Music moguls to artists: Don’t boycott Israel
On a recent Tuesday, a group of 30 leading music executives, talent agents and entertainment lawyers gathered for lunch in the downstairs conference room at the law offices of Ziffren Brittenham in Century City. Together, the group represents the likes of Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Aerosmith, Jennifer Lopez and Justin Timberlake — to name a few.
Organized by the nascent group Creative Community for Peace (CCFP), a nonprofit seeking to counter artist boycotts of Israel, the meeting would include an educational PowerPoint presentation and an informal discussion with Los Angeles’ Consul General of Israel, David Siegel.
Cueing up the first slide, adorned with photos of famous musicians — Carlos Santana, Roger Waters, Elvis Costello and the alternative rock band The Pixies — David Renzer, the former Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group, asked, “What do these artists have in common?”
The room remained quiet. Renzer clicked to the next slide, displaying photos of jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, alt rocker Cat Power and UK-based electronic artist Joker.
Then, in his most equanimous voice, Renzer offered the big reveal: “They’ve all boycotted Israel,” he said. He repeated, for added effect: “They’ve all canceled their tours to Israel.”
The music industry executives, producers, lawyers and agents included Jody Gerson, co-president of Sony/ATV Music Publishing; Ron Fair, former chair of Geffen Records; and Rob Prinz, head of music at United Talent Agency. But few of them were aware that Israel faced an international campaign to create a cultural boycott of the country.
Renzer described the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS), a loose collection of self-described “pro-Palestinian” activists who use every means — from sophisticated Web sites to tables on college quads — to spread a pro-boycott message.
“This is a very well-organized, very well-funded movement,” Renzer told the group.
“It doesn’t have clear leadership or a major hierarchy,” Siegel added. “But the goals are very, very clear: Boycott, delegitimize, dehumanize. They’re not about peace, and it’s not about debating Israel’s policies. It’s really about undermining our right to be a state for Jews.”
The next slide showed images encouraging the boycott of Israel: a Coca-Cola can inscribed with the words “Killer Cola,” an Israeli flag overlaid with a no-smoking symbol and the words “Boycott Apartheid Israel,” and another food label that reads “baby blood fresh Gaza.”
“I just want to point out,” interjected David Lonner, a former William Morris agent and founder of the Oasis Media Group. “That ‘baby blood fresh Gaza’ thing? That’s not anti-Israel. That’s plainly anti-Semitic. That’s as vile as anything you’d see in Nazi Germany.”
Next, Renzer showed videos of BDS in action: a divestment debate on a college campus; a street boycott of London’s Ahava retail store, a distributor of skin-care products from Israel’s Dead Sea; and a video of the BBC cutting off its live broadcast of the Israel Philharmonic’s performance at Royal Albert Hall last fall, after pro-boycott demonstrators disrupted the concert.
“This is an example of the stuff that gets put in front of artists,” Renzer said, adding that just this month, Oscar winner Emma Thompson joined three dozen other actors, directors and writers in protesting the inclusion of Tel Aviv theater troupe Habima in a Shakespeare festival at London’s Globe Theatre. Not only musicians are targeted, Renzer said, “This is about culture.”
“Well, where’s our music video? Where’s the counter publicity?” griped an angry Gary Stiffelman, a partner at Ziffren Brittenham, who has represented Eminem, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson. “Don’t the Jews still control the media?”
“It just shocks me that this ragtag group is doing a better job at the PR battle than Israel,” Stiffelman said. “There should be a global campaign! I don’t see it. I don’t see counter-PR happening on YouTube.”
Siegel chimed in: “It takes a network to fight a network. You don’t see Abbas making these videos; you see Westerners doing it. It’s much better to do this at the local level,” he said, prodding his audience with eye contact. “You don’t want government bureaucrats doing this; believe me, I’ve seen those videos.”
Siegel went on to list some of Israel’s accomplishments in science, technology and the arts. Most people don’t know of them, he said, because the BDS movement wants to “pull an Iron Curtain over Israel.”
“Israel can’t be like Vegas,” Siegel said. “What happens in Israel can’t stay in Israel.”
Talk turned to producing a pro-Israel promotional video, then, inevitably, questions followed about who might pay for it. “Couldn’t Israel underwrite a campaign managed by laymen to create these videos?” Stiffelman asked. Siegel’s answer: “Right now there are three anti-missile batteries protecting Israel’s south. In order to defend the entire country, Israel needs 15. So there are very immediate demands on Israel’s resources.”
“What people respond to is pop culture,” said Hanna Rochelle Schmieder, president of Lyric Culture, a company that licenses rights to famous music lyrics and prints them on everyday apparel. “They like Lady Gaga, they like Justin Bieber. Music brings people together.”
“It’s all a question of image,” Siegel agreed. For many in the younger generation, being associated with the anti-Israel cause can be “way more cool.”
“We need to make Israel cool,” Atar Dekel, cultural attache for the Israeli Consulate, concluded.
CCFP is the first group led by industry insiders to try to counter negative messaging about Israel targeted toward the artistic community. Although the music community has been the biggest target to date, with musicians routinely getting bombarded with anti-Israel agitprop, the BDS movement has also arisen in the film and theater worlds, most visibly during the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, when a group of artists tried to stop the festival’s spotlight on films from Tel Aviv.
Israel is no stranger to challenges, both at home and abroad. But at a time when its image as a vibrant, democratic society is constantly threatened, the presence of world-class entertainers, many of whom have large, impressionable audiences, can help make life there seem, and feel, more normal. These days, however, luring mostly liberal-minded artists to a country whose reputation is often defined by its detractors can be a challenge. As Esther Renzer, co-founder of the pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, put it, “This is a battle for hearts and minds.”
CCFP was created to demonstrate to artists that Israel is a decent place. And that whatever their opinion of Israeli national policy, the boycott and divestment efforts unfairly punish the Israeli public. Shuki Weiss, one of Israel’s leading music promoters, told The New York Times in 2010 that the boycott was akin to “cultural terrorism.”
But while some high-profile musicians have succumbed to pressure to cancel their Israel tours, many prominent artists are still performing there — Lady Gaga, Elton John, Rihanna, Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen are just a few who have taken the stage there in recent years. This summer, 46 musical acts are scheduled, including Madonna, who will debut her World Tour in Tel Aviv, as well as Rufus Wainwright, Herbie Hancock and Lenny Kravitz. For the classical palate, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will perform; for spectacle, Cirque du Soleil.
But elsewhere, there may be trouble ahead. CCFP is already monitoring a situation arising with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, scheduled to perform in Israel in September, who have become the subject of an intense Internet campaign to cancel. If you Google “Red Hot Chili Peppers Israel” the third hit from the top is a Facebook page demanding the Peppers “Defy Injustice, Cancel Israel.” At press time, it had 700 “likes.”
“Maybe this [boycott activity] is an aberration,” record producer Fair said. “Maybe it’s a small thing, and it won’t spiral out of control. But it’s another thing to watch. It’s another swastika painted on the front door of a Jewish institution. That’s how I look at it. I think it’s straight-up anti-Semitism with a new twist.”
CCFP first germinated in the summer of 2010 on a Master Class trip to Israel organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. It was around this time — just weeks after the Gaza flotilla raid prompted an international uproar — that musicians like Elvis Costello and The Pixies began to cancel. David Renzer and his friend Steve Schnur, worldwide head of music for Electronic Arts (EA) video games, got to talking about what they could do.
Schnur had just come from an Elton John concert at Tel Aviv’s Ramat Gan stadium.
“Elton walked on stage and said, ‘They’re not gonna stop me from coming here, baby,’ ” Schnur recalled. “I was on the verge of tears, because someone was speaking up when all others were protesting. And the press was turning [the flotilla incident] into a forum for significant misinformation, and people have a tendency to believe what they read.”
Renzer and Schnur held an informal meeting, which also included Ran Geffen-Lifshitz, CEO of Media Men Group, a music publishing company based in Tel Aviv, and Doug Frank, former president of music operations for Warner Bros. Pictures. They decided they could use their connections to reach out to artists who were planning to perform in Israel.
“The initial mission was: Make sure no one else cancels,” Renzer said during an interview with CCFP co-founder Schnur last fall.
“We were in a position that we could contribute,” Schnur added. “And it’s easy to write a check, but it was time to get my hands dirty.”
They also felt the need for urgency. “We saw the boycott movement was getting some wins,” Renzer said, referring to the initial spate of cancellations, which also included spoken word artist and poet Gil Scott-Heron. After pro-boycott activists disrupted Scott-Heron’s concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall, he announced his tour would “end in Athens, not Tel Aviv,” according to The New York Times.
Costello, the most prominent artist to cancel, publicly vacillated before his final reversal. He initially told The Jerusalem Post that abandoning plans to play in Israel to protest the government was misguided. “It’s like never appearing in the U.S. because you didn’t like Bush’s policies or boycotting England because of Margaret Thatcher.”
But as pressure mounted, Costello changed his mind.
According to a post on his blog, Costello’s decision had nothing to do with being anti-Israel and everything to do with not wanting to get caught in a political tug-of-war.
The Creative Community for Peace was designed to preempt those battles before they start.
“It was frankly a bit of a race at first,” Schnur said about how CCFP got its start. Before officially launching in late 2011, they teamed with Geffen-Lifshitz, who began providing a monthly list of artists scheduled to perform in Israel. From that, they wrote a letter, and sometimes made a phone call, to thank each artist for planning to go to Israel. They also received material support from the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs (whose co-founder Esther Renzer is David Renzer’s wife) and a $50,000 start-up grant from The Jewish Federation.
“Our job was to get ahead of [the boycott] and make sure they didn’t cancel,” Schnur said. “What we felt was that we were going to have to take this on musician by musician, artist by artist.”
Their efficacy was quickly tested when singer Macy Gray was subjected to online intimidation so intense that it escalated into death threats. In fall 2010, just after she announced her Israel tour dates, a group of supposedly pro-Palestinian activists began posting on her Facebook page, accusing Israel of apartheid and other human rights abuses. Genuinely perplexed, Gray asked her online audience to weigh in. She received more than 10,000 responses.
“The dialogue that she created became very intense, and also became quite sinister and threatening,” her manager, Merck Mercuriadis, said during a phone interview.
As an African-American, Gray was particularly sensitive to accusations of apartheid, Mercuriadis said. Gray finally decided to go, but it took a village. And it was only after a protracted and agonizing period, during which Gray consulted with members of the Jewish community — including the Renzers, Schnur, then-Consul General of Israel Jacob Dayan and media entrepreneur Dan Adler — as well as individuals from the Palestinian community. Mercuriadis said it was Adler “who became a real confidante to Macy,” and who put Gray in touch with Palestinians so that she could hear from both sides, which ultimately convinced her that performing in Israel was good for both communities. While in Israel, she visited the Palestinian territories, and with additional financial support from the Renzers, Schnur and Adler, donated a ambucycle to United Hatzalah, an organization of medical volunteers serving both Israel and the territories.
Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s 30-year-old manager, was also menaced online when Bieber announced his Israel shows.
“There were threats on my life,” Braun said. Threats that said, “If Justin Bieber comes to Israel, we’re gonna kill the Jew manager.”
But the tough-talking Braun, whose sister is in medical school in Tel Aviv, said he was indifferent to the threats. “I reacted like, ‘I knew this was coming; let’s go to Israel,’ ” he said. “You can’t go through life afraid. It’s not a good way to live.”
The death threats turned out to be the least of Braun’s troubles with Israel, since Bieber’s one-week visit included a public kerfuffle with the Prime Minister’s Office and enough paparazzi haggling that Bieber took to Twitter to complain about it. Of the botched meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Braun said that Israel can be a little too eager (and perhaps sometimes a little too crafty) in using Hollywood celebrity for an image boost. Besides, he said, “The statement [of support for Israel] was made when my guitarist walked on stage at the beginning of the show and played ‘Hatikvah’ to 40,000 people in the style of Jimi Hendrix,” he said.
Not to mention that Bieber, a religious Christian, had Yeshua — the Hebrew name for Jesus — tattooed on his body.
Considering the many colorful experiences artists have in Israel, CCFP’s raison d’etre may come off as a little sensational, or sound like fear-mongering.
But as Geffen-Lifshitz pointed out, “If you boycott Israel in art, the next thing is boycotting Israeli manufactured goods, then a boycott of Israel as a tourist destination. Then a boycott of anything that has anything to do with Israel. We have to nip this in the bud.”
Still, he admitted that American Jews sometimes get more excited by the perils facing Israel than do Israelis. Overwrought worry may be one of the psychological costs of living in the Diaspora, a sense that Israel is perennially in peril and needs saving.
“We want to present a balanced point of view,” David Renzer said, defending the group’s integrity. “We don’t want to be right wing or left wing. But we do start with an initial premise, which is, Israel is not apartheid. It’s an easy sound bite to make that accusation — it’s a little more complicated to give the reasons why it’s not.”
But the point, really, is that music goes beyond politics. It is personal, emotional and can cut across language barriers, boundaries and borders, and spread messages of openness and peace. As Braun simply put it, “Music is the most influential thing in the world.”
“People who live in Israel are music fans and have a right to hear the music they love,” Schnur said.
“Musicians that play there don’t have to agree with the current or previous policies of the Israeli government — but they can go there and speak toward it or against it. Where else in the Middle East can an artist do that?”