It is tricky to assess the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. On the one hand, one does not want to underestimate the damage to Israel’s reputation done by even unsuccessful campaigns. The campus boycott movement, about which I have written extensively, succeeds not only when students actually vote to divest but also when onlookers, who have no dog in the fight between pro-Israel and anti-Israel activists, come away with the impression that Zionism is, if not a dirty word, at least suspect. We have been fortunate that BDS has done so much of late to discredit itself, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the campaign’s potential.
At the same time, BDS thrives on the appearance of momentum. Even in the midst of astonishing losses, like the most unlikely one it suffered at the hands of the Modern Language Association, BDS does its best to make it appear as though it is on the right side of history and history is coming at us faster and faster. We do not want to do the work of BDS propagandists for them by making it seem as if they are gaining momentum when they are not.
With those considerations concerning campus boycotts in mind, I welcomed Lana Melman’s injunction over at Algemeiner not to underestimate the parallel cultural boycott of Israel. As Melman pointed out, that movement has its ups and downs. Sometimes a rock star like Elvis Costello decides not to play Israel. Sometimes, resisting considerable pressure, other rock stars, like the Rolling Stones and, most recently, Radiohead, perform there. Arguably, 2017 was a good year in this regard. But, as with academic BDS, the cultural boycott succeeds when artists are compelled to question whether Israel is a place they can, or even should, do business.
Still, in the spirit of not seeing momentum where it likely does not exist, I take respectful issue with Melman’s judgment that cultural boycott pressure is mounting. Consider—welcome fans!—the case of Radiohead. Melman observed that more than 50 artists called for the group to cancel its concert in Israel. But is more than 50 a lot? This is not everyone’s yardstick, but I would not consider any group that I could jam into the house for a cocktail party very large.
I would add that the number of artists who signed was only 47 and they needed to count Archbishop Desmond Tutu as an artist to get to that rather sad number. Almost every signatory—I counted at most five who did not fit into this category—was among the usual suspects of the cultural boycott. So is gathering 47 people, virtually none of whom was new to the effort, to get after Radiohead a sign that the movement is gathering steam? Or is it a sign these people need to learn how to work a Rolodex? And, as a reminder, Radiohead performed.
As Melman noted, a movement was afoot around the same time to stop Lincoln Center from putting on a play based on David Grossman’s novel, To the End of the Land, because the performance was underwritten by Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs in North America and the actors had performed in settlements. This time, the activists got over 70 signatures; I admit that this number of people would make for a suffocatingly cozy cocktail party, and a fire hazard in my house. Still, to anyone not steeped in the BDS movement, boycotting a play by David Grossman, a prominent left-wing critic of many aspects of Israeli policy, must have seemed perverse. On opening night, the police were ready for a big protest. According to Ha’aretz, not a single BDS supporter showed up. The show went on. Why am I not frightened?
Melman’s final example is an attempt to prevent the International Shalom Festival from taking place as part of a larger arts festival in Edinburgh. This attempt was certainly distressing. In this case, though, BDS was essentially defending its home turf, having succeeded in keeping Israel artists away from the festival on other occasions. This year, Incubator Theater, which was driven away in 2014, returned to perform without incident. Protests were small. Other aspects of the Shalom Festival seem to be equally unscathed.
So, yes, we should never underestimate the BDS movement. But every now and then, it’s all right to spike the football.