Initially a Palestinian-led movement that has expanded to antisemitic groups worldwide, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is a program designed to delegitimize Israel and to ultimately destroy it.
Massive and well-financed campaigns have been launched threatening university, municipal, church, union and other investment portfolios in the United States and abroad unless they yield to BDS demands, which include boycotting Israeli products, professionals, professional associations and academic institutions. Although the terrorist-supported movement has proven largely ineffective, it has had some success in convincing performing artists not to perform in Israel.
Performers who have cancelled concerts in Israel or refused to perform there include Santana, Sting, Lorde, Lana Del-Rey, Shakira, Elvis Costello, Lauryn Hill, Pharrell Williams, Snoop Dogg, Coldplay, Lenny Kravitz, Cassandra Wilson, Cat Power, and (the aptly-named) Faithless. But the worst of them may be Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, perhaps the leading supporter of the worldwide cultural BDS movement, who has compared performing in Israel to appearing in Nazi Germany, and, to drive the point home, often flies a large pink pig balloon emblazoned with a Magen David at his concerts.
Other performers have resisted enormous pressure from BDS and its supporters, and this is the story of three of them.
The chronicle of the Beatles in Israel is intriguing. In 1965, the band’s plan to play in Israel fell through when they refused payment in Israeli lira and foreign currency sufficient to pay them could not be raised. (Others argue, incorrectly, that the Israeli government barred them from performing in Israel because they were “undesirables” who would have a deleterious effect on Israeli youth.)
In 1979 Paul McCartney’s band, Wings, had accepted an invitation to perform, and dates were secured in Tel Aviv for July or August. However, a strong disagreement between Harvey Goldsmith, Wings’ promoter, and the management of what was then the only hall in Tel Aviv that could host such rock concerts, forced cancellation of the proposed performances.
When McCartney initially announced plans for his 2008 concert in Israel, he received numerous death threats from Islamic and Palestinian leaders, and they threw even greater terrorist tantrums when he dared to visit the Western Wall. For example, terrorist spokesman Omar Bakri Mohammed publicly proclaimed:
Paul McCartney is the enemy of every Muslim . . . If he values his life, Mr. McCartney must not come to Israel. He will not be safe there. The sacrificial operatives will be waiting for him.
Israel, taking the threats very seriously, reportedly assigned a security detail team of some 5,000 officers and guards, including 20 elite Mossad agents, to protect him. But McCartney would not be intimidated; he publicly acknowledged the threats but, as he told the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: “I got death threats, but I have no intention of surrendering and I’m coming anyway.” He told the media “I’ve heard so many great things about Tel Aviv and Israel, but hearing is one thing and experiencing it yourself is another.”
And he did: in the face of continuing death threats from Islamic and Palestinian leaders, McCartney became the first Beatle to play Israel, as he played before some 40,000 fans in Ganei Yehoshua Park in Tel Aviv. He began with Hello, Goodbye and went on to perform beloved songs from the Beatles catalogue, including Let It Be, Give Peace a Chance, Get Back, I’ll Follow the Sun, and Something – which he played on a ukulele. He introduced Hey Jude by calling it “Ahalan Jude,” delighting the audience. (“Ahalan” is a common Hebrew slang word of greeting indicating an enthusiastic “Hey, there”).
He sprinkled his performance with various Hebrew phrases, including wishing the crowd a “Shana Tova” (Rosh Hashanah was five days later), adding “ze mi’pa’am” (this one is from a long time ago), and quipping “I will also speak some English tonight.”
Before playing My Love, he declared “ze l’zecher Linda” (“this is in memory of Linda), dedicating the song to his late wife, Linda Eastman. (Many people do not know that Linda was Jewish which means, of course, that all of McCartney’s children through her are Jewish.)
Though he carefully avoided political statements during the performance, McCartney met before the concert with Israelis from the One Voice Movement, whose mission is to empower Jews and Palestinians to push for peace and a two-state solution. He had also been scheduled to visit Ramallah, but Palestinians began a mass protest and the visit had to be cancelled for security reasons.
Instead, Sir Paul visited Bethlehem, where he stopped at a school for Palestinian children learning music. The music legend sat with a group of 5- to 12-year-old students and joyfully joined in their singing of “do, re, me.” He entered a room where, seeing a young girl practicing violin obviously nervous and near tears, he took the instrument from her, played a few screeching notes, and said “See, I’m much worse than you.” He jammed with students, including playing a song for them on harmonica, and told the teachers that it was important to remember to use music, a universal language, as an opportunity for tolerance.
Exhibited below is a ticket from Elton John’s June 17, 2010, concert at Ramat Gan Stadium. In the midst of anti-Israel political rallies and show cancellations by other artists, John held a wildly successful one-night concert at Ganei Yehoshua near Tel Aviv, telling the audience that, notwithstanding cancellations by other artists, “ain’t nothing gonna stop me from coming here, baby.” He added that there could not be a nicer place than Israel for him to open his eight-week European tour.
Pounding his piano in blue-tinted sunglasses before nearly 50,000 screaming fans, Sir Elton took center stage in a battle over Israel’s image, performing a broad range of his best-loved songs from Crocodile Rock to Your Song. To quote Israel’s local station, Channel One, John was the “single righteous artist in a sea of boycotters.”
John’s appearance in Israel (he had last performed there in 1979 and 1993) came on the heels of cancellations by well-known artists such as British rocker Elvis Costello and Carlos Santana, who yielded to pressure from pro-Palestinian groups. Following the May 31, 2010, interception by Israel of a Gaza-bound flotilla that left nine passengers dead, many other artists cancelled, including The Pixies, Klaxons, Gorillaz, and Devendra Banhart. Many of the cancelling acts admitted that they had been targeted by pro-Palestinian groups.
The British music star greeted the enthusiastic crowd of some 50,000 by saying “Shalom.” After singing Your Song, one of his most popular early hits, he turned to the audience and enthusiastically announced “that’s your song, Israel.”
After his second number, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, he attacked other artists who skipped their Israel dates; pumping his fist, he said, “We are so happy to be back here! . . . Musicians spread love and peace and bring people together. That’s what we do. We don’t cherry-pick our conscience.” Later, he took an additional swipe at Israel boycotters on his website and defended his decision to appear in Israel:
I have always believed that music inhabits a world set apart from politics, religious differences or prejudice of any kind . . . Throughout my career I have made a point of playing concerts in challenging places, such as the USSR and Northern Ireland in the 1970s, Israel in the 1990s and very recently Morocco . . . Music is, and always will be, a universal language, free from boundaries. It can and does inspire unity and builds bridges between people, and I will continue to play concerts anywhere in the world where I can encourage that unity.
Sir Elton took heat from the moment he booked the concert, months before the June date and long before Israel’s flotilla raid gave international haters their latest pretext for seeking to boycott Israel. For example, the British Committee for Universities of Palestine wrote in an open letter to John urging him to boycott Israel:
When you stand up on that stage in Tel Aviv, you line yourself up with a racist state . . . Do you want to give them the satisfaction? . . . You may say you’re not a political person, but does an army dropping white phosphorus on a school building full of children demand a political response? Does walling a million and a half people up in a ghetto and then pounding that ghetto to rubble require a political response from us, or a human one?
Moreover, Facebook groups were established to apply pressure on John. It would have been easy for him to use the flotilla as an excuse to pull out, especially since his last appearance in Israel back in 1993 was somewhat problematic (he was mobbed by the paparazzi), but he was determined to play in Israel and very much enjoyed his time there.
There are many Jewish connections in the history of the Rolling Stones. Andrew Loog Oldham, who managed the Stones and is credited with shaping their “bad boy” image; photographer Gered Mankowitz, who shot the group’s early album covers and contributed to their “rebellious and dangerous” reputation; and Allen Klein, who managed the band and negotiated a tremendous record deal for them, were all Jewish.
The Stones’ first Top 10 hit in America, Time Is On My Side (1964), was written by Jerry Ragovoy, a Jewish rhythm and blues songwriter. In Shattered (1978), Jagger’s lyric includes what may be the only use of Yiddish in a rock and roll song to hit the charts: “Shmatta shmatta shmatta, I can’t give it away on Seventh Avenue.”
Many musicologists maintain that Paint It Black (1966) drew on klezmer music; in fact, Keith Richards himself famously acknowledged the Jewish quality of the song, advising Rolling Stone magazine, “It was a different style to everything I’d done before . . . Maybe it was the Jew in me. It’s more to me like Hava Nagilla or some Gypsy lick.” There are many other Jewish references in the band’s songs and albums, too numerous to discuss here.
According to guitarist Ronnie Wood, the inspiration for the Stones to perform in Israel was Bob Dylan who, after a concert, told Wood with great delight and sporting an ear-to-ear grin – Dylan was not known for such exuberant expressions, to say the least – “Next is Israel – we’re going to Tel Aviv!”
The appearance of a world-class group of this magnitude in Israel represented an important victory against BDS in general and Waters in particular. In deciding to play Israel, the Rolling Stones resisted incredible pressure from Pink Floyd and others not to play there, including open letters to the public castigating the band for supporting “an apartheid state.”
Moreover, Jagger and the Stones showed remarkable sensitivity to the religious needs of Israelis by delaying the start time of the concert to allow Orthodox Jews time to get to the show after Shavuot and obtaining permission from the Tel Aviv municipal government to extend the 11:00 p.m. curfew for public performances. Many observant Jews had rented apartments in Tel Aviv for Shavuot so that they could get to the concert after Yom Tov.
Mick Jagger began the concert in Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv by wishing everyone a “Shavuot Sameach, Israel,” and he peppered the audience with occasional attempts at Hebrew phrases, which elicited cheers from the crowd, including referring to the band as “Avanim Mitgalgalot” (Hebrew for “Rolling Stones”). He told the crowd appreciatively that “atem kahal meturaf! (“you are an insane audience”) after the audience sang a heartfelt “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew to Charlie Watts, and he closed the show with “shalom Tel Aviv” and “layla tov.”
On the day before the concert, lead singer Mick Jagger, guitarist Ronnie Wood, drummer Charlie Watts and keyboardist Chuck Leavell traveled to Jerusalem to visit the Old City, where they also visited the Western Wall. Jagger posted a photo of himself with his palms against the Kotel with the caption “The Holy Land . . . what an experience. I will never forget this day,” which sent the BDS supporters and Israel haters into a frothing frenzy. Jagger also visited Caesarea, and he and other members of the band were seen in a Tel Aviv café near their hotel having a grand old time in Israel.
The Stones were reportedly paid $6.7 million for the one-night performance, which was arguably the most technologically sophisticated show in Israeli history, including LED panels and a 111-foot catwalk extended from the stage.
Other performers who should be recognized and appreciated for standing up to the BDS movement and performing in Israel include Paul Simon on July 21, 2001; Jethro Tull on September 12, 2004; and Bob Dylan on June 11, 2020. Other brave performers include Alicia Keys, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the late Leonard Cohen, Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, Cyndi Lauper, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Soundgarden, The Pixies, Neil Young, Paul Anka, Prodigy and Boy George.