It was a coincidence that South African house DJ Black Coffee’s recent performance in Tel Aviv took place on the same weekend that saw more than a dozen Palestinian protesters shot dead, and more than a thousand wounded, by Israeli forces. But he was nevertheless criticised sharply for the visit which came in the wake of calls by political movements and civil society organisations to respect the boycott campaign against Israel.
Criticism was levelled against him from a number of fronts. This included South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) which issued a call on artists to remember the role played by the international anti-apartheid solidarity movement in the isolation of apartheid South Africa:
The people of Palestine are in a just cause for self determination and we urge our artists not to form part of the normalisation of Israeli’s suppression of the Palestinian people in their quest for self determination and statehood that mirrors our very own struggle.
In response, the artist asserted his right to work as an entertainer and feed his family.
Born Nkosinathi Innocent Maphumulo, the hugely popular, multiaward winning Black Coffee is seen as the flag-bearer of South African Afro-house music. In 2015 he won the “Breakthrough DJ Of The Year” award in Ibiza and the next year he became the first South African to win a BET award in the “best international act Africa” category.
Accolades like these, and many others, paved the way to international stardom with major DJ gigs and even more album sales. Because of this rising global profile, his decision to play in Israel caused a major stir.
The case for the boycott
Cases like Black Coffee’s aren’t rare. Many internationally renowned artists have faced campaigns to convince them not to perform in Israel in solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle. The logic used has echoes of the sports boycott campaigns during the anti-apartheid struggle when the mantra was:
no normal sport in an abnormal society.
This approach should be particularly effective with South African artists. Theirs was a society that imposed the same kind of restrictions and segregationist policies currently pursued by Israel towards Palestinians.
But some artists have responded by arguing that they don’t get involved in politics. Or, they claim that their politics require that they treat all audiences equally. Some argue that music and art are forces that bring people together and therefore play a positive role regardless of politics.
These claims do not address the core issue: performing in a society experiencing intense conflict, against the wishes of a central constituency, which is largely prevented from attending, is itself a political statement.
Whether they intend it or not, artists who defy the boycott call are aligning themselves with the oppressive Israeli regime.
A common objection to this argument is that there are many oppressive regimes of various kinds, and that there’s therefore no reason to single out Israel for special treatment.
While the first part of this argument is true, the second doesn’t follow. The call to boycott Israel as a destination for artists, academics, sports people and cultural activists, does not stem from its oppressive policies as such. It stems from the fact that Israel runs a regime that amounts to what I’ve described as an apartheid of a special type.
Although not identical to the South African version, it meets the definition of apartheid in international law:
an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.
In specific terms, Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza, forcibly dominated by Israel since 1967, cannot vote in elections to Israeli representative institutions. They have no say in the way they are ruled by Israel, cannot move, trade and engage in normal economic activity freely. Their land, water and natural resources are controlled by Israel, which uses them to benefit its own (Jewish) citizens at their expense.
Needless to say, Palestinians couldn’t attend DJ Black Coffee’s performance in Tel Aviv. Only 15% of the overall Palestinian population have Israeli citizenship and access to basic political rights. They too are subject to a range of formal and informal discriminatory mechanisms.
The role of boycotts
What role can culture play in global solidarity campaign against Israel?
Boycotting academic, cultural and sports activities in Israel is an essential part. But total avoidance may not be the most useful political strategy. It should be combined with activities that take place as part of political dissent and resistance efforts from within the country.
For example, a number of possible contributions can be made to Palestinian cultural freedom struggle. These can take a number of forms such as invitations to perform and exhibit, alternative funding to allow independence from state support, and activities that would help cultural workers to organise locally and spread their messages globally.
This can be done by:
Forging links with Palestinians and Israeli artists, performers and academics, who follow progressive programmes of action, and
Renouncing any links with the Israeli state and its funding mechanisms.
This would allow for an effective counter to official policies of segregation and the isolation of critical voices.