Who Cares what Alice Walker or Elvis Costello say about Israel?
In recent days media sources have been spreading the happy news regarding the actors Meg Ryan and Bruce Willis. It is good to know that neither of them has ever participated in a boycott of Israel or ever cancelled any scheduled visit to Israel. Other celebrities in various fields of course have done so. The music public in Israel for example was sadly deprived of the brilliant performances of the British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello (originally Declan P. MacManus) who had "complicated thoughts" about Israel and withdrew from a concert there in May 2010. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has become almost a professional critic of Israel, makes known he will not visit the country.
Most recently, the renowned scientist Stephen Hawking gave in to acute pressure by Palestinian and other groups and cancelled his attendance at a scientific conference in Israel. Now, the novelist Alice Walker, who last year refused to have her book, "The Color Purple" translated into Hebrew and published in Jerusalem, is calling on the singer-musician Alicia Keys to boycott Israel and cancel a scheduled concert there. Walker is not usually regarded as a revered spiritual leader but she has informed the younger Keys that her soul is in danger if she performs in Israel.
The question arises, who cares if these celebrities refuse to perform in Israel or join the call for boycott of Israel? It is a hubristic and arrogant point of view, held by elitist individuals whose knowledge of political reality in the Middle East is limited but who are convinced of their own moral righteousness and believe that their prominence gives them the leverage to influence the less enlightened members of society. Everyone in the world appreciates the contribution that Hawking has made to scientific research, but they are also aware that his brilliance does not carry over to political matters.
Similarly, Costello may have made some contribution to musical artistry through his skill as a guitarist but his political opinions are unlikely to have any more potency than the stability of his three marriages. Archbishop Tutu may have valuable opinions on the state of Christianity or on the Archbishop of Canterbury, but he lacks any moral authority to castigate Israel.
Whatever the sensational media hype on the issue, the reality is that few people, especially Israelis, care whether rock stars perform in Israel or whether various celebrities attend conferences or give lectures there. One understands that ideological anti-Israeli groups have dragged celebrities, by playing on their empathy for victims and sometimes even by threats of various kinds, into public political discourse with which they are unfamiliar. Why then pay attention to intellectuals and artists, who deny intellectual or artistic exchanges? These deniers ought to appreciate that the culture and arts in Israel are vital parts of its society, not devices to showcase Israel as a modern, welcoming place or to draw attention away from Israel's actions towards the Palestinians.
The deniers might also take notice that though imperfect, Israel is a technologically advanced society with a remarkable economic record, a monumental achievement in the 21st century. Foreign visitors, particularly Hawking, would admire the technological and scientific accomplishments, especially when comparing them to those in neighboring Middle Eastern countries. Although pockets of poverty persist, Israel is a country with a high average GDP. It is a member of OECD, and has the third largest number, after the U.S. and China, of companies listed on Nasdaq. Its citizens are too busy organizing startup companies, (Israel is now third in the world in the number of successful start-up companies), and ensuring its physical security and protection of its citizens against rockets and missiles to pay more than limited attention to the critics who are so vocal in their calls for discrimination against Israel.
The specious argument for the unparalleled inequity in attempting to isolate Israel, whether it is anti-Israeli or antisemitic in motivation, is that an intellectual or cultural boycott of Israel and its institutions is the only avenue for artists to respond to what they have been told is the cruel and unjust oppression of the Palestinians. Those who persuade the non-political Hawking, Costello, and others to support discrimination and boycott against Israel dwell in a fantasy universe where the oppressor, Israel, exercises power over a weak dominated people. Moreover, that fantasy universe is singularly limited since Israel is the only country of the 193 states of the United Nations designated as an oppressor.
A thoughtful answer to this specious argument was given by the English novelist Ian McEwan who received the Jerusalem Prize for Literature in 2011. To put this award in historical context the first winner of the prize was Bertrand Russell and in 2009 it was the writer Haruki Murakami who despite pressure to refuse the honor and in spite of threats to boycott his works attended the ceremony in Jerusalem. McEwan confessed that his life had "not been peaceful" after he agreed to go to Jerusalem and that many groups and individuals imposed "various degrees of civility" on him to boycott the ceremony. He went, he said, for the dialogue and the freedom of expression that artists of all kinds require. In doing so he drew a distinction between a civil society and its government.
McEwan answered his critics by calling for intellectuals to harness their creativity to solve problems, not to engage in a "bunker mentality. Instead of fulminating against Israel, Alice Walker, Elvis Costello, and the politically correct boycotters of Israel might heed McEwan's earlier denunciation in June 2008 of the Islamists who in their speeches and websites speak passionately against free thought, pluralism, democracy, unveiled women, and who will tolerate no other interpretation of Islam but their own. But who cares what they say about the political culture of Israel?
Thomas Mann wrote in The Magic Mountain that tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil. At best, individuals like Walker, Costello and others adopt, consciously or otherwise, a standpoint of cultural relativism, a point of view that may be intellectually respectable but is often a pusillanimous refusal to protect the traditional values and institutions of one's own society. Their attitude of cultural relativism has fueled discrimination and calls for boycott of Israel. Joseph Goebbels, the head of Nazi propaganda, understood how critics of their own societies undermine the very existence of those societies when he spoke in 1928 of Nazi plans to "seize the very weapons proved by democracy itself," if democracy was so stupid to "hand us free tickets and expenses" to do so.
Hawking and others, though they have nothing to say that is pertinent or worth hearing on political and social issues concerning Israel, may have accepted implicitly the concept of cultural relativism. However, they may be unaware that while that concept purports to favor adherence to human rights it more importantly refuses to criticize the Islamic treatment of women and the blasphemy laws that are intended to prevent criticism of Islam. Alice Walker, in giving her unwanted advice, might remember that the words "So when you meet those who disbelieve, then smite the necks until when you have overcome them, then make them prisoners," come from the Koran, Sua 47,4-5, not from the Israeli handbooks of how to treat strangers on the beaches of Tel Aviv or in the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem.
It is not coincidental that the terrorist who in May 2013 hacked the soldier to death in Woolwich, South-East London, apparently quoted the verse of the sword in the Koran, chapter 9, verse 29."Fight those who do not believe in Allah." Elvis Costello will not find this statement in the Talmud. If he had gone to Israel he might have been gladdened to be among the 633,00 visitors from the United States who are part of the total of 3.5 million foreigners who visited Israel and most of whom delighted in the Syrian brown bears in the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.