An edited version of this article appeared in South Africa's New Age newspaper- click here for the online version
Israel is the regional centre for all things cool, sexy and western – or so its government PR machine would like the world to think. Tel Aviv is promoted as a hedonistic, libertarian party city, frequented by many of the world's best known bands and DJs. This manufactured image matters to Israel. The implicit message is that the country is liberal and progressive. Music fans can dance, drink and pop pills long into the night, blissfully distracted from the immeasurable suffering endured by Palestinians living just 40 miles down the road in Gaza. In effect, music helps to drown out the cries of the oppressed in a society wilfully in denial of its role as oppressor. International DJs and musicians should no longer be complicit in this crime.
Faithless last performed in Israel in June 2005. I invited my friend, Palestinian producer and rapper Jad Abbas (AKA Boikutt), to be my guest at the gig. He declined, explaining that Israeli checkpoints meant the short journey to the venue from his home in Ramallah would be almost impossible. He added that, as a supporter of the cultural boycott of Israel, he would prefer our gig wasn't happening at all. At the time I knew of no western bands who had joined the boycott. Since then awareness of the true face of Israel and the suffering and humiliation to which Palestinians are subjected has become far more widespread, particularly in the wake of the siege of Gaza. Significantly people are coming to the realisation that Israel is an apartheid state. As the Jewish South African political activist Ronnie Kasrils wrote last year; “everyday structural racism and oppression imposed by Israel constitutes a regime of apartheid and settler colonialism similar to the one that shaped our lives in South Africa.” The parity was even recognised by the architect of apartheid, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, who stated admiringly in November 1960 that “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state”.
But there is a key difference between the apartheid regime of South Africa and that in Israel. While the South African economy relied on the exploitation of non-white labour, Palestinians are largely excluded from the Israeli economy. The strike waves that shook the regime in South Africa in the 1980's are not an option for Palestinians. Therefore the actions of those of us outside Israel are all the more critical. In recognition of this, Palestinian civil society has issued an urgent call for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel.
Those of us who are serious about engaging in the struggle for a better world need good strategies and tactics. The tactic of cultural boycott isn't always a good one. I am opposed to the occupation of Afghanistan by coalition forces, but to ask my colleagues to boycott Afghanistan, Britain or the US would be meaningless. You cannot effectively boycott somewhere you never go to (Afghanistan), somewhere you have to go to (Britain), or somewhere with such a big domestic music industry that your decision would go completely unnoticed (US). That's not to say that there aren't lots of other things musicians can do and have done to support the Stop the War movement, but boycott is not one of them. Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine, by contrast, is one example ofa situation where the cultural boycott - as part of the wider strategy of 'BDS' – is the right tactic. Of course many musicians explicitly talk about political change when onstage in Israel.
And some think that the boycott punishes the wrong people. Music fans, they argue, are among those most likely to oppose their government's policies. But bands, including Faithless, have been visiting Israel and singing about peace and unity for more than a decade. The situation for the Palestinians has only got worse during that period. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was right to warn the Cape Town Opera that; “Just as we said during apartheid that it was inappropriate for international artists to perform in South Africa - in a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity, so it would be wrong for the Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel.” No matter how progressive your particular fans may be, gigs do not take place in a political or economic vacuum. Beyond your fan base, a performance in Israel can only too easily be interpreted as an endorsement of business as usual in the apartheid state.
So Maxi Jazz and I decided that we should join the boycott. When we did so we faced considerable pressure from management and others in the music industry to change our minds. News that other artists were drawing the same conclusions we were gave us confidence to stand our ground. In truth, most of the opponents of the cultural boycott lack knowledge of what is really going on in the region. Or they simply do not care about the suffering of the Palestinians. Those of us who do care should publicly support the cultural boycott of Israel. I encourage all South African artists to support South African Artists Against Apartheid.