Acclaimed rock band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds played two shows in Tel Aviv in November in contravention of the international cultural boycott of Israel. Arts journalist and BDS activist Mark Brown has written the following open letter to Cave.
“Some people say it’s just rock and roll. Oh, but it gets you right down to your soul.” This lyric from your song “Push the Sky Away” could function as a shorthand expression of the relationship I have had with your work for much of my adult life.
As a theatre critic and arts journalist, I spend much of my professional life trying to find art works that transcend the banalities of everyday life and touch something profound in the human experience. Rarely am I as affected by the work I review as I am by your music.
In other words, Nick, when you talk about the intense connection between you and your audience, you are talking about people like me.
Which leads me to the subject of this letter. Your gigs in Tel Aviv in November and your infamous press conference in Israel, in which you castigated the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. You must know that your decision to break the boycott established by the Palestinian people is extremely painful to those among your audience who, like me, are committed supporters of BDS.
At your press conference in Israel you are quoted accusing BDS campaigners within the music industry, such as Brian Eno and Roger Waters, of wanting to “censor and silence musicians”. Your decision to play Israel was, you said, “a principled stand” for artistic freedom.
There is something uncharacteristically disingenuous about these statements. Your rejection of BDS and your decision to play Israel not only puts you at odds with Eno and Waters, but with the overwhelming majority of civic and political organisations representing the Palestinian people.
It also puts you at odds with Aviad Albert, Yoav Beirach and the many other Israeli musicians who wrote an open letter to you asking you not to play in Israel. Playing in Tel Aviv, they explained, is not a simple matter of individual artistic freedom. Rather, it plays into the hands of the Israeli apartheid state. The Israeli state, they wrote, “uses culture to limit divergent narratives and voices, and to whitewash its crimes”.
This, Nick, is the nub of the matter. Israel wants to project the image of itself as a western European-style democracy in which free cultural expression flourishes. When artists such as yourself choose to play there, whether you like it or not, you become a propaganda tool of the Israeli regime.
Your decision to play in Tel Aviv came as a shock to many Palestinians. Rima Nasir, co-founder of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Palestine, wrote of her high regard for your “progressive politics” and your previously expressed “support for Palestinian rights”. She implored you to withdraw from your Israeli dates. You ignored her.
Nasir is correct about the general progressiveness of your politics. I assume, therefore, that you supported the international boycott of apartheid South Africa. If so, one can only assume that your decision to play in Tel Aviv indicates that you do not accept the characterisation of Israel as an apartheid state. Yet Israel’s claims to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” do not stand up to any kind of scrutiny. In fact, in some ways, Israeli apartheid is even more egregious than was the racist regime in South Africa.
The white supremacist system in South Africa relied upon the exploitation of the labour of the black African population. Israel has far less reliance upon Palestinian Arab labour, largely due to the massive amounts of money it receives from the United States government.
So, rather than being based upon the exploitation of Palestinian labour, Israeli apartheid operates by means of mass expulsion and occupation (only around 1.5 million Palestinians, out of a global population of 13 million, live within the borders of the State of Israel).
We should add to this the physical apartheid wall in the West Bank, the illegal settlement building, murderous attacks in Gaza (more than 2,100 Palestinians killed during Netanyahu’s war in 2014, for example) and the flagrant disregard for international law in Israel’s repression of Palestinians. It is little wonder that Bishop Desmond Tutu (a supporter of BDS) says that the parallels between the apartheid system in Israel today and the racist regime that prevailed in South Africa are “painfully stark”.
As with the boycott of South Africa, there is no “apolitical” choice. You are either with the oppressed or with the oppressor. You have, somehow, arrived at an upside-down logic whereby BDS (which stands with the oppressed Palestinians) is a “bully” and breaking the boycott, to the obvious delight of the racist Likud regime, is a “principled stand”.
Nick, while you were playing in Tel Aviv, did it occur to you that, just 43 miles away, in the hell hole of Gaza, the lights were going out?