One of the world's deepest conflicts became a major talking point in electronic music this year. In this article, seven people present their perspectives on the cultural boycott of Israel.
Within hours, artists like The Black Madonna, Call Super, Caribou, Four Tet and Laurel Halo had shared the image, among others. Alongside vociferous statements both criticising and supporting the #DJsForPalestine campaign, three questions lurked in the background: Is it the role of musicians to speak out on this—or any—political issue? Is the cultural boycott of Israel the right thing to do? And does it even make a difference?
The #DJsForPalestine campaign shares the principles of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, a nonviolent, Palestinian-led amalgam of groups that seeks to put economic, cultural and political pressure on Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians. BDS is the latest in a string of historical boycotts—a kind of tactical isolation—aimed at political change, going back to the Irish protests in 1880 against landowner Charles Boycott, who gave the technique its name. Other notable boycotts include several against racial segregation during the American civil rights movement and the boycott against South Africa during apartheid.
This last precedent is particularly relevant, as South Africa was the subject of the first international cultural boycott, which many say contributed to the end of apartheid, alongside a sporting boycott and economic sanctions. BDS supporters cite parallels between South Africa and Israel—before his death, Nelson Mandela declared the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "the greatest moral issue of our time."
The first statement of BDS principles came in 2005. Their "call" requested that the international community cease involvement and investment in Israeli companies as well as sporting, cultural and academic institutions, and impose trade sanctions on the country. While the boycott is only supposed to apply to institutions implicated in Israel's violation of Palestinian human rights, effectively this means almost every cultural operation run out of Israel. This was in pursuit of three goals: the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the dismantling of the wall between Israel and the West Bank; recognition of the rights of Palestinians to equality; and the right for Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes.
The BDS movement believes it is the responsibility of touring artists to heed the request of Palestinians and refuse to perform in Israel until Palestinians are given equal rights. So far hundreds of musicians have signed up to the boycott, including Annie Lennox, Roger Waters and Brian Eno. Some artists have arranged concerts and then cancelled them, such as Lana Del Rey, Tyler, The Creator, and Lorde (whose cancellation led to her being called a "bigot" in a full-page advert taken out in The Washington Post).
BDS activists assert that when an artist performs in Israel, no matter their personal politics, the Israeli government uses this to make the country seem relaxed, liberal and cultured, distracting from the oppression of Palestinians. They call this "art-washing." For example, when Radiohead decided to play in Tel Aviv despite opposition from activists, official Israeli social media accounts vocally supported them. (Many artists have decided to play in Israel despite the call for boycott, including Lady Gaga, Nick Cave and Justin Timberlake.)
There are several common critiques of BDS. Some say that boycott ideology is a form of "silencing," in opposition to free expression and cultural exchange, and that art should transcend political division and bring people together, not separate them. Another argument is that boycott indiscriminately punishes Israelis, even those who do not support the actions of their government. Others say that BDS logic is opposed to the very existence of an Israeli state (the organisation remains deliberately ambiguous on how the land should be shared if it achieves its goals), or that it absolves Palestinians of responsibility for their own acts of violence.
Most divisively, BDS supporters are labelled anti-Semitic—a subject hotly debated around the #DJsForPalestine campaign. This viewpoint is common in Germany's far-left Antideutsche movement, which shares many members with the country's club scene, including the organisers of ://about blank, who cancelled their events with Berlin promoter Room 4 Resistance when the group shared the #DJsForPalestine campaign on social media. In a statement, ://about blank called the promoter's stance "an expression of structural anti-semitism." This week, the Leipzig club Conne Island took a similar stance in an official statement about BDS.
In recent months this conversation has landed hard in the electronic music sphere, following the cancellations at Meteor Festival in Israel and the #DJsForPalestine campaign. We spoke to key actors on different sides of the discussion in hopes of bringing more context and nuance to the debate.
Musician and supporter of BDS
I was born the same day as the state of Israel: May 15th, 1948. These days I speak publicly about the BDS movement, but I wasn't always in support of it. I actually had a big internal struggle at the beginning, and I can still see downsides. One is that it hardens the position of the people who oppose it. They become more convinced of their victimhood and that they're being unfairly isolated. Then some people also argue that going to Israel and performing there is a positive contribution. They believe in the power of art to cure everything. I don't. I don't think there's any evidence that art turns you into a better person.
By this point I think BDS is the only thing that seems to have gotten a response—just the fact that Israel has made a special department to counter it suggests to me that they see the movement as a serious threat.
Another thing people don't often discuss is nonviolence. This movement is saying to Palestinians that many people in the world are willing to help in a nonviolent revolution, but not a violent one. But the problem is that the Israeli government reacts as if it is violent. If they outlaw BDS and nonviolent protest, they're effectively encouraging violent protest, and have to take responsibility for that.
When I give artists advice about the situation, I first recommend they find out what's going on over there. I say what the situation is and lay out what the Palestinians have asked for. I also suggest they talk to some Palestinians, rather than relying on the news media's take on it or the Israelis' take on it. Why not speak to the people who don't get a voice very often?
The fact is there are a lot of people who are on the fence. It's a complicated subject and it's deliberately made more complicated. But some parts of it are very simple. You don't have to know the fine grain of the history of Israel and Palestine to realise there are things that shouldn't be happening.
I was pleased to see #DJsForPalestine because I want the idea of BDS to become decriminalised. It's become easy for the Israelis to spin it as an anti-Israel movement or an anti-Semitic movement, and it really isn't that. It's important to make that distinction.
We can say: "OK, there's nothing I can do here, I've got too much on my plate and it's too complicated so I'm just leaving it." That's an option. There are lots of problems in the world that I can't deal with. But if you're asked to play in Israel then you have to acknowledge that their cultural programme is propagandistic. It has a role in maintaining the status quo. Culture is part of Israel's public image and if you're playing there you're part of that system. Knowing that, you can make your own decision.
Founder of The Block club in Tel Aviv
I got into this scene in 1992 when I was 22 years old. When I would go clubbing, the most amazing thing was always meeting people that you wouldn't meet normally, getting to know them and bridging gaps. I started The Block in 2008 after studying the '70s and '80s New York club scene. In a club I want to feel welcome, warm and caressed, but Israel is an aggressive place. Maybe it's the weather, the army, or the fact we live here shadowed by terror. At The Block, we are trying to change this through our writing to the community and through the music itself. Our message is: If people can dance together, they can live together. We believe music has the power to make changes on an individual level. There are certain grooves that reduce aggression and encourage communication and vice versa.
Artists refused to come for political reasons since the beginning. Out of everyone, maybe five percent of the DJs we approached said no. It made me feel disappointed as a club owner and booker because I want to have all the best DJs. But on a political level I respect their decision, even if it sometimes feels like they're only seeing one side of the story. I believe these people believe they're doing something right, so I respect that they're trying to make a difference.
A lot of people in our night scene are very against the government, and I think we should do more. So you can say that BDS tactics might work in one sense—to shake up the Israeli left and tell them: "Why don't you be a bit more active." We don't talk about these issues enough, and why not? It's because it's complicated and frightening to talk about something that is so heated here, where the emotions are so strong, and everybody is afraid.
But if the purpose is to boycott until the government decides to do things differently, it's not going to work in my opinion. The actions of a few musicians won't change who's in power. I'm guessing that as long as the right wing rules in Israel, the situation here will get worse and worse, and not just for the Palestinians.
With #DJsForPalestine, of course all of us felt really bad. You can't feel good when somebody's boycotting you. A couple of DJs changed their plans to come and play at the club. Some Israelis I know got angry and feel the boycott is anti-Semitic. That's a tricky one—there may be anti-Semitism, even unconsciously, but it's not black and white. And it certainly doesn't mean that we don't deserve criticism.
But there are ways for musicians to make a statement about the Israeli government without boycotting. It's going to be harder and more complicated for them, but it's possible. Some DJs came to play at The Block and then played in Ramallah [in the West Bank]. This is a beautiful solution, but not very practical, since many headliners have busy schedules. They could also play here and donate some of their earnings to an NGO working towards peace.
Our manager is Arab, you wouldn't believe how rare it is to have an Arab manager in a place like this. This in itself sends a strong message to the crowd. For many years now we've been trying to talk to club promoters from the other side, to cooperate on a party or a statement of coexistence, to show that nightlife is a place where you can maybe start building bridges when politics fail. We found some people, and when we spoke it was obvious we came from the same place, the same philosophy. But it hasn't come to anything yet. I think they are scared to commit to doing a project with us because they take a big risk in collaborating with the Israelis, in being branded a traitor. We do, too, but our risk is smaller. It's financial rather than physical.
So I don't know if we'll achieve anything. I'm not a politician, and things are so fucking complicated that even people who live here like myself don't totally know what's going on. The club is a community center, but it's not a political party and it's also a business that supports families, so we also have to bear this in mind. Still, I can totally envision a huge peace party with people from all over the world, Jews and Arabs, Israeli and Palestinian, dancing together, showing that we are far more alike than different. I think that's a more positive vision for the future: Instead of boycott, let's meet.
Palestinian musician and BDS activist
I grew up in London and first heard of BDS around 2006, a year after the call. It was the Israeli massacres in Gaza which turned me to activism—each one pushed me to devote more time and energy towards BDS, which I believe is the most effective way of challenging Israel's impunity to achieve Palestinian freedom, justice and equality.
The BDS movement has been going for more than 13 years now, and there have been a number of key milestones along the way. With the press around big cancellations and campaigns in the last few years, it seems to be picking up pace. Along with the popular, nonviolent resistance we see in Gaza's Great March Of Return, BDS is a major source of hope for Palestinians who live under occupation and apartheid. So when someone like Lorde or Lana Del Rey cancels engagements, it shows the people who live completely blocked off, like the two million refugees in Gaza, that they haven't been forgotten.
I believe that artists have a political responsibility to do no harm; to not impede the struggle of an oppressed people to receive basic freedoms. That means not crossing the established Palestinian boycott picket line, at a minimum. But also through solidarity in collective actions like #DJsForPalestine, who are taking a strong public stance, refusing to cooperate in whitewashing Israel's oppression. I find that deeply moving.
It's particularly important for DJs to do this because Tel Aviv presents itself as a hub of dance music. Israel has a strategy it calls "Brand Israel," a way to show its "prettier face" through culture. Participating in Tel Aviv's propaganda image as a "party city" contributes to the whitewashing, or art-washing, of Israeli crimes against Palestinians.
Even if artists are well-meaning, if they play in Israel, their presence will be used by the Israeli regime for propaganda. When Radiohead decided to play in Tel Aviv and people all over the world criticised their choice, and attempted to persuade them to cancel, Thom Yorke said on Twitter: "We don't endorse Netanyahu any more than Trump, but we still play in America." One difference is that there is no oppressed group in America calling for a boycott. But secondly, even if Radiohead didn't endorse Netanyahu, the Netanyahu regime endorsed Radiohead. The Israeli minister for strategic affairs told CNN "We salute Radiohead" because it was a propaganda victory for the country.
Thom Yorke said he felt patronised when he was sent an open letter asking him politely not to undermine the Palestinian struggle for freedom. Some artists confuse legitimate criticism of their moral choices with personal attacks. While you can't control everyone on social media, the BDS campaign states clearly that the best way to convince artists to support the boycott is through polite, rational, civil appeals.
Some artists consider performing in Tel Aviv and then in the occupied West Bank as a kind of balancing act, but the BDS movement, inspired by the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa, explicitly rejects attempts to cross the picket line and then use a Palestinian event as a fig leaf. On the other hand, it's possible to perform in an Israeli venue which is not complicit in human rights violations, like Nicolas Jaar did in Haifa. Of course not every situation of complicity is going to be clear cut, and that's why the Palestinian Campaign For The Academic And Cultural Boycott Of Israel has an evolving set of guidelines that is responsive to the needs of a growing movement, that recognises that there are shades of grey.
The current Israeli government is the most right-wing ever, and it seems to be getting worse. But I'm not cynical about prospects for change. Sometimes when popular nonviolent movements take hold, repressive regimes like Israel can start to close ranks. That would partly explain why the country is moving even further to the right. But after that, cracks can appear and room for dissent finally begins to open. I'm very optimistic about the chances for BDS to continue effectively challenging Israel's regime of apartheid and occupation, in the hope that Palestinians can live in dignity and peace, with justice and equality to all people.
Activist in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement
The Anti-Apartheid Movement called for a boycott of South Africa in 1959. One of the first to enforce it was the British Musician's Union. A lot of high-profile bands refused to play in South Africa, like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. The music scene was also important in generating support at benefit concerts; it wasn't boycott but it was crucial in raising people's awareness.
Then in 1980 the UN agreed there should be a boycott. They started a register of international performers who went to South Africa, and some London venues wouldn't invite acts unless they signed a pledge saying they'd boycott South Africa. Some artists still went, like Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and Paul Simon. Many performed in whites-only venues like Sun City, but when they came back they said they'd never go again.
I can't pretend it was easy. People would say: "You need culture to exchange ideas. How are you going to change white South Africans' minds unless you interact with them culturally?" People say the same now about Israel. But I think it was more important to let that country know that they are pariahs, and they have to take actions to change things. People in that country need to be mature and determined enough to cope. It's worth paying that price, that's what we said about South Africa.
I believe that what's happening in Israel right now is apartheid: Israelis are taking Palestinian land for settlements and Palestinians are second-class citizens in Israel, especially with this new law. And the wall is outrageous. The international community should take the same action to Israel as it did to apartheid South Africa. The problem is there's a much stronger oppositional lobby which spreads the idea that if you criticise Israel you're anti-Semitic, which is wrong. White South Africans weren't anywhere near as good in their propaganda.
I also think it's crucial that people inside Palestine have asked for a boycott. That was important in South Africa. From 1960 we said we were doing it because South Africans asked us to—that's why we don't do it for other repressive regimes. You're doing it in response, out of solidarity.
Hopefully the boycott will help young Israelis realise that it's not just politicians that think what's happening in Israel is wrong. It might make them consider how they could pressure their government to change. When Mandela was elected in 1994, many white South Africans were actually relieved. They were happy to be back in the world's cultural community. I visited the country for the first time just before its first free election. It was wonderful.
The fact is, a few musicians pulling out is unlikely to make Netanyahu resign, but we have to do what we can. South Africa seemed pretty hopeless in the '70s, from the first call to boycott to the end of apartheid was 35 years. Back then there was no above-ground black majority dissent anymore because everyone had been imprisoned. When I first got involved we felt like we had to protest, but there didn't seem much prospect of anything changing. But we kept going, and eventually it did.
Promoter and supporter of the Antideutsche movement
I've loved techno since I was 16. Part of it's just amusing yourself, but raves are also political. Here in Munich, we have very little space for alternative culture because most available land is commercialised. When you put on a rave, you don't ask permission. You're taking the city back. A good techno party can be a glimpse of a free society.
There's a strong connection between the radical left in Germany and the rave scene. This primarily developed through the Antideutsche movement, which evolved following the reunification of Germany in the '90s. Its main goal was to oppose rising nationalism, with a particular sympathy for Israel. It linked with techno by representing a more hedonistic, individualistic approach to politics, in strong opposition to the puritan and ascetic traditional left.
Anti-nationalism is a common idea in the radical left, but we don't oppose Israel in the same way because it's not just a normal country. It was founded with the express aim of protecting Jews. They need to be protected, from the pogroms of the 19th century to the Holocaust up to recent synagogue shootings in America and France. It's a backup for Jews all around the world. If it gets too bad, they can go there and be safe.
The German left may seem unusual in its support of Israel; many leftist movements around the world are associated with pro-Palestinian sympathies. This is probably related to our past. At school it's obligatory to visit concentration camps, while many people go on exchange trips to Israel. Parts of the German left are therefore more sensitive to signs of anti-Semitism, because they know how wrong it can go.
I'm not a supporter of the current Israeli government. The country suffers from an increasing gap between rich and poor, unsolved identity questions and a divided society, and Netanyahu's nationalist approach is not helping. I also see the settlements as a problem. And of course not all criticism of the Israeli government and its actions is anti-Semitism—look at all the liberal-minded people within Israel who protest and demand peace.
But I think today's Israeli government has to be separated from questions about whether Israel has a right to exist. There's a line which is often crossed on the Palestinian supporters' side between criticising Israeli policies and questioning the country's legitimacy or condemning the entire population of Israel.
Israel also faces double standards from the international community. This tiny country is depicted as the evil power of the Middle East when there are many other countries with more extreme human rights abuses that are largely ignored. Unlike Iran or China, Israel has a strong justice system, where violations of human rights are punished. This is part of the BDS logic which I object to—why not boycott other countries committing much worse offences? Applying these double standards to Israel and questioning its right to exist is a modern form of anti-Semitism.
BDS is simply not a communicative approach. One of the most important things about art is that it brings people together and helps them understand each other, and BDS shuts this down. It also stops Palestinian music fans from seeing their favourite artists. Meanwhile, the economic sanctions recommended by BDS remind me uncomfortably of the 1930s directive in Germany to not buy from Jewish shops.
I believe a big part of the reason why Palestinians are in this situation is their own fault. Anti-Semitism from their side is stopping the peace process from progressing and has been for decades. If the Palestinian West Bank government could assure the Israelis that there would be no more acts of terror towards Israel, they would have their own state by tomorrow.
Somebody who wants to help the people of the West Bank and Gaza to achieve a better life should focus on enhancing communication and working to prevent anti-Semitism. And for the Antideutsche at home, we need to continue critically examining Palestinian supporter groups like BDS, showing that their way of approaching the conflict is very one-sided and problematic.
Oded Ben Shimon
Works behind the bar at ://about blank in Berlin
I'm from Israel and grew up in Tel Aviv. I first became politically active in my teenage years, protesting against the Israeli occupation and discrimination against Palestinians. As an activist in Israel you need to be idealistic and treasure the small victories. There are so many mechanisms from the state and bigger powers telling you to give up, that there is no chance for peace and change. We shouldn't give in to that. If you don't believe in the possibility of change, what's the point?
I've now been living in Berlin for six and a half years. I've been working at the bar at ://about blank for five of them—though what I'm saying here doesn't represent the club. Historically Berlin club culture used to be very political, but I think that's fading now. There are only a couple of clubs that still seem to have a real political agenda, and ://about blank is one of them. The club comes from a German leftist political tradition called Antideutsche. They saw anti-Semitism in Germany and reacted against it, deciding that ultimately the idea of a German nation state should be abolished. If Germany is the first country to stop existing, Israel should be the last. So the German radical left supports Israel no matter what it does.
It's a pretty unique German phenomenon. I was quite stunned when I first had discussions with Antideutsche people. It seems like you're talking to any other radical leftist about a topic, but as soon as you start talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict it’s like you’re suddenly arguing with a fascist from Israel. The group is almost entirely white Germans, and while they're not all Islamophobic, there are certainly elements of Islamophobia in the community.
I believe their perspective is driven from guilt over the Holocaust. It's as if the lesson learned was that we should not kill Jews. This is an important message, but maybe the lesson should be more universal, that we should be against fascism and racism and xenophobia wherever they are, no matter who is being oppressed and who is oppressing.
After ://about blank cancelled the Room 4 Resistance party I was shocked, and stopped taking shifts at the club for a few weeks because I needed time to think. I think the whole situation was very poorly handled. Perhaps both sides were pushing each other into a corner, but the club definitely should have reacted differently.
I disagree that supporting BDS is inherently anti-Semitic. Perhaps there are anti-Semitic elements hiding in the movement, but not everyone. You shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think a good comparison is to sexism: There is discrimination against women in this world, but that doesn't mean I can't criticise Angela Merkel. I just need to look inside myself and know that I'm not doing it from a sexist place.
I believe boycott is a legitimate form of protest, and I support it as a nonviolent form of resistance for a just cause. And I do believe it makes a difference—when I see the energy, time and money the Israeli government spends fighting it, and the discussions provoked on my Facebook feed where people are wondering why their favourite artists are cancelling shows. This alone will not bring peace to the Middle East, but it could make a change.
The only reservation I have is that boycott works as pressure from the outside. It is a strong move, but of course the solution must come from within Israel-Palestine. We need the Jewish-Israeli side to understand that the occupation is not serving their real interests. The Israeli public doesn't benefit from it—it uses up funding that could be put into education or parks, and makes society very militarised, macho and violent. I think the interest of the Israeli people is also in peace and a just solution.
DJ and organiser of the creative retreat at Banksy's West Bank hotel
Politics is in my blood. My dad's family are Jews from Lithuania. They left Lithuania in the 1930s amid the rise of Nazism and headed to South Africa, where they became heavily involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. My family's printing press printed ANC literature and my grandfather was an ally of Mandela. So when I was first offered a gig at The Block, I refused on political grounds. However a couple of years later when I got wind of Banksy's hotel project in Palestine, I accepted a gig there to pay for the trip. I spent many hours wrestling with the intricacies of this decision, but in retrospect I'm glad I went.
Now that I've been and seen the awful reality of the situation on the ground, I believe things there can be understood in terms of straight-up apartheid. I am appalled by those in power and their approach to the Occupied Territories. Today I am an advocate of the financial, academic and cultural boycott of Israel, with strings attached. I wouldn't play in Israel again. I won't buy Israeli products if I know they're Israeli products. I'm participating in the boycott because it feels like one of the few things that I can actively do from here in the UK.
I must confess I'm still conflicted though. A lot of my crew in Berlin are Israelis. They are wonderful, progressive people like those at The Block. I worried that in signing up for #DJsForPalestine I would be betraying friends in Tel Aviv by blocking their access to international DJs. I didn't actually share the post online—I didn't feel it nuanced enough to represent my views—but I am pleased that the campaign happened, despite how poisonous it became. It has cleared space for more adult discourse. It seems a bit more obvious now that those people mixing up human rights in Palestine with anti-Semitism are speaking out of turn.
Still, I have reservations with the BDS movement. I believe in my heart of hearts that meaningful change in Israel needs to come from both international pressure and an Israeli political uprising. In my relatively limited experience, I've seen that the BDS cultural boycott has its foot on a major artery lifeline into the Israeli left, keeping it malnourished and weak. Yes, it's doing good work and maybe the ends justify the means, but I believe the cultural boycott needs modernising. It's a blunt tool for the world's most delicate problem.
Surely BDS and the left in Israel are working towards the same ends? Why can't there be better dialogue between the two camps? Wouldn't they be more effective if they worked together to achieve these common goals?
While I do support the boycott, I'm certainly not a BDS man. I'm just not an advocate of their way of doing things. One DJ friend of mine felt bullied by BDS when they were told to pull out of playing Israel. BDS have a reputation for being bullish. I chatted to another friend a few months back who did go and play at at Meteor Festival. He accepted the gig not knowing much about the situation there. Afterwards he asked my opinion on playing Israel. I said to him: "Don't feel bad about doing a gig at Meteor Festival. If that's a catalyst to you engaging, reading more and taking your own position on this issue then that's great. That's called being a human being. You don't have to be a purist or righteous about it, you can be a human."