The movement for a cultural boycott of Israel in response to its treatment of the Palestinians, modelled on the boycott of apartheid South Africa, could eclipse decades of disingenuous political charades in engaging western intellectuals, academics and artists. Internationally renowned figures such as Naomi Klein and Ken Loach have supported the call, and now one of Britain’s most successful bands, Massive Attack, is publicly backing the boycott.
“I’ve always felt that it’s the only way forward,” Robert Del Naja, the band’s lead singer, tells me when we meet at the Lazarides gallery in Fitzrovia, London. Del Naja is an artist as well as musician and his face and fingers are speckled with paint. Dozens of his pictures are strewn
all over the wooden floorboards, drying. “It’s a system that’s been applied to many countries. It’s a good thing to aim for because it applies the continual pressure that’s needed.”
Musicians have a history of rallying the public to supporting political causes. The global anti-apartheid movement got the fillip it desperately needed when musicians began supporting it. The single “Sun City” by Artists United Against Apartheid in 1985 and the 70th-birthday tribute concert for Nelson Mandela at Wembley in 1988 catapulted the cause into millions of ordinary homes.
“I think musicians have a major role to play,” Del Naja says. “I find the more I get involved, the more the movement becomes something tangible. I remember going to ‘Artists Against Apartheid’ gigs, and ‘Rock Against Racism’ gigs around the same sort of time. Bands like the Clash and the Specials had a lot to do with influencing the minds of the youth in those days.” Those formative experiences are still evident in Massive Attack’s outlook today. A typical gig by the band is a blistering fusion of music with political messages and statistics flashed up on video screens, while the band regularly lends support to humanitarian causes.
Calls for a boycott were first issued five years ago by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, but a series of developments beginning with the Gaza war in winter 2008-2009 have led to rising support for the campaign. After Israel’s deadly raid on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May this year, a number of leading artists, including the Pixies, Elvis Costello and Gorillaz, cancelled concerts in Israel. In August, 150 Irish visual artists also pledged not to exhibit in Israel, but it is musicians who have been the most prominent international supporters of the boycott.
Their views are not unanimous, however. Other musicians, from Elton John and Diana Krall (Costello’s wife) to Placebo and John Lydon, have refused to cancel concert dates in Israel. Some have insisted that engagement with Israel is more productive – a stance that Del Naja rejects. “We were asked to play Israel and we refused,” he says. “The question was asked: ‘If you don’t play there, how can you go there and change things?’ I said: ‘Listen, I can’t play in Israel when the Palestinians have no access to the same fundamental benefits that the Israelis do.’ I think the best approach is to boycott a government that seems hell-bent on very destructive policies. And it’s sad, because we’ve met some great people in Israel, and it’s a difficult decision to have to make.”
Beyond the arts world, an increasing number of trade unions, student unions and churches are signing up to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Even an Israel-based group, Boycott from Within, backs the campaign, stating that its government’s “political agenda will change only when the price of continuing the status quo becomes too high . . . because the current levels of apathy in our society render this move necessary”.
“We are not going to achieve a quick liberation,” Del Naja concedes, but says the point is to apply “pressure, the continual pressure that’s needed”. And the threat of international isolation and economic repercussions is clearly starting to bite: Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, recently passed the first reading of a bill that would impose heavy fines on Israeli citizens who initiate or support boycotts against Israel, and a bill to bar foreigners – like Del Naja – who do the same from entering Israel for ten years.
“The boycott is not an action of aggression towards the Israeli people,” he says. “It’s towards the government and its policies. Everyone needs to be reminded of this because it’s very easy to be accused of being anti-Semitic, and that’s not what this is about.”
William Parry’s “Against the Wall: the Art of Resistance in Palestine” is published by Pluto Press (£14.99)