Here’s Why the Cultural Boycott of Israel Is So Important and Impactful

For the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, there has been plenty of reason to celebrate this year, as their victory toll continues to grow. Most recently, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) announced that it “welcomes the announcement that Shakira will not be performing in Tel Aviv anytime soon, dashing Israel’s hopes to use her name to art-wash its latest massacre in Gaza.”

The massacre (PACBI) is referring to relates to the escalating tensions in Gaza dating back to March 2018. Every year around that time, Palestinians in Gaza, a majority of whom are internally displaced refugees, march for their right to return to their home villages at the barrier between Gaza and Israel. Dolefully, Israel met these peaceful protesters with open gunfire.

Since late March, and as a result of these violent measures, 1300 Palestinians have been injured and more than 115 have been murdered, the latest being a 21 year-old medic, Razan al-Najjar.

Rumors of what would have been Shakira’s first concert in Israel began in April, with several Israeli and U.S. news outlets and official ticketing websites promoting the alleged performance.

Typically — and especially when globally acclaimed artists are expected to visit — the Israeli government takes preventive measures to counter any and all BDS efforts to appeal to artists to cancel their performances. In preparation for such pushback, the Israeli government-linked app Act.lLforwarded text messages to Israelis and their allies across the globe calling upon them to resist and challenge any BDS organized effort targeting Shakira’s concert.

While BDS efforts were indeed brewing over Shakira’s concert, it was her Lebanese heritage that struck a chord with many of her fans. A global campaign was launched by the Lebanese Campaign for Boycotting Israel’s Supporters in hopes of persuading the artist to cancel the concert. Some Lebanese activists took it to social media, managing to stage a twitter storm reaching over 2 million people, urging Shakira to drop the concert.

Eventually, news of Shakira canceling the concert began circulating. Some parties like Live Nation, an international concert promoter, maintained that the concert was never scheduled to begin with.

When widely celebrated pop icons cancel gigs and appearances in Israel, it sends a very powerful message to their followers: I cannot in good conscience play/appear/visit here.

Others like the production company Arbel and the Israeli ticket sales agency Ticketsti, claimed that the concert was merely postponed. Regardless, the decision was celebrated among BDS supporters and affiliates, many of whom rightfully believe their pressure played an important role in delivering yet another BDS win.  You can view a full timeline of events here.

This year has been truly remarkable for BDS activists, from Lorde’s concert cancellation, to Natalie Portman’s pulling out of the Genesis prize ceremony, to Muslim Girl’s very own, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh’s rejection of the Revlon Changemaker award over Gal Gadot’s ambassadorship to the brand, and the momentum is in no way dwindling.

Just a few days ago, Teen Vogue published a letter by a group of Palestinian youth expressing their support of Gigi Hadid, and encouraging her to continue to speak up about the atrocities inflected upon Palestinians on the daily.

The BDS movement also launched a petition to urge the Argentina national football team to cancel its “friendly” match with Israel, under the slogan #NothingFriendly about shooting Palestinian footballers, in reference to Mohammed Khalil, the young Palestinian footballer, whose football career came to an end after he was shot in the knee by an Israeli sniper.  The game was subsequently canceled.

In the United States, the BDS movement has stirred tremendous controversy. There has not been a single action of BDS that has not been labeled as anti-Semitic by Zionist organizations like StandWithUs and others like it.

In a way, cultural and academic boycott is more potent than divestment, because it has everything to do with public perception. When widely celebrated pop icons cancel gigs and appearances in Israel, it sends a very powerful message to their followers: I cannot in good conscience play/appear/visit here.

The trickle down effect of such stances is astounding. Folks who have never been invested in the struggle for justice in and for Palestine, find themselves placed in a position where they have no choice but to learn more about Palestine in order to rationalize and understand the decisions of their idols. These campaigns can and have turned indifferent bystanders into effective and strategic allies.

In the United States, the BDS movement has stirred tremendous controversy. There has not been a single action of BDS that has not been labeled as anti-Semitic by Zionist organizations.

Ever since 2005, Israel has been on a mission to rebrand itself in order to appeal to younger audiences. The main strategy of Brand Israel is rooted in the oldest neoliberal trick in the book: Co-optation. Israel has managed to appropriate progressive causes in order to obfuscate its human rights violations against Palestinians.

Think about it:  Israel’s cloak of “the only democracy in the Middle East,” is far too opaque to obscure the continuing spread of illegal settlements, a separation barrier four times as long and twice as high as the Berlin Wall, and an open-air prison, otherwise known as Gaza.

For that reason, Israel needed accessories to serve its progressive look, so it picked up the rainbow flag and branded itself as a queer haven, a tactic commonly referred to as pinkwashing.

Not only that, but they also launched vegan birthright to accommodate Jewish foreigners under the age of 35 who are anti animal-cruelty but desire to visit Israel. On top of that, Israeli branding has shamelessly engaged in colonial plunder antics in which traditional Palestinian customs are looted and presented as authentic Israeli culture, such as traditional foods (hummus, falafel, knafa) and traditional crafts (embroidery).

All of this is to say that Israel cares deeply about the way it is perceived, especially among Americans.

One explanation could be the billion of dollars of U.S. tax payer’s money received annually by Israel. The last thing Israel wants is informed Americans writing letters to their representatives inquiring about their spending bills dealing with economic and military aid to Israel. The BDS movement triggers and activates that response in Americans through its awareness raising campaigns that are usually embedded in and follow its calls for action.

According to the Pew Research Center “Millennials are less likely than older Americans to sympathize more with Israel, and more likely to sympathize more with the Palestinians.”  Two things are evident from that statistic: First, Brand Israel is failing to accomplish its goal of attracting younger audiences. Second, BDS works, and it works well.

In times like these, in particular with everything that’s happening in Gaza, we often find ourselves feeling helpless, and truthfully, a bit dubious of the efficacy of another signature on another petition, or another letter to another representative. And while these BDS wins are small when compared to the countless lives lost to this injustice, in more ways than one they are mighty and they count.

These wins are changing the way Palestinians are viewed in the media, these wins humanize us, they turn us into people that matter as opposed to casualties and collateral damage. If anything, these victories should inspire allies to follow suit and launch their own campaigns addressing their favorite artists urging them to speak up for Palestinians who have been silenced for decades.