her periodic publicity stunt” (a statement it removed a few days later). More than a few headlines about the incident, however, saw the cancellation as a result of Del Rey — like Lorde — changing her mind following “BDS pressure.”

Standing for "Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions," BDS is a Palestinian-led movement that bills itself as a peaceful picket line in front of Israel that upholds the “simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.”

For years, its best known public faces have been Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters and Palme d’Or-winning director Ken Loach. In fact, it was Waters who directly reached out to Del Rey on Facebook urging her not to perform, quoting noted activist and Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu with the line, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Inspired by the international boycott tactics that helped overthrow Apartheid in South Africa (several of its activists were involved in that campaign with Tutu), BDS says it aims to pressure Israel — which it asserts discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel and denies Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes, both in violation of United Nations resolutions — into complying with international law.

Within the movement, which is partnered with numerous active associations around the world, including Jewish Voice for Peace and Adalah-NY in the U.S., is the cultural boycott element, launched in 2004 and known by the acronym PACBI (for Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel). It's this group, which calls on artists to boycott Israel and refuse to perform in the country, that has attracted the most attention and generated the greatest controversy.

Calling on artists to boycott shows in Israel is "one of the most critical aspects of the BDS movement for Palestinian rights,” BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti tells The Hollywood Reporter, arguing that the fight is against what he calls “art-washing ... Israel’s cynical use of culture to cover up its decades-old regime of occupation and apartheid.” Culture, Barghouti says, is a “central weapon in Israel’s propaganda arsenal.”

While the Meteor Festival put out a second statement on what it termed the “BDS ambush,” in which it declared it was “pretty much the only festival in the world who’s 100% politics free,” Del Rey’s concert had been repeatedly hailed on social media by Israeli government organizations and lobbying groups. The singer now joins a growing number of cancellations that have been hailed as a victory for the BDS movement.

Other prominent cancellations include the Argentinian soccer squad, which was due to play a friendly match in Israel ahead of the World Cup this year but withdrew after major BDS pressure. Colombian pop star Shakira appeared to cancel a planned concert in Tel Aviv, although the reasons are less clear, with the local media reporting that she was set to perform, but Live Nation — following a BDS-backed campaign — later claiming no concert was ever scheduled (although a rep for the local production company told media the gig had been “postponed”).

But last April came the biggest name to date, when Natalie Portman unexpectedly decided to cancel a trip to Israel to collect an award. Here was an Oscar-winning actress, an international figure renowned for her social activism and, notably, someone actually born in Jerusalem and holding Israeli citizenship, making what looked like a political stand over arguably the most contentious patch of land on the planet. Her decision had very topical context: It came just weeks after Israeli armed forces had shot and killed Palestinian protestors who had gathered at the Gaza border.

At the time, organizers of the Generation Prize, which had invited Portman over, quoted a rep for the star, who told them that “recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing for her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel,” and that “she cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony.”

The criticism from Israel was swift. Oren Hazan of the ruling right-wing party Likud called on the government to “rescind Portman’s Israeli citizenship,” while Miri Regev, Israel’s minister of culture and sport, asserted that Portman had fallen “like a ripe fruit into the hands of supporters of the BDS.”

Portman responded with a statement asserting that her reasoning was due to her opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was due to speak at the ceremony. But notably, she said she was “not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it.” Despite dismissing BDS as a factor, Portman was participating in exact sort of politically motivated boycott that the movement endorses (an op-ed in the progressive U.S. Jewish magazine Forward was titled ‘Actually, Natalie Portman, You Are Practicing BDS’). 

Samir Eskanda, a London-based Palestinian musician and film festival organizer who works alongside boycott groups including PACBI and Artists for Palestine UK, explained to THR how BDS appeals to artists to join the boycott. When a cultural figure announces their intention to perform or appear in Israel, Eskanda says, the boycott movement first takes a strategic look at their profile and political history, to assess if they might be open to the group's argument. Once selected, organizers attempt to reach out privately to the artist in question, and only after these efforts have been exhausted do they use social media to publish an open letter appealing to the artist to reconsider.

But ideally, Eskanda explains, this appeal would be driven by fans, rather than the movement itself. And this is what, he claims, largely happened with both Lorde and Del Rey, who were inundated with thousands of tweets asking them to reconsider their Israeli gigs. Eskanda says these messages followed the guidelines on the PACBI website that “polite, rational, civil appeals are the best way of persuading artists to respect our peaceful picket line.” 

While much of the action so far has involved music, the boycott movement does have a rising number of supporters from the film industry. In the U.K., Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), The Night Of star Riz Ahmed and A-list British directors Mike Leigh (Peterloo) and Asif Kapadia (Amy) are among the 1,200 signatories to a pledge from Artists for Palestine UK who vowed to “accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.”

Other Hollywood figures have stepped forward, not to endorse BDS personally, but to defend those who make a stand and choose to boycott Israel. Mark Ruffalo, James Schamus, John Cusack, Viggo Mortensen and Julie Christie signed an open letter defending Lorde’s “freedom of conscience” when she was attacked by outspoken Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s World Values Network, which took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post branding the singer a “bigot.”

On the actual campaigning front, in 2016 a luxury gift bag given to each of the 26 Oscar-nominated actors came under intense scrutiny for including an all-expenses paid luxury trip to Israel worth $55,000 and paid for by the government (tourism minister Yariv Levin said they could “experience Israeli firsthand instead of via the media”). PACBI immediately put out a statement urging the recipients to “take the moral path” and not use the tour packages, while a campaign called “Skip the Trip” was launch by the Jewish Voice for Peace, which took out ads in local and industry magazines. 

Earlier this year, PACBI targeted Netflix over its military thriller series Fauda, which it claims “promotes and legitimizes violent acts committed against Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory by Israeli army death squads." It urged Netflix to cancel the broadcast of season two of the series — written by two former members of the secretive undercover “Mista'arvim” unit of IDF — and suspend production of season three. Netflix didn’t respond, and Fauda was available as planned across its nearly 200 territories. Speaking at a recent event in New York, show creators Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz said the threats were “ridiculous.”

But on the film and TV side of the cultural coin, much of BDS’ work is linked to festivals with involvement from Israeli institutions, usually in the form of sponsorship by cultural organizations. This was the case recently at the Istanbul Film Festival, where several Palestinian filmmakers — including Wajib director Annemarie Jacir and her lead star Mohammad Bakri — withdrew due to financial support from Art Israel, an offshoot of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. In Israel itself, this summer's Tel Aviv LGBT Film Festival had 11 international artists and filmmakers pull out in response to a Palestinian call, one from Pinkwashing Israel, a hub launched by queer Arab activists providing information on what it says is the “cynical use of gay rights to distract from and normalize Israeli occupation, settler colonialism, and apartheid.”

Arguably the biggest film event to have faced BDS pressure to date is the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which in 2009 returned a donation from the Israeli Embassy when Loach announced he was pulling out, calling on people to boycott the event. “The massacres and state terrorism make this money unacceptable,” the director said at the time.

“It wasn’t about the boycott of a filmmaker or film — it’s the fact it was sponsored,” says Eskanda. “In the end they dropped the sponsorship, BDS didn’t object and everything went ahead.”

The BDS movement isn’t without its many detractors. Among the major names to have spoken out against it, in addition to Portman, include Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who signed a letter asserting that “cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory and will not further peace.” And within the Middle East itself, one of the most vocal opponents is Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, who found his 2012 film The Attack banned across the region for including scenes shot in Israel. The filmmaker has claimed his Oscar-nominated follow-up The Insult came under similar, but less successful, attacks from BDS groups.

And there are many that defy the boycott. Radiohead famously played in Tel Aviv in July 2017 despite a major campaign from BDS groups (one Eskanda says went on for “months and months” with “all hands on deck”). “Playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government,” was the statement from lead singer Thom Yorke. In a later interview with Rolling Stone, he attacked BDS activists, who he said “rather than engage with us personally, throw shit at us in public.” Others include Nick Cave, who before his gig in 2017 said he wanted to play in Israel to “make a stand against those people that are trying to shut down musicians, to bully musicians, to censor musicians and to silence musicians.”

And there are organizations established to counteract BDS, the most active being the L.A.-based Creative Community for Peace. Formed in 2011, the group — made up of mostly of music and film industry executives — says it is “dedicated to promoting the arts as a means to peace and to countering the cultural boycott of Israel” and regularly issues press releases in response to BDS campaigns signed by its 53-strong list of board members. It was the Creative Community for Peace that was behind a statement, backed by numerous Hollywood figures, that, when Israeli military forces invaded Gaza in mid 2014, laid the blame squarely on Hamas.

“We believe in the power of music and culture and the arts to bring people together and help build bridges,” CCFP co-founder David Renzer, chairman of Spirit Music Group and former chairman/CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group, tells THR. Renzer argues that the BDS movement is “extremist” and based on flawed claims. He says the CCFP is an apolitical group has no backing from the Israeli government or any support from institutions within Israel.

Pro-Palestinian boycott groups claim that the CCFP is actually supported by StandWithUs, a California-based pro-Israeli organization that has close ties to the Israeli state. StandWithUs shares an office with the CCFP and Renzer’s wife, Esther Renzer, is StandWithUs’ founder. Renzer, however, says that it doesn't accept any funding from StandWithUs.

Renzer claims that, despite its efforts, the cultural boycott of Israel “hasn’t been very effective,” and the statistics “speak loudly that it is a failure,” pointing to the many artists who have performed in Israel, which last year included Guns N’ Roses, Britney Spears, The Pixies, Justin Bieber and Rod Stewart.

In a confidential CCFP “Year in Review” report for 2017 seen by THR, it cites “more than 220 performances by international artists” of which there were “8 cancellations due to BDS for a BDS cancellation rate of 3.5%.” (It should be noted that a small percentage of these performances would have been directly targeted by BDS groups).

According to Renzer, "many of the cancellations weren't due to artists actually agreeing with the righteousness of the BDS cause, but rather due to them being sick of the harassment from BDS supporters," and these sometimes include "threats of physical harm."

But the review also indicates just how concerned the CCFP is with the cultural boycott, which it says is “constantly growing and changing, developing new and innovative tactics to reach artists and pressure them,” pointing to connections to Black Lives Matter and feminist groups, alongside pickets and protests at the shows of artists who have Israeli concerts planned. “This is worrying, as the physical presence of protestors can make a big different to an artist who is wavering.”

An trend it describes as “one of the most disturbing” of last year is the growth of the so-called “silent boycott,” whereby artists don’t explicitly declare their support for BDS or Palestinian rights, but simply “quietly refrain from performing” in Israel.

“They don’t know the full extent of the silent boycott, and this is what really terrifies the Israeli regime,” says Eskanda. “Just how many people are out there?”

Earlier this year, several British bands — including Portishead and Wolf Alice — declared their support for an Israel boycott.

The move from Lana Del Rey, intentionally or not, has only brought BDS more attention. In the days following her withdrawal from the Meteor Festival on Aug. 31, several others musicians — including Canadian band Of Montreal and U.S. electronic producer Shlohmo — followed suit, pushing the number of festival cancellations to 20.

On Sept. 10, via an open letter signed by 140 artists, the boycott movement unveiled its next major target: Israel's hosting of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest.