To paraphrase Orwell: If you want a picture of the future, imagine pop stars writing tortured tweets about Israel — forever. Or at least until there’s peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which these days feels like it might only arrive in whatever comes after forever. Yesterday, Lana Del Rey issued two such tweets — themselves just screenshots of long passages in Apple Notes — about her decision to headline the Meteor Festival in Israel next week. They’re worth reading in full, but a few lines stand out.
“I understand many of u are upset that we’re going to Tel Aviv for the Meteor festival, I understand your concern I really get do [sic],” the smoky-throated chanteuse declared (the festival is actually on a kibbutz near the Jordan River, but never mind that). “What I can tell you is I believe music is universal and should be used to bring us together.” She went on to talk vaguely about the situation and her decision, saying that “performing in Tel Aviv is not a political statement or a commitment to the politics there just as singing here in California doesn’t mean my views are in alignment w my current governments opinions or sometimes inhumane actions.”
For the average teenage LDR fan, who probably isn’t a fervent Zionist or anti-Zionist, the tweets, taken on their own, are deeply baffling. After all, Lana’s ballads of love and loss have little overt political content. She doesn’t aim to radicalize her supporters. Why should she have to justify playing a festival? A quick scan of the replies offers something resembling an answer, though not much of one.
Quoth a reply with more than a thousand likes: “U never come to africa, and you never come to arabic/muslim countries, and the one time u decide 2come 2the middle east u pick israel? The one country that embodies everything youve been singing agains? My heart is broken and idk how to feel abt it, enjoy dancing on dead bodies.” The fan may still be confused — in what way does Israel embody everything Del Rey sings against? Whose dead bodies are these? Another reply gets a little closer to explaining the outrage: “If your intention is to use music to ‘bring people together,’ then demand Israel allow West Bank/Gaza Palestinians to attend! Can’t bring ppl together at an apartheid venue under apartheid rule. Palestinians do not have the same rights to attend.” Apartheid? Gaza? The average American teen may be sort of aware of those terms, but is likely still scratching their head. They may have a vague sense that playing in Israel is somehow wrong, but they don’t have anything resembling a firm grasp on why.
If you’re a longtime observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no matter your leanings, you should find this thread infuriating. Fandom Twitter, with its emphasis on passionate brevity, is no place to adjudicate one of the most intractable political battles in modern history. And yet, to an increasing extent, pop culture is the way people are being introduced to the particular issues at hand. If you find yourself banging your head against a wall over the lack of nuance in the LDR replies — or if you’re a celebrity who’s contemplating an appearance in Israel — gird yourself, because this sort of thing is going to happen more and more. Indeed, it may become the primary battleground for global discussions about the conflict.
That’s not because the conflict is the worst it’s ever been. Far from it. A full reckoning of Israeli and Palestinian history is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that there are those who believe Israel regularly commits war crimes and other injustices against the Palestinian Arabs who live within its borders and in the contested territories of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem; there are those who believe Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians are fully justified and legal; and there are many who fall somewhere in-between. The disputes between Jews and Arabs date back to the late 19th century and have ignited wars and uprisings, and though we’re currently in a period free of suicide bombings and ground invasions, tensions still run thick. The past few months have seen more than a hundred Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers at the fence separating Gaza from Israel, rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, as well as the passage of a controversial Israeli law that emphasizes the Jewish character of Israel proper without talking about equal rights for the Arabs residing there.
What’s changing isn’t a major uptick in violence, but rather a nonviolent new front in the debate. In 2004, Palestinian activists launched the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which called on academics and cultural figures to refuse to engage with Israeli institutions and events. The next year, PACBI was rolled into a larger effort called the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS). BDS seeks to isolate and shame Israel into better treatment of Palestinians through the triptych of methods described in its name and, after simmering for about a decade, it’s exploded into prominence in the past few years.
As the Guardian’s Nathan Thrall outlined in a lengthy feature last week, BDS is now arguably the most salient rhetorical flashpoint in the international debate about Israelis and Palestinians. Its supporters can be found around the world, including well-known figures like longtime Israel critics Roger Waters and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Pushes to enact BDS measures at college campuses have become commonplace. The Democratic Socialists of America have adopted a pro-BDS stance. At the same time, the movement has become the bête noire of Israel’s supporters and government. The coalition of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu regularly claims that BDS denies Israel’s right to exist (a claim that BDS supporters often take issue with) and went so far as to announce that it will not allow activists affiliated with 20 pro-BDS groups to enter the country. Even vehement liberal critics of the Netanyahu government — for example, prominent American rabbi Rick Jacobs — often decry BDS as counterproductive. If you watch the politics of Israel/Palestine, the movement has become impossible to ignore.
And in just the past year or two, cultural observers who otherwise don’t much care about the Holy Land have been drawn into the discussion. Music has perhaps been the most visible field of battle. Lorde famously (or infamously) canceled a tour stop in Israel last year after two BDS activists launched a campaign to get her to do so. Nick Cave and Radiohead both chose to defy pressure, play shows, and speak out against boycotting. When a pro-BDS band was dropped from a German arts festival, artists ranging from Laurie Anderson to Viggo Mortensen decried the decision. And now, Del Rey has become the latest entrant into the fight.
That fight is not without precedent. In the mid-1980s, as international condemnation of South African apartheid reached a fever pitch, musicians including Bono, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Afrika Bambaataa, and the members of Run-DMC all decided to refuse invitations to play in the country, even going so far as to record a collaborative single entitled “Sun City,” which referred to a resort in contested territory within South African borders. BDS activists argue that Israeli policy — in which Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza have no opportunity to elect the government that controls their lives and are subject to different laws than Jews — is just another form of apartheid. In their eyes, the recording of a “Sun City” about Tel Aviv would be a welcome development.
It’s not impossible to imagine such a thing becoming a reality someday. Despite Del Rey’s decision to play, the fact that she and others have been put in the hot seat is a sign that the wind is at BDS’s back. Fifteen years ago, there was little to no stigma attached to a gig in Israel. Now, it seems inevitable that every musician who chooses to play there will face at least some degree of condemnation for doing so. Surely there are now regular discussions between artists and managers about whether it’s worth the hassle to make a date in the Jewish state.
And, for better or worse, anti-Israel rhetoric plays well on the social-media platforms that these artists rely on for stirring up enthusiasm. Even Israel’s supporters have to acknowledge that defending the country’s actions toward the Palestinians is a challenge that requires jumping through an assortment of hoops. (That said, a bizarre astroturf campaign to endorse Del Rey’s decision has been launched through a shadowy pro-Israel app called Act.il, but the messages it offers are just vague support of the idea of playing in Israel, not anything ideological.) A condemnation of Israel, on the other hand, can be easily expressed in 240 characters or a few seconds of an Instagram Story. Add all that to the facts that Netanyahu has enthusiastically embraced Donald Trump, young Jews are feeling increasingly alienated from Israel, and Democrats are increasingly siding with the Palestinians and a vision of the next few years starts to take shape: more division and more anger in pop-fandom communities. Here’s hoping it spurs people to learn and not just yell.