The latest reason to boycott the Red Sea Jazz Festival

The Red Sea Jazz Festival, held twice a year in “Israel’s Riviera” of Eilat, is once again upon us. The festival, to be held from July 30th to August 2nd, has become known for attracting an eclectic array of artists from across the jazz spectrum. Naturally, it’s become a worthy target for the growing campaign for cultural boycott of Israel.

Last year New Orleans street jazz group Tuba Skinny publicly canceled their appearance at the jazz fest after being approached by members of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and discussing it among themselves. What appeared to seal the deal for them was the fresh spate of bombings Israel launched against Gaza; launched, specifically, right outside of Eilat.

This year, however, there is an added reason to boycott the Red Sea Jazz Fest in particular—namely that also in Eilat, Israel is interning hundreds of African migrants scheduled for deportation. In mid-June, Israeli authorities began rounding up Sudanese refugees from across the country. And the internment center in which they’re being held is—you guessed it—in Eilat.

African immigrants have increasingly scapegoated in Israeli society over the past year, with politicians in the Knesset calling them “a cancer and an AIDS virus on the Israeli people.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has joined the charge against the “60,000 African migrants, whose numbers are seen by many Israelis as a law and order issue and even a threat to the long-term viability of the Jewish state.” This language—that of a looming “demographic threat” to Israel’s Jewish character—is similar what is commonly said about Palestinians.

How many performers at the Red Sea Jazz Fest will be aware that not far from where they are performing, hundreds of people are awaiting deportation for little reason other than their ethnic and racial heritage? How many will be conscious of their own role in almost literally running cover for this crime?

The cruel and twisted irony, of course, is that jazz’s own origins in the United States spring from the apartheid treatment of African-Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of jazz’s seminal figures—Louis Armstrong, WC Handy, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane—dealt with the realities of segregation and even racist violence for much of their lives.

Even jazz itself was often targeted for clearly racist reasons during the era of Jim Crow. Its acceptance as an art-form signified an acknowledgement—at least to some degree—of the contribution Blacks have made to American culture. And its embrace by musicians the world-over—particularly in Africa—has historically reflected a commonality in struggle against oppression. This included the fight against apartheid in South Africa. It’s Miles Davis’ trumpet, for example that provides the introduction Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City.”

Last summer, Tuba Skinny decided to stand in this tradition, and on the right side of history. The question this year is what other jazz artists will make that same choice.


Alexander Billet

Alexander Billet's picture

Alexander Billet is a music journalist and solidarity activist based in Chicago. He is on the editorial board of Red Wedge magazine, and his articles have also appeared in The Electronic Intifada, Jacobin,, New Politics and other publications. He is one of the founding members of Punks Against Apartheid, who successfully campaigned in the summer of 2011 for the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra to cancel his concert in Tel Aviv.

A full collection of his articles can be found at his website Rebel Frequencies, and he can be reached at