Making the logical connection between apartheid South Africa and today’s Israel

During my recent After Zionism book tour of Israel and Palestine, I had the opportunity to watch the wonderful documentary about Paul Simon’s Graceland album, Under African Skies, and the complex political discussion around apartheid and boycotts against South Africa.

Journalist Joseph Dana, writing in The National, looks at the film and places it in context of the growing BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel:

…It is Simon’s continued animosity to the controversy surrounding his visit to apartheid-era South Africa that highlights the film’s relevance to the contemporary landscape, including the persistent calls for a cultural boycott of Israel.

The United Nations-supported boycott of South Africa dictated that cultural partnerships with South Africans should cease as a means of isolating the white regime over its apartheid policy.

As Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of the African National Congress leader Oliver Tambo, notes in the film: “We were saying to artists across the world that at this point in the history of South Africa [1985], the expression of your support must be non-participatory. You can’t go there. The way in which you interact with other people is on a free basis between free people.”

Since 2005, Palestinians representing large segments of civil society have appealed to musicians throughout the world not to play in Israel as a means of isolating the country over its oppressive policies and ongoing military occupation of the West Bank.

Advocates of the boycott argue, often vociferously, that they are informed by those actions in South Africa. Their goal is to dismantle Israel’s unequal governing structure and deliver rights to beleaguered Palestinians.

The Palestinian boycott, while effective in grabbing headlines and forcing a hysterical response from the Israeli government, is still in its infancy. Prominent musicians, such as Roger Waters and Elvis Costello, have agreed not to play in Israel and untold numbers of musicians quietly decline invitations to perform. But others, like Simon himself, have ignored the call, proclaiming that art is above politics.

What Simon was doing with Graceland was interacting on an intellectual level with black South African society, creating a mixed-race international community of artists that symbolised what the regime was trying to repress – even though he wasn’t fully aware of it. By and large, artists that face pressure not to play in Israel don’t aspire to such standards.

For example, the Red Hot Chili Peppers recently ignored boycott pressure and performed in Tel Aviv, a move that prompted the up-and-coming Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila to cancel their opening performance for the American rock band in Beirut in protest.

While the merits of Simon’s arguments that artists should be above political constraints are backed up by his universalist interaction with black South Africans, the Red Hot Chili Peppers approached Tel Aviv as if it was just another stop on a world tour.

Under African Skies… ends on a positive note, one that carefully avoids the fact that Simon himself recently played in Tel Aviv despite eerily familiar calls for him to boycott Israel.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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