Just as a cultural boycott was enforced on apartheid South Africa, so must one be enforced on Israel.
I was 10 years old when I stole my older brother’s cassette tape of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. In my small town in Massachusetts that fall, I traded in my air guitar for a much cooler air bass, rocking out to Flea’s rhythm on the hit single “Give It Away”. Twenty years later, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are still cranking out great music to a huge fan base and were just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
On September 10, the Chili Peppers are scheduled to play a concert in Tel Aviv, Israel. The decision has caused quite a stir. More than 7,000 people have signed a petition calling on the band to cancel its performance in Israel. More than a dozen groups around the world have written letters calling on the band to cancel the show. I work with one of those groups.
Why would I call on a band I loved so much as a child, a band I still listen to today, to cancel a concert?
In 1948, my pregnant grandmother, countless relatives, and 750,000 other Palestinians were displaced from their homeland, making way for the creation of the state of Israel. My grandmother never saw her birthplace again, never picked another piece of fruit from her orchard, but spoke and dreamed of a dignified return until her final breath in 2009. Palestinians continue to languish in refugee camps; four million live under a system of increasingly brutal Israeli occupation, and 1.5 million Palestinians are relegated to second-class status inside of a state that is falsely presented as a democracy.
Boycott, divest and sanction
In 2005, Palestinian civil society, consisting of more than 170 unions, women’s organisations, cultural groups, academic institutions and nearly every other facet of society, called for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against the state of Israel until it complied with three basic demands based on international law: an end to occupation, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and equal rights for Palestinians living inside of the state of Israel. Following the ethical, effective, and rights-based approach of cultural boycott against apartheid in South Africa, tens of thousands of voices in support of Palestinian rights have stated clearly: it is time to take action for freedom, justice, and equality.
Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band scheduled to open for the Chili Peppers in Lebanon, cancelled its lucrative slot after band members were asked to pull out of the concert in protest to the Chili Peppers’ decision to play in Israel. A growing list of artists, including Bono, Santana, the late Gil Scott-Heron, Elvis Costello, Cat Power, the Klaxons, the Gorillaz, and the Pixies, have refused to cross the international picket line and have pulled out of scheduled shows. Roger Waters, frontman for Pink Floyd and human rights advocate, said the boycott call is “a perfectly legitimate, nonviolent… political tool” and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu stated in support of cultural boycott, “Just as we said during apartheid that it was inappropriate for international artists to perform in South Africa… it would be wrong… to perform in Israel.”
What I have learned in my years as a spoken word performer is that art is not above politics. Reading my work in the Jim Crow South to an all-white audience would not have upended racism, nor would it have sparked a journey of introspection among the masses. The power of art lies with the oppressed, it wrote the freedom songs in South Africa, tuned the humming of prisoners in the H Blocks in Northern Ireland, and laced the chants against despotism in Tahrir Square.
Artists were targeted and shamed when they played Sun City in South Africa and lent aid to the image of the apartheid regime. This is why Boycott From Within, a group of Israelis, has called on the Chili Peppers to cancel their show. When art is used to bolster support for an oppressive state, when it is used to “present Israel’s prettier face” as an official for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs proclaimed in the New York Times, and when it used as a form of propaganda as stated by a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official – “I do not differentiate between hasbara [propaganda] and culture” – it is time for artists to end complicity.
Art alone cannot break down a wall that appropriates Palestinian land and resources, it cannot uproot illegal settlements, it cannot tear down checkpoints that restrict freedom of movement, it cannot release prisoners from administrative detention, and it cannot rebuild water wells. But artists and their art can inspire millions to take conscientious action against occupation and discrimination.
As the Chili Peppers concert date approaches, there are millions of people under Israeli rule who are unable to reach the concert simply because they are Palestinian. The Chili Peppers will not meet with Palestinians who worked in cultural centres attacked by the Israeli army, they will not hear the work of young recording artists who are separated by walls and checkpoints, and they won’t meet with the Palestinian hip hop artist who cancelled his tour because he was denied the right to leave his open-air prison. These details are left out of concert planning, but they are the daily reality for occupied, displaced, and oppressed Palestinians.
While I may not be that young kid strumming my air bass on my parents’ deck in Massachusetts, I still turn up the radio when the Chili Peppers come on. That is what makes writing these words so difficult. It is an easy choice to stand on the wrong side of history, when the history books have yet to be written. It is easy to call a show in Israel just another show when few accurately label Israel an apartheid state. At the moment, it still takes little effort to ignore the plight and call of millions of occupied Palestinians. But it is not the just stand. Martin Luther King once proclaimed, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.
King was right. This week, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have the option to bend toward justice or enable oppression.