Is entertaining dictators worse than normalizing apartheid?

Nada Elia and
3 March 2011

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Muammar Gaddafi speaking on Libyan TV.


As revolutions continue to sweep the Arab world, and the days of dictators seem numbered, we are learning a lot about the ties and alliances that have long characterized the west’s dealing with tyrants around the globe. “Stability,” apparently, requires us to make deals with the devil. And so we discover that the United States has long known about the human rights abuses of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, deposed Tunisian president Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali, and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. But it was willing nonetheless not only to turn a blind eye to these, but even to enable and fund, directly or indirectly, oppressive regimes, for the sake of what exactly? Oil? Corporations? The so-called “peace process?” Iraqi “freedom?” Israel’s security?

And as Arab tyrants are challenged, one by one, social media are abuzz with the embarrassing and numerous compliments and kind remarks that western heads of state, academics, pundits, and entertainers have given these deposed dictators. In a typical statement, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, said in 2009: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.” Apparently, the Clinton-Mubarak friendship goes back about 20 years. Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, a close friend of Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth’s second son and fourth in line to the British throne, has been a guest at Windsor Castle and Buckingham palace. The list is long.

But as the people seem determined to overthrow all those oppressive regimes, liberal Americans are openly questioning the wisdom and morality of “dealing with the devil.” In a highly critical segment on Anderson Cooper’s program AC 360, Cooper, a CNN journalist exhibiting an unusual level of courage and integrity among mainstream American media personalities, called out the various US presidents who have welcomed Gaddafi into their diplomatic circles, even as they acknowledged his tendency towards malice and mental instability, best epitomized by Ronald Reagan’s name for him: “the madman of the desert” (KTH: The West and Gadhafi’s regime,” 24 February 2011).

In that same episode, Cooper was critical of American artists Beyonce, Usher, and Mariah Carey, all three of whom gave private performances for the Gaddafis. Carey apparently received one million dollars for performing four songs for the Gaddafis on New Year in 2009. The following year, it was Beyonce and Usher who graced the Libyan dictator’s New Year’s celebration. Cooper asked why artists would perform for tyrants, and suggested that they donate the money they received to the Libyan people.

The news item was quickly picked up by other media. Rolling Stone magazine also ran an article stating that the music industry is lashing out at these artists, and quoting David T. Viecelli, agent for Arcade Fire and many other acts, as saying “Given what we know about Qaddafi and what his rule has been about, you have to willfully turn a blind eye in order to accept that money, and I don’t think it’s ethical” (Industry Lashes Out at Mariah, Beyonce and Others Who Played for Qaddafi’s Family,” 25 February 2011).

Amid all this uproar, Canadian singer Nelly Furtado announced on Twitter that she would donate to charity a one million dollar fee she received to perform for the Gaddafi family in 2007 (“Nelly Furtado to give away $1 million Gaddafi fee,” Reuters, 1 March 2011).

Those of us who have long been engaged in Palestine justice activism cannot help but notice glaring double-standards in these denunciations of the various deals with devils. And at this critical point in the history of the Arab world, we must request that our readers begin to “connect the dots” throughout the region. Is entertaining dictators a lesser crime than normalizing Israeli apartheid?

Why hold artists accountable for performing at the behest of tyrants, and let them off the hook for whitewashing Israel’s regime which engages in massive human rights abuses, all subsidized by the United States government?

Why not call artists who have performed in Israel, a state which practices a form of apartheid worse than anything the South African apartheid government had ever done? In 1973, the United Nations General Assembly defined the crime of Apartheid as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” As Israel’s official policy privileges Jewish nationals over non-Jewish citizens, creating de facto and de jure discrimination against the indigenous Palestinian people, it is hard to dispute that this supposed “democracy” is in reality an apartheid state.

Many of the discriminatory measures Israel practices today were unthought of in apartheid South Africa. In his powerful essay, “Apartheid in the Holy Land,” penned shortly after his return from a visit to the West Bank, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote: “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa” (“Apartheid in the Holy Land,” The Guardian, 29 April 2002).

In 2009, a comprehensive study by South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council confirmed that Israel is practicing both colonialism and apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territories.

That study was inspired by the observations of John Dugard, South African law professor and former UN special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, who wrote in 2006: “Israel’s large-scale destruction of Palestinian homes, leveling of agricultural lands, military incursions and targeted assassination of Palestinians far exceeded any similar practices in apartheid South Africa. No wall was ever built to separate blacks and whites.” And no roads were ever built for whites only in South Africa either, while Israel continues to build Jewish-only roads, cutting through the Palestinian landscape.

Israel’s form of apartheid includes the crippling blockade of Gaza; the ongoing seizure of Palestinian land and water sources; construction of the West Bank apartheid wall declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in The Hague; the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem; the denial of the rights of Palestinian refugees and discriminatory laws and mounting threats of expulsion against the 1.2 million Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship.

And as word inevitably gets out, because we are no longer pleading for permission to narrate, but seizing our right to expose these crimes, Israel is hard at work trying to fix its image, without changing the policies and actions that have tarnished that image. As it cements its apartheid policies, Israel is funneling millions of dollars into burnishing its public image as a culturally vibrant, progressive, and thriving democracy.

Among its PR moves is the cultural “Re-Brand” campaign. Israel is intentionally inviting international artists to such “hip” places as Tel Aviv to mask the ugly face of occupation, apartheid, displacement, and dispossession. If we are to hold artists accountable for their choice of performance venues and income sources — as indeed we should — then we should hold them accountable for complicity in normalizing apartheid no less than for entertaining dictators.

In an important article that appeared in The Grio, Lori Adelman also asks: “Why are black pop stars performing at the behest of dictators?” before making the comparison to Sun City, the extravagant whites-only entertainment resort city in apartheid South Africa. And she reminds her readers of the impact of the Artists United Against Apartheid music project, which contributed one million dollars for anti-Apartheid efforts and, most importantly, raised awareness about the global power of artists to influence political discourse on human rights issues (“Why are black pop stars performing at the behest of dictators?,” 24 February 2011).

Today, there is global awareness of Israel’s numerous crimes. And there is a call for artists to boycott Israel, until the country abides by international law. The call was issued in 2005 by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (www.pacbi.org/). In the US, where we live, the campaign is coordinated by the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. When we learn of an artist who is planning to perform in Tel Aviv, we contact them, inform them of the reality on the ground (should they need such information), and urge them to reconsider and cancel any concerts they may have scheduled. Many have already done so, including the industry’s biggest names: Carlos Santana, Bono, The Pixies, Elvis Costello and Gil Scott-Heron. Folk legend Pete Seeger also recently announced his support for boycotting Israel.

In what may be the most eloquent statement to date, Costello wrote: “One lives in hope that music is more than mere noise, filling up idle time, whether intending to elate or lament. Then there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent. … Some will regard all of this an unknowable without personal experience but if these subjects are actually too grave and complex to be addressed in a concert, then it is also quite impossible to simply look the other way” (“It Is After Considerable Contemplation …,” 15 May 2010).

Today, Artists Against Apartheid are still around, and they are active in promoting the boycott of a country that is practicing apartheid in the 21st century, namely Israel. The question should be, then, if artists boycotted Sun City, shouldn’t they also boycott Tel Aviv? Why the outrage when Beyonce entertains Gaddafi, but not when Madonna, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and so many more, entertain apartheid in Israel?

Editor’s note: this article originally incorrectly stated that Mariah Carey and Usher had performed in Israel but they have not done so. This version of the article reflects that correction.

Laurie King, an anthropologist, is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada.

Nada Elia is a member of the Organizing Committee of USACBI, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (Facebook).