“Nil point” in watching: Israel, Eurovision and BDS

With this week’s Eurovision events having started already, there is considerable debate being generated over the campaign to force national broadcasters and sponsors to boycott the event. Such calls come as part of the ongoing BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) campaign, which is being conducted by members of Palestinian civil society in conjunction with international groups and movements around the world.

The aim of the campaign is to end the occupation of the Palestinian Territories, dismantle the system of Apartheid for Palestinians and Arabs within Israel and to have Israel respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Eurovision is just the latest strategic target for the campaign, which has previously successfully targeted business, sports and culture activities taking place within Israel.

The effectiveness of economic boycotts as a tactic, utilized during the American Civil Rights campaign and the struggle against South African apartheid, has led to a counter-campaign on behalf of Israel and its allies. Both the US and UK have passed legislation which effectively bans the boycotting of Israeli goods.

Within music and culture, there have been numerous concerts and tours cancelled (Lorde, Lana Del Rey), as well as a few that have gone ahead with much criticism (Radiohead, Nick Cave) thanks to a cultural boycott which to an extent predates the BDS campaign itself. There is a consistent line which is pedaled by defenders of such events, including many of the artists themselves. See if you can spot any particular commonalities:

“I don’t intend to engage in a detailed discussion as to how the boycott of Israel can be seen to be anti-Semitic at heart and, furthermore, does not work (rather, it risks further entrenching positions in Israel in opposition to those you support), but even the estimable Noam Chomsky considers the BDS as lacking legitimacy and inherently hypocritical. What we actually have here is a fundamental difference of opinion as to what the purpose of music is.” – Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files Issue #13

““It’s deeply disrespectful to assume that we’re either being misinformed or that we’re so retarded we can’t make these decisions ourselves…. Now if you’re talking about trying to make things progress in any society, if you create division, what do you get? You get fucking Theresa May. You get Netanyahu, you get fucking Trump. That’s divisive.” – Thom Yorke, Pitchfork

These excuses have evolved a little bit from the one offered by Queen guitarist Brian May when asked about his band’s decision to play at the Sun City Casino complex in South Africa in the 80s.

“We’ve thought a lot about the morals o.f it a lot…and it is something we’ve decided to do. The band is not political – we play to anybody who wants to come and listen.”

Alright, so the bar for these events to be supposedly successful and worthwhile is clear in its terms, echoing general liberal notions that progress comes from exposure to experience and ideas of openness. There’s also a further assumption, implied or stated at times, that artists boycotting Israel means those most likely to support progress or change are the ones missing out, given these events are overwhelmingly attended by young and presumably right on Israelis.

This notion is false in the first instance for its dismissal of the role of economic and material consequences in societal change (see the aforementioned campaigns) but it isn’t even correct on its own terms.

This is due to the fact that the occupation and the apartheid system used to sustain it enjoys support, both tacit and otherwise, across the ideological spectrum within Israel. Whilst the Oslo accords are now looked back on with reverence given the de facto non-existent peace process since Camp David and the second intifada, even they provided a blueprint that is now used to copper-fasten the occupation, pending “final status” talks that will never happen.

The creation of “facts on the ground” through the building of illegal settlements within the occupied territories, the massive securitisation of Israel itself and the ongoing siege of Gaza, around which a new wall is being built, have meant a massive imbalance between the sides that has not been corrected by international institutions or major powers in the paltry negotiations to have taken place over the past decade.

In short, avenues for “change” are extremely narrow whilst simultaneously Isreal enjoys membership of many international sporting and cultural organisations. The Eurovision is similar to the World Cup and other major events, in that attracting it to a country is a goal of governments and it is frequently accompanied by ample opportunities for propaganda and self-promotion, with little to no evidence they leave a lasting positive effect on their countries politics. One need only look at the fallout from Brazil’s hosting of both the World cup and Olympics, which contributed towards the development of a serious divide between the political elite and populace that engendered the rise of the reactionary and fascist Javier Bolsonaro.

The only hope is that a general shift in the political and material circumstances can be achieved. When FW De Klerk called the 1992 South African referendum, which was conducted among white South Africans with the intent of giving him a mandate to see out talks on a new constitution to a conclusion, he did so as he knew the armed struggle, boycotts and sanctions had placed whites into a situation where peace was less costly than the status quo. White South Africans could not go to international sports events, watch touring artists or do many of the other recreational things which marked out their middle and upper class counterparts within North America or Europe.

When the results came in, they were a landslide in favour of negotiations continuing to a conclusion, including within the bastions of the right wing that had put De Clerk under pressure with by-election victories. Regardless of ideological affiliation within the white population, the circumstances had been created that meant an unjust political architecture had to end, at least in the formalised terms it had existed.

There are other historical examples too which I will forgo analysing for the sake of brevity, but the case for social change in repressive regimes by giving them what they want as part of their overall strategic goals remains weak and the moral and strategic case for a boycott of the Israeli Eurovision remains strong. Watch something else this Saturday!


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