Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Last Word: Boycotts and Bigots

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Jeremy Jones


More than three decades ago, Elvis Costello sang “I don’t want to go to Chelsea” and achieved a fair degree of commercial success for his explorative music and bitter lyrical twists.

In 2010, the singer/songwriter, earning a reputation as more of a poseur than a composer, is singing a new tune, “I don’t want to go to Israel”.

After he had announced that he would perform in front of Israeli fans, who had lapped up tickets, he indulged in public agonising before declaring that he would not be true to the title of his 1981 album, “Trust”, but rather dishonour his contract and cancel.

Just two weeks after telling the Jerusalem Post that “dialogue is essential”, he aligned himself with the negative and destructive forces that strengthen extremism and undermine efforts at dialogue and outreach.

In a strong piece on the left-wing “Engage” website, Mira Vogel observed that Costello knew the political situation when he arranged his tour, asking “What happened between then and his decision to cancel?

If this lesser Elvis sought to bring about change of any type through the boycott, Vogel noted that “the boycott is the opposite of persuasion.”

Vogel also notes the intellectual dishonesty of the performer, asking “Does he seriously believe that Israelis, so many of whom are drafted in to national service, or whose relatives are, don’t understand that the occupation… ‘has a price tag attached’?”

In a stinging rebuttal to Costello’s dismissal of Israel’s considerations of national security, Assaf Wohl in Israel’s top-selling newspaper wrote “What exactly did you expect? That we’ll allow Islamic terror to butcher our citizens? We should remind you that we were not the ones to send our army thousands of kilometres away to spill blood at some remote islands near Argentina. We’re fighting for our homes.”

A Costello fan, Jerusalem Post editor David Horowitz, summed up the feelings of many Israelis and of people everywhere genuinely committed to peace and human rights when he wrote, “I’m so disappointed in you for assuming that, if the Palestinians are suffering, which they are in Gaza, it is the fault of the Israelis, which it overwhelmingly is not. I’m so surprised that, though you say you’ve agonised, you have evidently learned so little before drawing your erroneous and damaging conclusions. In the words of a song you wrote way back in 1983, you have become a ‘silent partner in someone else’s mistake’”.

At the time the long-time performing artist was announcing he would not come to Israel, an even longer-time performer, veteran polemicist Noam Chomsky, had his passage through an Israeli-controlled border denied.

When the decision by a low level official became public, the Israeli government announced it was an error, but not before the American, who has been a regular visitor, had instead gone to Lebanon, where he attended a ceremony presided over by Hezbollah. At that ceremony, Chomsky would have heard a combination of Holocaust denial and incitement to hatred and violence, but I have not as yet seen any dissociation, let alone condemnation, of the comments by a person not known for staying silent.

While Costello was welcome in Israel but refused to honour commitments to visit and Chomsky was denied entry in error, neighbouring Egypt deliberately prevented another entertainer, the openly-gay Elton John, from performing there as the Egyptian authorities bowed to pressure from groups claiming he would offend public morals.

While the Egyptian ban was widely reported, there was a deafening silence from the always vocal critics of Israel’s alleged human rights failings.

As Mira Vogel noted, “The cultural boycott will distinguish artists with integrity from artists who prefer not to see what is going on”.

While boycotters assume they are the ones on the moral high ground the opposite is true, with the performers with integrity being those who stand up to the bullying and propaganda assaults and visit Israel - even if they are not able to appear in less open, democratic societies in the same neighbourhood.

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