Ride frontman Mark Gardener has agreed to perform in Tel Aviv. Tommy Mack looks at the arguments around the cultural boycott of Israel

Ride frontman Mark Gardener has drawn criticism from pro-Palestinian activists for his decision to perform at Tel Aviv’s Barby Club on 14th January. Since 2005 the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has called on “people of conscience” to impose “broad boycotts” against Israel as part of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement.

This is a big year for Gardener: he has reformed Ride with erstwhile bandmate (and sometime Oasis/Beady Eye sideman) Andy Bell. Ride’s reunion tour takes in sold-out gigs and headline appearances at festivals across the US, UK and Europe.

Many will wonder what right Palestinians have to ask the world to boycott their neighbour. Gardener maintains he isn’t endorsing the Israeli regime, just playing his music ‘to the people without prejudice’. Sounds reasonable, right? Why should musicians be forced to take sides in a conflict between neighbouring countries?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t a squabble that got out of hand, though. Israel is a powerful country that illegally occupies Palestinian land . The 1948 establishment of Israel lead to the ethnic cleansing of two-thirds of the Palestinian population. Over 6 million Palestinians live as refugees. Those remaining in Palestinian territory occupied by Israel or within the borders of Israel established in 1948 suffer a regime comparable to the apartheid system in South Africa. From 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009 Israeli forces shelled and bombed Gaza, killing over 1,400 Palestinians, including 313 children. Large areas of Gaza were razed to the ground and much of the urban infrastructure

On 14 November 2012 the Israeli Forces attacked Gaza as part of an offensive which lasted eight days. The UN estimate that 174 Palestinians were killed and 1553 were injured during November. In Gaza, approximately 450 housing units were destroyed or sustained major damage, while another 8,000 houses sustained minor damage.

In 2010 35 Palestinian civilians were killed, in 2011 59 Palestinian civilians were killed. In all but three months of 2012 Palestinian civilians died because of Israeli aggression.

The ‘separation barrier’ in the West Bank, construction of which was started in 2002, cuts deep into Palestinian land and, along with the “settler only” roads, cuts off many communities from water supplies, hospitals and their agricultural land. The residents face severe travel restrictions and for many it is impossible to enter Jerusalem or to travel abroad.

The BDS movement isn’t then just one party involved in a conflict calling for the world to side with them against their enemies. PACBI state:

“since 1948, hundreds of UN resolutions have condemned Israel’s colonial and discriminatory policies as illegal…all forms of international intervention and peace-making have until now failed to convince or force Israel to comply with humanitarian law, to respect fundamental human rights and to end its occupation and oppression of the people of Palestine”

The boycott of Israel was originally supported by musicians including Brian Eno and Roger Waters, joined in 2010 by Carlos Santana, Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron and Annie Lennox. Concerts in Israel were also cancelled by Massive Attack, the Pixies, Faithless, Leftfield, The Klaxons, Gorillaz Sound System and Tindersticks. On 13th February this year, a letter signed by over 700 British artists announcing a cultural boycott of Israel was published in the Guardian.

In the face of this increasing support for BDS, Israel is keen to counter criticism and therefore neutralise support for Palestine. Israel’s hasbara programme, literally translated as “explaining” but effectively a euphemism for propaganda, is a state-sponsored operation that propagates positive messages about Israel. This includes publicising visits from overseas artists as endorsement of Israel’s position in the conflict with Palestine.

That’s where Creative Community for Peace come in. It sounds great, doesn’t it? Creative. Community. Peace. That’s presumably what Mark Gardener thought when he retweeted CCFP’s messages of support for his gig in Tel Aviv on 14th January.

Creative Community For Peace, though a purportedly apolitical arts organisation, is actually a fictitious business name for the right-wing, pro-settler propaganda organisation StandWithUs, who have recently announced a $250,000 deal with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office to disseminate IDF and Israeli government messages via social media.

Activists from Jerusalem, South Africa and elsewhere asked Gardener to forgo the gig and join the cultural boycott on Israel in the wake of continuing human rights abuses in Gaza and the West Bank (Palestinian territory occupied by Israel). He refused but stressed his neutrality on the issue, tweeting ahead of the gig: “I play music to the people without prejudice as people are mostly not their oppressive governing regimes.”

In another tweet he appears critical of the Israeli government while still defending the decision to perform: “People do not equal their oppressive governing, war mongering, power corrupted regimes that we can all sadly find ourselves living in.”

More recently, he dismissed his critics as “Obessive Twitter stalkers” and “Just a few [people] living in the UK who have obviously never been there [Israel or Palestine]” despite the fact the BDS movement originated from a broad coalition drawn from across Palestinian society.

Mark Gardener’s music and writings paint a portrait of a man of intelligence and compassion. He seemed to have accepted the invitation with the best of intentions but refusing to join the cultural boycott isn’t neutrality: it’s a political position and a contentious one at that.

There’s a tendency among musicians or at least among a lot of musicians to decry politics as universally corrupt and to insist that their art remains separate. However committed they might be to their neutrality, artists have no control over how the wider world will view their actions or indeed how propagandists might choose to exploit them.

The call for a cultural boycott comes from a consensus of groups across Palestinian society: In 2004 the following Palestinian groups called for the cultural and academic boycott of Israel: Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees; Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions; Palestinian NGO Network, West Bank; Teachers’ Federation; Palestinian Writers’ Federation; Palestinian League of Artists; Palestinian Journalists’ Federation; General Union of Palestinian Women; Palestinian Lawyers’ Association; and tens of other Palestinian federations, associations, and civil society organizations.

This was followed in 2005 by the Palestinian BDS call, endorsed by over 100 Palestinian organisations, which, in their words, “represent the three integral parts of the people of Palestine: Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

Ignoring the call to boycott then, is tantamount to saying that a broad section of Palestinian society are entirely mistaken.

Creative Community For Peace, meanwhile, are far from the neutral, apolitical arts collective they claim to be. CCFP is an organisation based in the US that works against the cultural boycott on Israel.

Kicking off with a video backed by Rihanna’s Don’t Stop The Music, CCFP’s website describes the organisation as representing a cross-section of artists and fans and stresses political neutrality “We may not all share the same politics or the same opinion on the best path to peace in the Middle East.” Even their declaration of neutrality is loaded with their pro-Israel message: “But we do agree that singling out Israel… as a target of cultural boycotts while ignoring the now-recognized human rights issues of her neighbors will not further peace.”

The rest of their website is filled with dubious pro-Israel propagandalike “Israel remains devoted to serving as a refuge for people in need…As the only country in the Middle East that opened its doors to provide a temporary sanctuary to those fleeing persecution, Israel has served as a light in the dark.”

However, CCFP is actually a fictitious business name (in the legal parlance of California, where the organisations are registered) for the Israel Emergency Alliance aka StandWithUs, the right-wing, pro-settler organization that signed the deal to run “‘interactive media war rooms’ manned by students who will be trained to disseminate Israeli hasbara on social media platforms”.

By legal definition, Creative Community for Peace, StandWithUs, and the Israel Emergency Alliance are all a single organization with a single mandated board of directors.

This article in the Jewish Daily Forward hints at the entanglement between CCFP and SWU, claiming CCFP simply “partnered with StandWithUs” for tax-exempt purposes while awaiting approval of its own non-profit registration: standard practise among NGOs and charities.

According to Phan Nguyen, writing for MondoWeiss, this explanation is inadequate. CCFP provides cover for StandWithUs to fight the cultural boycott without exposing its own political pro-Israel agenda. The extensive ties between CCFP and SWU go way beyond an established organisation partnering a start-up for tax purposes.

Heartbeat, the joint Israeli-Palestinian project that organised the Jerusalem gig visited (and endorsed on Twitter) by Gardener the night before his Tel Aviv performance, has been described by Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within (BfW) as “a normalisation project…that works in the model of co-existence under oppression rather than co-resistance to oppression…purporting to further some abstract notion of “peace” while in fact pursue an agenda that is harmful to the realization of a justpeace based on realizing Palestinian rights.”

CCFP’s website is full of quotes from musicianswho’ve accepted the invitation to play in Israel: Paul McCartney (“I’m bringing a message of peace, and I think that’s what the region needs.”), Alicia Keys (“Music is a universal language that is meant to unify audiences in peace and love, and that is the spirit of our show.”), Anton Newcombe (“it’s b******t to ask me to boycott Israel and not America. It’s interesting that some people choose to pick on Israel and isolate her”), many more besides. They all speak the same language, of bridge-building, of reaching out to people, of music as a unifying force and sometimes of their disdain for a boycott that tells them where they can’t play.

Mark Gardener tweeted “Following their boycott argument should I also no longer play the US, UK, Europe, Japan, Australia, South America whilst I’m at it?” to which BDS South Africa responded “during Apartheid would you have boycotted SA because we asked for it (like the Palestinians today)? We hope you would have.”

As musicians we should question anyone who tells us where we can and can’t play. But the cultural boycott isn’t an order handed down from authority. It’s a request from oppressed people for artists to show solidarity within their professional capacity. Refusing to join the boycott isn’t neutrality; it’s an endorsement of one side, the more powerful side, in a brutal, asymmetrical war that is still claiming civilian lives daily.

I believe Mark Gardener when he says he went to play for the Israeli people, not the Israeli regime but his response to his critics illustrates a lack of understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Presumably that’s why he’s comfortable playing War Child’s Passport Back To The Bars benefit for Gaza – (among other places) while giving interviews to the Israeli press, such as one in ynetnews.com which trumpet the gig as a failure for the BDS movement.

In their announcement for the benefit shows, War Child wrote, “All the money raised will support War Child’s vital work saving children from the brutal effects of war in areas including Syria, Iraq and Gaza. These stripped back, intimate shows will have a life-changing impact for thousands of vulnerable children.”

Where in the debate does this place War Child, then? Gemma Cropper, Media and PR Manager at War Child, when asked if they considered dropping Gardener’s acoustic gig with Ride bandmate Andy Bell from the Passport line-up said “If you look at the places we work… if we were choosing sides in any of the conflicts, it could endanger our staff on the ground. We have to be politically neutral across all of our projects, there’s never going to be any dialogue about that kind of thing internally.”

War Child have been placed in a very uncomfortable position: if they drop Ride from the line-up they risk accusations of political bias from Israel’s hasbara organisations so they say ‘we don’t play politics’ and keep Ride on the bill.

This inadvertently lends CCFP some of War Child’s credibility: Gardener played in Israel, heavily promoted by CCFP and claims neutrality but he’s also on the line-up for the Passport gig so, in the eyes of the public, War Child (a legitimately politically neutral NGO) don’t have a problem with Gardener playing Israel and endorsing CCFP which gives CCFP’s claims of neutrality (a provable falsehood) the veneer of legitimacy.

If artists want to remain genuinely neutral, they could reject advances to play Israel without endorsing the BDS movement. If neutrality is what truly matters, don’t let either side make political capital from your actions, human rights considerations aside. But as Howard Zinn says, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.

This isn’t about being ‘anti-Israel’, it’s about holding to account a powerful country which has used its military might to crush the civilian population of its neighbour. Peace, a just peace that acknowledges both Jewish and Palestinian rights, will never happen while decent people like Mark Gardener allow their best intentions to be hijacked by an oppressive regime.

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