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Performing artists avoiding Israel

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post
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," Meroz said.

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 Ezrahi.

"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 and atrocities."

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 to Israel.

"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 security.

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."