artists avoiding Israel
By John Ward Anderson
July 30, 2002
JERUSALEM, July 29 -- Backing out of a concert performance with
the legendary conductor Zubin Mehta is like skipping a golf date
with Tiger Woods or a dinner with Julia Child. But the unthinkable
is becoming epidemic here as the world's great musicians take a
pass on Israel because they fear for their security or disagree
with the government's policies.
"Fifty percent or more of the foreign artists have canceled,"
said Mehta, music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
In the current production of Richard Strauss's opera "Salome,"
he said, "we've had eight cancellations in the cast."
The orchestra announced today that it was forced to cancel an eight-concert
tour in the United States next month because no insurance company
would cover the performances due to concerns about possible terrorist
attacks, said a spokeswoman for the orchestra, Dalia Meroz.
"They think our orchestra is a target for terrorism,"
Israel also used to be a regular stop on the pop music circuit,
hosting the likes of Madonna, Eric Clapton, R.E.M. and Santana.
But it has been more than a year since a mega-star played here.
In some cases, Israeli artists have been disinvited from playing
abroad. And the Tel Aviv film festival was canceled this year because
the organizers feared no stars would come.
The problem goes beyond the arts. In March, the European football
federation suspended soccer matches in Israel, citing security concerns.
Israeli home games are scheduled to be played in Cyprus.
Influential academics, angry at the Israeli government's actions
against Palestinians, are pushing a boycott of Israel that hundreds
of university professors have joined. And on the economic front,
some Norwegian supermarkets label Israeli products with stickers
so customers can decide whether to buy them.
"Israel is not the flavor of the month, that's for sure,"
Mehta said. "The world is turning against it."
While there is little evidence of an internationally coordinated
anti-Israel boycott of the sort aimed at South Africa in the 1980s,
a sense of isolation is taking hold here, along with a concern that
Israel is being shunned, dealing a blow to its national psyche and
its decades-long drive for acceptance.
"Israel has always wanted to be integrated. It's an obsession,"
said Calev Ben-David, managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, who
complained that "even the traditional supporters of Israel
are not coming" these days.
"Never since the worst days of the Lebanon war has Israel
felt so alone and isolated," he said, referring to the Israeli
invasion of its northern neighbor in 1982. "We're not looking
just for integration anymore. We're looking for any sign of solidarity
and acceptance we can get. We really need a boost. We'd give the
Palestinians a state if Bruce Springsteen would come."
Many artists have canceled appearances because of concerns about
Palestinian suicide bombers who have attacked buses, hotels, restaurants
and nightclubs. There is also a growing fear here and abroad of
a large terrorist attack like those in New York and at the Pentagon
on Sept. 11.
But many Israelis say that while security concerns are almost always
the sole reason given for the cancellations, they believe many people
are not coming because they oppose Israel's actions in the conflict
with Palestinians but do not want to say so publicly.
"During the wars, there were always cancellations for reasons
of personal security, but this time it's a very different story,"
said a Hebrew University philosopher and political scientist, Yaron
"There is a moral issue about coming to [Prime Minister Ariel]
Sharon's Israel when it is engaged in actions which appear to be
excessive," he said. "This excommunication only reinforces
the idea that the whole world is against us because we're Jews."
Such was the case last month at the Israel Festival, one of the
country's biggest cultural events. Three groups -- a dance troupe
from Belgium and orchestras from Germany and Italy -- canceled at
the last moment.
The groups from Germany and Italy cited security concerns. But
the Belgian group -- a 34-member troupe called Rwanda '94 that stages
performances about the massacre of more than a half million ethnic
Tutsis -- said its reasons were overridingly political.
"There was genocide of the Jews, then there was genocide in
Rwanda, and now Israel is trying to get rid of the Palestinians,"
said the group's music director, Gareth List, explaining that most
of the people in his troupe "oppose the way Palestinians have
been treated for the last 54 years."
Similar concerns prompted more than 200 painters, photographers,
poets and other artists to endorse an Internet petition calling
on their peers to "cancel all exhibitions and other cultural
events that are scheduled to occur in Israel" because "the
art world must speak out against the current Israeli war crimes
Many people, however, are genuinely concerned about their safety,
event organizers said. Others cite personal or professional conflicts
or medical excuses, which organizers said they sometimes read as
a tip-off that the real problem is political.
"Nobody says it openly," Mehta said. "At the moment
they say, 'Look, my family just won't let me go.' That's usually
what they do."
But the security concerns are real, he said, and apparently have
played a role in the decision of many stars not to come.
"I say, 'I'm going, and I cannot force you,' " said Mehta,
66, the former director of the Los Angeles and New York philharmonics,
who spends about nine weeks a year in Israel. "I cannot guarantee
them 100 percent safety. My mother sits in Los Angeles and is shaking
every day. If I don't call twice a day, she's nervous."
"My parents, my uncle in Kalamazoo, my good friends all along
kept saying they wished I would cancel," said Susan Anthony,
an up-and-coming American soprano who took over the title role in
"Salome" when opera great Jane Eaglen canceled for security
reasons. "There was a bombing less than a mile from my hotel
three days ago, and the cast was on the phone with each other --
turn on CNN! -- and then the families try to get through to make
sure you're not down there."
Lia van Leer, founder and director of the Jerusalem Film Festival,
said her event typically draws as many as 200 foreign actors, directors
and other film industry people, but this year attracted only about
60, and no one of the stature of such past attendees as Robert De
Niro, Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda and Kirk Douglas.
"It's awkward. They have another agenda, they're starting
another film, they have a vacation scheduled -- and I can't blame
them," she said. But for the most part, "it's not a boycott
for political reasons, it's only a boycott because people are afraid
to come here."
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which hosts chamber music performances,
had so many cancellations by foreigners this year that it recently
decided to book only local artists for its next concert season.
And the Tel Aviv film festival, which was canceled this year for
the same reason, has been postponed indefinitely, said Edna Fainaru,
the festival's founder.
The pop music scene has been particularly hard-hit, said the Jerusalem
Post's Ben-David, who has covered the arts scene in Israel for more
than 10 years.
"Rock stars who live totally on the edge are afraid to come
here," he said. At the same time, "the rock community
tends to veer toward a left, politically correct line, and to some
degree it has become politically impossible in that community"
to perform in Israel.
"Before, any big band coming from the U.S. to Europe would
drop by Israel. That's over," said Shuki Weiss, a top concert
producer who has brought David Bowie, Bob Dylan and other top acts
"The general idea for the last 20 years was to put Israel
on the map, and with all modesty, we succeeded very well,"
he said. "But now, when you see all the familiar big names
going to Europe or on world tour and you are not considered, it's
a strange feeling of isolation. It's set us back six years."
Not only are international artists shunning Israel. In a few cases,
Israeli artists have been disinvited from performing abroad, including
in Europe and the United States -- once again, usually because of
Chava Alberstein, an Israeli folk singer, and singer-songwriter
David Daor were asked not to perform at European concerts this year,
their agents said.
"Those who canceled did not make anti-Semitic remarks. It
was mainly a security thing," said Pazit Daor, David Daor's
wife and manager. "In Detroit, they were scared they would
need to protect the whole place."