Open Letter to Joanna Newsom

Sep. 18, 2010

Dear Joanna Newsom,

We are members of Boycott! – a group of Israeli citizens, Jews and Palestinians, who support the Palestinian call to boycott Israel as means of bringing to an end the murderous, systematic oppression of an entire population, which occurs daily in our name.

The news of your scheduled performance in Israel was a bitter-sweet one: the prospect of being an audience in your performance was exhilarating, but this excitement was intertwined with the knowledge that on the 30th of September, the day of your show in Tel-Aviv, our good friends from the village of Bil'in – only half an hour away from Tel-Aviv – will not be able to come see your show with us. They will not be able to come because Israeli martial-law, which they have been under since 1967, does not allow them to, and a separation wall and road blockades are physically blocking their way.

When you come to perform in Israel, the message you bring with you is a message of “business as usual”, of normalizing a situation in which a group of people, based on their ethnicity, is physically prevented from a chance to work, study, or, indeed, come to your show, because armed soldiers surround their towns and villages. We urge you to reconsider your scheduled performance in Tel-Aviv, which will cross the picket lines of our struggle to bring an end to this.

Four million Palestinians live under brutal Israeli oppression, which renders legal any demolition of a Palestinian house, any imprisonment or abuse of a Palestinian man, woman, or child, any land expropriation, for any period of time, anywhere. Performing in Israel fosters an environment in which all this is normal – it is normal that a few miles east of Tel-Aviv people's houses are raided at night, tear gas canisters and sound grenades are randomly thrown into family houses, and peaceful demonstrators are shot in the stomach whilst their hands are in the air and they scream “don't shoot”.

In order to shake off this facade of normalcy, as part of their struggle to bring an end to their decades-long abuse, the Palestinian people, including more than 170 civil society organizations of Diaspora refugees, citizens of Israel and Palestinians under occupation and siege, placed a call for an international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel. Your performance will not only provide a “business as usual” mask to atrocities but also cross a picket line in the struggle to bring human rights abuses and the occupation to an end.

The “business as usual” facade has always been most crucial in sustaining Israeli policy of Palestinian oppression. In the past few months, artists such as the Pixies, Gorillaz, Claxons, Elvis Costello, and Gil-Scott Heron, who were scheduled to perform in Israel, cancelled their shows as they became aware that an international performance in Tel-Aviv, at this time, is inherently incorporated into sustaining the Israeli systematic and ruthless oppression of the Palestinian people by providing it with the facade of normalcy on which it thrives. Devendra Banhart was also amongst those scheduled to perform in Israel this past summer, and he too cancelled his performance – only 24 hours before he was supposed to go on stage – when he learnt that his name is being used in Israeli political sphere to promote an agenda he did not support (specifically, numerous national news-papers announced that his decision to perform in Israel shows that Israeli policy and actions enjoy his support and hence the support of world public opinion).

In the current social reality in Israel your performance will be inevitably embedded into this discourse: where canceling your performance will strike a grave blow to the wall of silence surrounding Israel's policy and actions, performing in Israel will actively contribute to its construction.

Artists often wish to believe that one's art, one's music, is its own context, and that the act of one playing one's music for people who enjoy it somehow transcends everything else that's happening. However, regardless of how humanistic your personal views are, regardless of how well informed you are, and regardless of how well you will articulate yourself if you choose to bring a verbal message of an end to the occupation and oppression, your performance in Israel will be situated within a political discourse and as such will only have one meaning: “what's happening here is okay."

One of the reasons that Israel responds to pressure of this sort, is that the facade of normalcy – which either an international film festival hosted in Jerusalem or an international performer playing a show in Tel-Aviv, inform – functions as means of obfuscating a reality of ruthless human rights abuses. In 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli leaders contemplated what to do with the newly occupied territories. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lived in the territories occupied by Israel and Israel had to decide what to do with them.

The solution fashioned by Israel was an open-air-prison of sorts in which the Palestinian inhabitants are subjects to the whims of an Israeli military regime: when Israel decides that it wants to build a new settlement in the Occupied Territories, it simply builds it on the agricultural land – the bread and butter – of the Palestinian inhabitants; when it decides that it wants to build a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, it evicts the Palestinian families to the street; when it decides that it does not want to reroute water from the centre of Israel to new Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories it takes over the Palestinian drinking-wells. For 43 years the people who Israel occupied, remained with no citizenship, no human rights, under military martial-law. Palestinians from the Occupied Territories are not only banned from traveling to Tel-Aviv, they are also restricted in traveling between their villages because some of the roads surrounding their villages are permitted for usage only by Jews.

The Israeli policy of oppression is not restricted merely to the Occupied Territories. Many of the Palestinian-Arab residents of Israel, suffer discrimination akin to that of the segregated American south. There are over 30 Israeli laws and much more governmental and budgetary policies that systematically discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel and design to exclude and dispossess them and their relative Palestinians. There's also, for instance, the organization Lehava, which purpose is to prevent intimate relationships between Jews and Arabs in Israel and now begins a campaign to boycott businesses that employ Arab workers. Last month, an entire Bedouin village – home to 30 families – was demolished by hundreds of police troops who awoke the families in the middle of the night and dragged them out of their houses. The village was destroyed, the authorities claimed, in order to plant a forest. Furthermore, with its compulsory-enrolling to the same oppressing Israeli military, the Israeli society as a whole participates in this oppression.

Not only the silence of the international community, but also its compliance with Israel's normalization efforts, have granted Israel a free hand at treating both the Palestinian-Arab residents of Israel, and those who have been living under martial-law for over four decades, as it see fits, rendering the Palestinian people nothing more than a nuisance.

Following the wave of artists' cancellations this past summer, international music shows have been discussed at length in various media outlets in Israel. When artists choose to perform in Israel their performance is unanimously interpreted by the public as picking a side and standing against the boycott campaign that Israel's policy and actions against Palestinians ought to be changed. Even if your intention is different, your show will ultimately send Israelis a message that everything is okay and nothing needs to be changed behind all the physical and conceptual walls and fences they are maintaining.

Although you might want to choose to situate yourself neither here nor there, and define a space for you music which is independent of the consensus, this space will only be apolitical for you; in its actual realization, this space, at the moment, becomes inevitably political. Many musicians want to say: "I'm just a musician. If there are people in Israel who want to hear my music, I would like to play it for them. How my fans feel about their government is their choice, and how I feel about it is a personal issue that has nothing to do with my job, which is just playing music. I just want to offer them my music and that's all." And if you're an artist or a musician, you might really believe that and feel that way, or want to make it true! But playing or not-playing is a decision you are making within a much bigger life-and-death context that will not be transcended by this.

The Israeli media – obsessively covering the topic of performance-cancellations – asserted that in terms of international relations it puts Israel in a bad light when so many artists cancel or even declare openly their support for the cultural boycott campaign, as in the recent cases of Faithless, Massive Attack, and a joint petition of 150 Irish artists. We know that this pressure works on Israel because, for instance, following the Flotilla incident, which triggered many bands' cancellations, the Israeli government eased its restrictions of the Gaza siege and allowed the delivery of sweets and spices into Gaza (tampons, for instance, are still deemed a security threat by Israel and are not allowed to be delivered into Gaza); it also announced that the ease in restriction is an attempt to diffuse international pressure – the cancellation of international music performances is an inseparable part of this process.

The BDS Call we support demands that Israel comply with International Law and universal principles of human rights. When that happens, we will be able to see your show with our friends from Bil'in. Please, do not play in Israel at this time, do not cross the picket line of this struggle.

Adi Dagan
Ayala Shani
David Nir
Deb Reich
Herzl Schubert
Itay Ryb
Jonathan Pollak
Kobi Snitz
Liad Kantorowicz
Ofer Neiman
Ohal Grietzer
Rachel Giora
Shir Hever
Yana Ziferblat
Iris Hefets
Dorothy Naor

On behalf of
Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from within.