Madonna hopes to end ‘thousands of years’ of conflict by visit to Israel
Alexander Billet, The Electronic Intifada
Madonna kicked off her “MDNA” tour on 1 June with all the spectacle one has come to expect from her. First-rate choreography, costume changes galore and, of course, all the hits trotted out for a crowd of 30,000 at Ramat Gan Stadium on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. There was even a little controversy mixed in to remind us of the days when the “Queen of Pop” used to be truly shocking.
Now, the hired pens are frothing over her depiction of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen with a swastika on her forehead. Predictably, the responses range from the obtuse (“how can she show the swastika in the land of the Jews?”) to the supportive (“she was right to bring attention to the rise of the right in Europe”) to outrage from Le Pen herself (who is threatening to sue “if she tries that in France”).
All of this commentary misses that which is both most obvious and most hidden: that in order to play in Israel in the first place, Madonna had to cross what must be world’s largest picket line.
“I chose to start my world tour in Israel for a very specific and important reason,” said Madonna from the stage of the stadium. “As you know, the Middle East and all the conflicts that occur here and that have been occurring for thousands of years, they have to stop. You can’t be a fan of mine and not want peace in the world.”
That same day, two Palestinian brothers, both in possession of tickets to Madonna’s “peace” concert, filmed their attempt to get to the show.
That attempt was thwarted by Israel’s wall in the West Bank. Madonna said nothing about them or the other innumerable Palestinians who were similarly unable to attend. For all her rhetoric about world peace, she said nothing of the very segregated crowd for whom she was performing.
Silent on Palestinian suffering
She said nothing of the Palestinian political prisoners on continued hunger strike. Nor did she say anything about the members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, calling for African refugees to be summarily deported. In fact, her “thousands of years” line, parroted from the same old Orientalist schlock fed to the West every day, reveals that Madonna knows absolutely nothing about the daily conditions of Palestinians.
Even the debate over the image of Marine Le Pen ignores a massive part of the issue — specifically that even while the fascist menace seems to be gaining traction in European elections, the far-right is on the rise in Israel too. Ultra-orthodox gangs are allowed to beat up Arabs on Israel’s streets with impunity. Cities like Haifa are warning businesses that they’ll lose their licenses to operate if they hire African refugees. Avigdor Lieberman, the same foreign minister who routinely promises “transfer” of Palestinians, has enthusiastically met with Geert Wilders, the hard right, anti-immigrant leader of the Dutch Freedom Party.
One simple, shocking image of Marine Le Pen won’t even scratch the surface of this, and as you may have guessed, Madonna didn’t mention any of Israel’s home-grown proto-fascists. As for the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, the Queen of Pop wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.
This, in essence, is where the victory lay for Israel’s occupation of Palestine: the brutal reality of a colonial settler state relying on a policy of racism and apartheid, repainted as a clash between a peace-loving bastion of culture and a civilization bent on war.
It’s no wonder, then, that such fanfare has surrounded Madonna’s Israel tour-launch. Ever since she announced it at this year’s Superbowl, the concert has been touted loud and clear — perhaps by nobody more than Israel’s politicians and officials. In the days leading up to the concert, the Israeli embassy in London took time to smear the BDS campaign as “an anti-Israeli movement.” The Board of Deputies of British Jews called comparisons to apartheid South Africa “a specious and desperate effort by a failing boycott campaign” (“Israel is new South Africa as boycott calls increase,” The Independent, 3 June 2012)[posted here]
But if the push for cultural boycott is failing, then why go out of the way to denounce it so vociferously? Why is the Knesset passing laws that allow for boycott advocates to be sued in court? Why is the Israeli government discussing stepping in to insure promoters against the financial effects of “politically motivated cancellations”?
So scared of BDS are some in the music industry that last year saw a consortium of American and Israeli entertainment executives to set up the “Creative Community for Peace,” whose expressed intention is to counter the movement for a cultural boycott of Israel.
Truthfully, the Israeli government and concert industry have plenty of reason to be nervous. Though the launch of the “MDNA” tour did indeed take place in Israel, the BDS campaign surrounding it was one of the most high-profile in some time. It was so public that Madonna’s public relations team stepped in to announce that 600 tickets to her show would be given to members of left-leaning organizations (“Madonna invites Israeli, Palestinian activists to Tel Aviv concert,” Haaretz, 31 May 2012).
This too backfired. Some groups declined the invitation on the grounds that those living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza wouldn’t be able to attend. And given the amount of publicity surrounding the controversy, they were afforded a larger platform to make the case for BDS.
Among these were Anarchists Against the Wall and the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, the latter of whom released a statement making clear that: “Madonna has never criticized the Israeli occupation, its separation policies, or its regime of privileges. Therefore, we believe that the reason she sought the presence of Israeli peace activists was to further a public image of an artist who promotes peace in the Middle East. We refuse to be a public relations gimmick for Madonna at the expense of the Palestinians. This is not our way” (“Madonna invites leftist groups to concert, anarchists refuse,” +972 Magazine, 31 May 2012).
The inequities of Israeli society have even been inadvertently illustrated from within Madonna’s own camp. Headlines were made when Ali Ramadani, one of Madonna’s backup dancers of Palestinian heritage, tweeted from al-Aqsa mosque while visiting. “At the amazing al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem,” wrote Ramadani. “I don’t want to say it’s in Israel, but Palestine, strength and honor.” Israeli newspapers called his tweet a controversy (“Keeping up with Kabbalah’s Queen of Pop,” Times of Israel, 29 May 2012).
It seems, then, that even as the Israeli concert industry has stepped up its game, so has the BDS movement. The campaign surrounding Madonna’s mega-show has arguably been the most high-profile since 2010, when the Gaza Freedom Flotilla massacre provoked several well-known acts to cancel performances in protest.
Since then, there have been several other cancellations of Israeli concerts (Tuba Skinny,Natacha Atlas and Cat Power) after consistent campaigning from BDS. Still others (The Yardbirds, Zdob si Zdub), while not officially joining the BDS campaign, have quietly canceled their gigs in Israel without rescheduling. Far from failing, the cultural boycott movement is doing exactly what it’s meant to do: shine a light on the fierce injustice of Israeli apartheid and shame those who cross the picket line.
If the stakes have indeed been raised on both ends, then the need for sharp critique and hard arguments can’t be understated. Madonna’s endless prattle about world peace may have been hollow, but it’s also effective in the hands of colonizers. Just as in South Africa, Israeli officials have long sought to paint the Arab-Israeli conflict as “equal-sided.” Famous images of young Palestinians slinging rocks at massive tanks provided to Israel by the world’s biggest military superpower have gone a long way toward poking holes in this myth over the past twenty years.
Obscuring a double standard
Nonetheless, Israel’s political class — from its far-right to its dwindling liberal camp — continue to demand that Palestinians put down their arms, even as Israeli settlers and the Israeli military barrel through towns in the West Bank, and Gaza is locked from the rest of the world. The double standard is palpable, but the role of culture — at least in the hands of the occupiers’ government — has been to obscure it.
Speaking of those activists that did attend the concert, Madonna told the crowd, “There are several very brave and important NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that are representing both Palestine and Israel together.” Again, note the wording. And note the implication: that it’s two equal sides at war here.
Never mind the Nakba (the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948), never mind the decades of displacement, the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees scattered by Israeli land grabs or the thousands locked up in its prisons. Never mind that Israel is armed to the teeth by the west and is one of the world’s top military spenders as a proportion of national income. With that simple turn of phrase, all of this history and reality is swept aside for words that let the colonizers off the hook and place at least some of the blame on the colonized who dare to resist.
There is another crime, more esoteric in nature, at play here. Whether Madonna is aware of it or not (and there’s a good chance she is), her music and art are willfully being lent to the cause of crude state propaganda. This is no conspiracy theory. Israeli politicians are frequently over the moon to have high-profile artists play in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu himself was so publicly chuffed to have Justin Bieber perform in Tel Aviv that he attempted to force a meeting with the teen pop star (“Justin Bieber’s meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu ‘cancelled’,” The Daily Telegraph, 13 April 2011).
When fake punkers Simple Plan announced their own show in Israel earlier in the spring, it made it onto the State of Israel’s Twitter account. Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, former deputy director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, has said publicly, “We are seeing culture as a hasbara [propaganda] tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture” (“About face,” Haaretz, 20 September 2005).
This, of course, flies in the face of everything that those who are against BDS tell us: that art is somehow “above” politics, and has no role to play other than “bringing people together.” No matter how many times it’s debunked, this old chestnut persists. It ignores that art, for all its high falutin’ pretensions, is a form of labor. And, as any union member will tell you, when labor is withheld it can throw one hell of monkey wrench into the gears of the machine.
This is, ironically, even more true for mega-stars like Madonna. Though she may not have to put the same amount of sweat and sacrifice into her music that she had to 25 years ago, her shows require countless stagehands, sound techs and security staff to pull them off.
And so, once more, it really can’t be denied that the launch of the “MDNA” tour in Israel was a victory for the apartheid state. What also can’t be denied is the growth of the movement for BDS. Every effort was taken to put the heat on Madonna’s camp, resulting in some surprising chances to speak truth to power. Case in point: the ongoing campaign to get theRed Hot Chili Peppers to cancel a forthcoming Tel Aviv show has gained a welcome shot in the arm.
There’s no substitute for that experience. The opportunity to shine a light on Israel’s crimes is arguably bigger than it’s ever been. Madonna’s glitzy, glaring flash might blind and confuse for a little while, but in the end, it’s really no match for the collective effort of all those pushing that light in the right direction.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and solidarity activist living in Chicago, and runs the website Rebel Frequencies (www.rebelfrequencies.net). His first book, Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance, will be available in the fall.