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Anti-Israel musicians boycott Berlin music festival

Jefferson Chase
August 22, 2017

Six participants from various Arab nations and the UK have pulled out of this year's Pop-Kultur festival due to a small amount of Israeli funding. Is this a legitimate means of protest or an example of anti-Semitism?

Syrian rapper Mohamed Abu Hajar
Image: Enrico Incerti

When the 2017 Pop-Kultur Festival kicks off in Berlin on Wednesday August 23, the lineup will be slighter smaller than originally planned. Four musical acts from various Arab countries as well as one British-based music collaboration and a British-born panel member won't be showing up - as a way of protesting against event co-sponsor Israel's treatment of Palestinians and occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

"I was looking forward to playing … in Berlin, until I realized the festival is sponsored by the Israeli embassy (sic),” wrote Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi on her Facebook page. "As things get tougher inside and outside Palestine, what each one of us can always do is show solidarity and empathy, as artists it starts by being true and faithful.”

The boycotters are following a call by the Berlin chapter of the international initiative BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions). BDS has asked the festival to disassociate itself from the Israeli Embassy, which had given Pop-Kultur 500 euros ($587) to help to cover the travel costs of performers coming from Israel. The embassy is listed as one of many partners on event posters.

The organizers of the three-day festival - which features concerts, films, discussions and DJ sets by international performers at various locations - aren't happy about the boycott. They say that the activists strong-armed the musicians.

"The ‘BDS' campaign put immense pressure on all the Arab artists in our line-up,” organizers wrote in an official statement. "The campaign claims that Pop-Kultur is ‘co-organized' and ‘co-financed' by the state of Israel, which is false.”

Organizers say their event is about "building networks across borders,” while activists say cooperating in any way with Israel is tantamount to accepting the situation with Palestine. The moral dilemma involved is one that's been around for decades.

Does Israel practice apartheid?

Nelson Mandela
Boycotts helped end apartheid in South AfricaImage: George Hallett

The BDS movement goes back 12 years and, according to the Berlin chapter's website, is inspired by "the fight of South Africans against apartheid.”

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a number of prominent international musicians, led by Steven Van Zandt from Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band, refused to play concerts in South Africa as a way of protesting racial segregation in that country. At the same time, student activists pressured universities to divest from South Africa. In 1994 the country marked the end of apartheid with the nation's first open multiracial elections.

The BDS wants to create similar commercial and artistic boycotts against Israel. In one of the more recent instances of conflict, Pink Floyd mastermind and prominent BDS supporter Roger Waters publicly criticized British band Radiohead for playing concerts in Israel.

BDS activists have tried to enlist Van Zandt for their cause, arguing that the situations in South Africa and Israel are analogous. But in a number of angry tweets last year, the guitarist rebuffed their overtures, calling the activists "politically ignorant obnoxious idiots.”

The quarrel in Berlin features much the same sort of heated emotions.

Israeli Embassy versus Israeli activists

Islam Chipsy
Islam Chipsy (middle) is one of the musicians who'll be giving Berlin a missImage: Getty Images/AFP/G. Souvant

Critics of the BDS movement accuse it of being anti-Semitic. The Israeli Embassy in Berlin says the attempts to get artists to boycott the Pop-Kultur festival are not commensurate with modern-day Germany.

"Unfortunately there are people who think that it's possible in Germany today to motivate artists to boycott a cultural event only because there is Israeli cultural involvement,” the embassy said in an email statement to Deutsche Welle. "Israel is happy to support culture in Germany, cooperative projects and dialogue in general – the supporters of the boycott are not. We regret attempts to silence people and withhold cultural events from German society.”

But not all Israelis feel that way. The group Boycott from Within, which includes Jewish and Muslim Israelis, directed an open letter at the Berlin festival, calling upon it not to work with the embassy.

"We are citizens of Israel who oppose our government's policies of colonialism, military occupation, and apartheid against the Palestinian people,” the group wrote. "We write to you in support of the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israeli institutions, and specifically the call to boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions. We support this campaign since it follows universal principles of human rights, including opposition to any form of racism.”

Hate or opposition?

Berlin's Culture Senator Klaus Lederer has expressed his dismay that the festival will now take place without any Arab artists and pointed out that the event is largely financed by the German federal government, the EU and the city. He told Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper he was disappointed that "calls for boycotts, untruths and - I have no other word for it - hate have affected the festival.”

The boycotting artists, on the other hand, deny that their motivations have anything to do with anti-Semitism. In an internet statement, Egyptian group Islam Chipsy and EEK said they were against "violence, persecution and discrimination of any kind.”

"We are anti-racist and reject the idea that opposing the relentless oppression of the Palestinians means that we are either anti-semitic (sic) or that we support terrorism,” wrote one of the other boycotting groups, the British-based Iklan featuring Law Holt.