Israel’s rulers use culture as a propaganda tool while waging war on the cultural life of Palestinian society. We need to challenge the normalization of Israeli apartheid on every front, including the cultural one, through boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.

A woman sits by the destruction caused by the Israeli forces’ attacks in Jenin, West Bank, on July 4, 2023.(Issam Rimawi / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Israeli ground and air forces invaded Jenin and its refugee camp in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. They killed thirteen people, including five children, and displaced thousands, giving rise to heart-wrenching images that recalled the experience of forcible displacement from decades ago.

The attack was the biggest against a Palestinian city in the West Bank for more than two decades. Israeli forces cut off electricity and water, targeted journalists, blocked ambulances, and bulldozed neighborhoods. More than a hundred Palestinians were injured in addition to those killed. In the aftermath, the Palestinian Performing Arts Network (PPAN) called for urgent international pressure to end Israel’s killing of Palestinians and to hold it accountable.

The Freedom Theater in Jenin, a member of PPAN, was directly affected by the onslaught, with the road leading to its premises bulldozed. Capturing the Palestinian mood of defiance in the face of intensified attack, the theater’s artistic director Ahmed Tobasi said: “We will keep this theater open. There is invasion and killing here, but there is also a theater in Jenin camp.”

Cultural Warfare

This was far from the first time that Israel’s brutal violence impacted a Palestinian cultural center. In 2018, Israeli fighter jets completely destroyed the Said al Mishal cultural center in Gaza. It hosted a children’s cinema, a library, and theater companies.

Israel’s recently formed government is the most far-right, bigoted administration in its history.

Israel’s recently formed government is the most far-right, bigoted administration in its history. One senior minister proudly describes himself as a “fascist homophobe.” Mainstream outrage is growing at this apartheid regime and its escalating crimes. In the past two years, several leading human rights organizations have reported in detail on Israeli apartheid, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Israel’s largest human rights organization B’Tselem, joining the consensus among Palestinian analysts and organizations.

Against this backdrop, Israel’s rulers are desperate to whitewash their actions. By promoting Israeli appearances of international artists, including musicians, they hope to cover up its grave human rights violations and system of oppression. Like South Africa in the past, Israel is explicit about art-washing its own apartheid regime. As one foreign ministry official admitted: “We see culture as a hasbara [propaganda] tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture.”

Israeli and international media have long reported on the unusually high fees that Israeli promoters routinely offer, reflecting concerns about a “silent boycott” that stretch back years. According to the cultural correspondent of a major Israeli news outlet, international artists performing in the country “get much more money than in any other place in the world.”

David Caspi, a former communications sergeant for the Israeli military, has explained how Israeli promoters now pay “more than double the usual artist fee.” Caspi quotes a cofounder of Live Nation Israel, the country’s leading concert firm, who talks about a constant struggle to defeat the advocates of a cultural boycott: “Our war against them is daily.”

“Positive Branding”

Canadian-Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams reportedly paid Madonna a million dollars to perform in Tel Aviv to contribute to the “strengthening of Israel’s positive branding in the world.” His late father, Marcel Adams, previously helped to finance Israeli performances of several international artists including Leonard Cohen.

Like South Africa in the past, Israel is explicit about art-washing its own apartheid regime.

Israeli government ministers and diplomats stationed around the world are also directly involved in this large-scale art-washing operation. When Radiohead ignored Palestinian appeals and performed in Tel Aviv, Israel’s strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan, who was leading Israel’s anti-BDS efforts, told CNN “we salute Radiohead.”

Israeli embassies all over the world praised the performances by Radiohead and Nick Cave, crossing the Palestinian picket line, as groups like Artists for Palestine UK had predicted. An Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson declared “bravo Nick Cave.” The promoter of Radiohead’s concert secured a permit for the venue after presenting the show as a victory for Israeli propaganda efforts. The Israeli foreign ministry itself gave the OK.

Before Lana Del Rey canceled her performance at Israel’s Meteor festival in 2018, the Israeli government’s anti-BDS app was directing its supporters to comment on her social media posts. Del Rey was one of twenty international artists to withdraw from the festival.

Many other artists have canceled Israeli concerts and other appearances after moral appeals from Palestinian and international artists and human rights defenders — most recently Buddy Guy, Sam Smith, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Natalie Portman, and Big Thief. Others include Lorde, Shakira, Lauryn Hill, Elvis Costello, and many more.

Meaningful Solidarity

Thousands of artists worldwide have publicly endorsed BDS and the cultural boycott of Israel, including musicians, DJs, filmmakers and actors, visual artists, black artists, Latin American artists, and countless others across all fields and continents. This is in spite of efforts made by Israeli government-linked lobby groups like the so-called “Creative Community for Peace.” These actions of meaningful solidarity are deeply moving to Palestinians.

The Palestinian-led BDS movement aims for the end of Israel’s military occupation, to achieve full equality for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and to secure the right of return for Palestinian refugees. BDS isn’t asking international artists to come and save Palestinians. We are just asking them to, at the very least, not undermine our nonviolent movement.

Beyond this fundamental moral duty is the recognition that powerful international pressure and inspiring solidarity helped to end apartheid in South Africa. It can help to dismantle Israel’s decades-old regime of apartheid, occupation, and settler-colonialism against indigenous Palestinians too.

The theater named for freedom in Jenin camp will remain open, a symbol of Palestinian steadfastness in the face of ongoing brutalization. One day, freedom, and justice too, will be more than powerful symbols of hope for Palestinians. They will be a reality.

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