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On Salif Keita and ‘heeding’ the call to boycott Israel

A man persuaded against his will is of the same persuasion still

A few days ago I posted on the case of Salif Keita over on Engage.  Briefly, the Malian musician’s cancellation of a trip to Israel was greeted as a victory for BDS – another heart/mind won over – until he and his wife published a letter asserting that they were pulling out due to pressure and intimidation, not because they had been convinced by arguments for a cultural boycott of Israel.

As I noted in my earlier piece, Ali Abunimah’s response was illogical because he refused to acknowledge that some artists may withdraw from concerts in Israel under duress:

Resort to unsupported claims of “threats” and potentially defamatory statements may be a tactic that some artists resort to when they do not wish to violate the Palestinian call to boycott Israel, but do not have the courage to take a political stance.

I assume that responses to appeals from BDS supporters cover the full spectrum.  At one end will be active Israel supporters who are completely unswayed – and at the other you will get people who are just as passionately convinced by the arguments for boycott.  In the middle you will certainly (I say certainly because I was involved in some behind the scenes discussions in one particular case) get people who may not really agree with BDS but decide that playing in Israel isn’t worth the hassle.

Some of the BDS crowd are complaining that Keita has claimed to have been threatened, but won’t reveal more details.  That’s not absolutely unreasonable.  This, on the other hand, is:

Finally, the Campagne BDS France suggests “Artists sympathetic to our case and who wish to boycott Israel can do it either by canceling their visit and explaining clearly their step, or by canceling without giving any reason if they prefer not to do so.”

“But they should not stain their courageous and civic act of solidarity with violent and deceitful statements about our philosophy, goals and methods.”

This is crazy.  Essentially it’s asserting that Keita did in fact really want to boycott Israel but – for reasons the writer doesn’t make clear – decided to pretend he withdrew due to threats – and, just for good measure, and to reinforce his ‘solidarity’, chose to associate the whole BDS movement with those threats, not just the odd individual.

Keita’s is an extreme case – he’s been absolutely forthright about this issue, and asserts that he loves Israel.  But it’s a fair bet that some of the more muted cancellations of Israel concerts are not positively made choices.  BDS gets very indignant about allegations of threats, but their official tactics go well beyond friendly personal appeals.

We contact these artists with the goal of convincing them and at the same time winning their hearts and minds. It would therefore be completely contrary to our principles to threaten them in any manner whatsoever, and it would be completely counterproductive for us.

Something need not be ‘threatening’ to be intimidating, or at least coercive.

Take this letter from PACBI addressed to readers in the United Arab Emirates. It is aggressively worded, and aimed at damaging Alicia Keys’ reputation, and thus hitting her financially.

We at the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) call on our sisters and brothers in the United Arab Emirates to cancel Alicia Keys’ scheduled concert in Dubai on November 15 due to her support for apartheid Israel [1].

Alicia Keys has not only undermined our civil resistance to Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid, but she has reportedly visited a support group for the Israeli occupation army based in occupied Jerusalem [2], ignoring the fact that the Israeli army is the key instrument of oppression and war crimes against the Palestinian, Lebanese and other people in the region.

Of course Alicia Keys had already put herself beyond the pale in refusing to heed the boycott call.  The word ‘heed’ is often the one used, and it is an interesting choice. It is commonly used in contexts where something bad will happen to the person who fails to ‘heed’ the advice/warning/rules.  Any artist who has read that letter to the UAE urging them to cancel Alicia Keys’ concerts might well feel that it would be better just to quietly ‘heed’ the call to boycott after receiving an initial ‘friendly’ communication from a BDS group.