The revolution will not be Tel Aviv’ed

Gil Scott-Heron should ignore censorious ‘pro-Palestine’ campaigners who want him to cancel his Tel Aviv gig.

Nathalie Rothschild

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When Gil Scott-Heron – American singer, poet, polemicist and former jailbird – announced that he would perform in Tel Aviv in May as part of his comeback tour, some of his fans were outraged. How could this veteran of the 1980s group United Artists Against Apartheid, which campaigned for a cultural boycott of South Africa, be prepared to entertain Israelis who, according to pro-Palestine campaigners, have turned the occupied territories into a new Bantustan? A Facebook group was set up, critical comments appeared on Scott-Heron’s website, and, according to media reports, protesters heckled his show at London’s South Bank Centre last weekend.

Rumours are flying around that Scott-Heron has agreed to cancel his Tel Aviv gig. Yet Eran Arielli, the concert producer who is arranging Scott-Heron’s show, told spiked that it has been ‘rescheduled’ rather than called off. There has been no official statement from Scott-Heron’s tour managers yet.

According to the BBC, Scott-Heron eventually became aggravated with pro-Palestine protesters who kept shouting slogans during his London concert and told the audience his plans to perform in Israel had not been finalised anyway. He also suggested, according to the same report, that he would only play in Israel or the Palestinian territories ‘once peace had been restored in the region’. The Guardian reported Scott-Heron as saying that he refuses to play Tel Aviv because ‘we dislike wars’. Arielli tells me he has heard different versions of the story and is not sure which one to believe. ‘I have been told he said he won’t go to Israel until “everyone is welcome there”, but then his tour manager told me he told the people interrupting his show to – excuse my language – “fuck off”.’

So it’s difficult to know exactly what Scott-Heron plans to do. But one thing is certain: those calling on him and other artists to stay away from Israel are denigrating artistic freedom.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which published an open letter last week calling on Scott-Heron to reconsider his plans to play in ‘apartheid Israel’, is a censorious bunch. Its members might feel radical and worthy when ‘speaking on behalf of Palestinians’ and comparing themselves to 1980s anti-Apartheid campaigners, but their cause is simply about slapping an embargo on cultural exchanges and on the free flow of ideas and arguments.

When boycotters demand a ban on Israeli academics and artists coming over here or urge international performers to stay away from Israel, they are not only demanding that different peoples stop communicating with each other – they are also claiming a right to deny the rest of us the chance to engage with their work.

Artists and academics should be free to practice their professions and should not have to take responsibility for the actions of states. No matter how political their lyrics – and Scott-Heron, who has been dubbed ‘the godfather of rap’, is known for writing songs with strong messages about racism and injustice – musicians have no obligation to take a stance on global conflicts. Neither should they be denied the opportunity to take part in international collaborations or be compelled to choose who is and is not allowed to see them perform.

It is curious that the Scott-Heron fans who were so disappointed by his decision to play in Tel Aviv saw no problem with him performing in the UK. After all, Britain is still an occupying force in Afghanistan and Iraq. If Scott-Heron really did say, as that Guardian reviewer claimed, that Israel is out of bounds for him because it’s at war, then what’s he doing in England? And why will he be touring the US after he’s done with Europe?

If artists should be forced to consider the human rights abuses and dodgy politics of each and every country they visit, that would spell an end to international performances. There would be complete cultural isolation.

As for boycotts on Israel, Scott-Heron is only the latest in a line of artists to have evoked the ire of anti-Zionists. In fact, with every booking of an international artist in Israel there seems to follow a call from pro-Palestine campaigners for the performers to cancel their shows – from Madonna to Metallica, from Elton John to Leonard Cohen. But boycotters regard Scott-Heron’s case as particularly poignant. In its open letter, PACBI reminded Scott-Heron of his involvement with United Artists Against Apartheid, who recorded the famous song ‘Sun City’. It went: ‘We’re rockers and rappers united and strong… We’re here to talk about South Africa, we don’t like what’s going on… Ain’t gonna play Sun City.’ Tel Aviv, PACBI suggests, is today’s ‘Sun City’ and artists ain’t got no business going there.

There is a powerful delusion in this campaign. It is based on the assumption that artists can singlehandedly change the character of international politics. Today’s anti-Israel boycotters are suggesting that the fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa was a result of the refusal of Westerners to engage with it – and therefore a similar struggle based on boycotts should be waged on behalf of the Palestinians today.

In truth, it was years of collective action and protesting by people in South Africa that eventually brought down Apartheid, not a bunch of Westerners refusing to buy a certain brand of oranges or to go to gigs in Sun City. Today, while demanding boycotts may give those who claim to be speaking ‘on behalf of Palestinians’ a moral boost, it will do nothing to end the hardships of those living in the occupied territories or bring peace to the Middle East.

Arielli tells me that ‘for now, Scott-Heron’s tour managers say they are rescheduling and we have to believe them. It’s a matter of trust.’ But he hopes the legendary poet and musician won’t cancel. ‘We know he’s in a difficult situation, but we hope he will reconsider. He will be more than welcome in Israel.’

If he ends up bowing in to boycotters’ pressure, Scott-Heron will be contributing to the deluded idea that singing in Israel is tantamount to supporting the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Boycotters want the singer to cast his mind back to the 1980s, but the period of Scott-Heron’s career that really springs to mind here is when he was shut out of American venues and had his records taken off shop shelves because his hard-hitting songs, such as ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, were deemed unacceptable and offensive. This time, if Scott-Heron participates in the cultural boycott, he will be censoring himself.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild asked who’s afraid of Israeli academics. Elsewhere, she argued against criminalising anti-Semitic jokes. Tim Black pointed out that sanctions did not liberate South Africa. Shirley Dent applauded the BNP ballerina. David Bowden spoke to Tom Binns about getting sacked for insulting the monarchy. Or read more at spiked issues Free speech and Arts and entertainment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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