Tolerance, “global fusion” and “cross-cultural” are all phrases Israeli singer Idan Raichel uses to describe his music on his website. Of Eastern European descent, the formerly dreadlocked artist who dons a head wrap and sometimes sings in Amharic presents himself as peace-loving and tolerant, seeking to build bridges through music.
Music industry insiders will attest to his effectiveness behind the scenes in encouraging artists like India.Arie and Alicia Keys to continue to play in Israel despite boycott calls.
Yet Raichel’s first appearance upon arriving for his latest US tour was a gala fundraiser for the Israeli military held in Los Angeles.
Israel’s “best ambassador”
Raichel has been called “maybe the best ambassador that Israel has” by the Israeli consul general for the Pacific Northwest. This is significant because in 2006, the Israeli government launched an initiative dubbed “Brand Israel,” intended to use marketing, particularly in the arts, to improve Israel’s image abroad.
In 2009, the deputy director general of cultural affairs in the Israeli foreign ministry declared, “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits. This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” As part of this effort, Raichel traveled throughout the African continent in an Israeli government-initiated and produced tour in 2012 and 2013.
But the cultural boycott of Israel, part of the larger South Africa-style movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), paired with Israel’s own actions, has had a significant impact on Israel’s image despite extensive branding efforts.
The Israeli government has formed task forces to tackle the boycott, and recently a powerful Hollywood organization, Creative Community For Peace (CCFP), was founded by industry executives with close ties to the right-wing anti-Palestinian group StandWithUs.
Notably, CCFP features Idan Raichel prominently on its homepage.
“I see an Israel I am happy with”
As an endorser of the group Thank Israeli Soldiers, Raichel has referred to the Israeli army as a “basic ingredient” in life — presumably in Israel. In 2008, Raichel stated in Hebrew, “We certainly see ourselves as ambassadors of Israel in the world, cultural ambassadors, hasbara ambassadors, also in regards to the political conflict.”
“Hasbara” is the Hebrew term for Israel’s state-directed propaganda efforts.
In January, Raichel embraced alleged Israeli torturer Doron Zahavi, nicknamed “Captain George,” in a statement posted on the photo-sharing social network Instagram, suggesting that Zahavi deserved “a medal of honor.” In June, Raichel identified himself as a cultural ambassador for Israel and went on to write, “When I look back over the past few years, I see an Israel I am happy with.” This statement comes at a time of increasing racism among Israeli Jews toward Palestinians, including those holding Israeli citizenship.
Protested in New York
It is within this context that New Yorkers protested Raichel’s concert at New York City’s Symphony Space, following a protest of the artist earlier this month in Seattle.
Thousands of signatories endorsed a letter initiated by the group Adalah-NY criticizing the World Music Institute (WMI) for presenting Raichel’s show and urging the institute to cancel it. Among the signatories were the organization’s co-founder, Robert Browning, and honorary WMI board member and famed filmmaker Mira Nair, along with musical acts including Boukman Eksperyans, Simon Shaheen, DAM, Red Baraat’s Sonny Singh, Invincible and Shubha Mudgal.
Last year, New Yorkers protesting his concert were confronted by a rather racist crowd of concert-goers:
Alicia Keys’ embrace
Raichel’s unwavering support for Israeli policies and the high-profile protest against him makes the support he receives from singer, songwriter and pianist Alicia Keys even more confusing.
Keys is viewed in the United States as a humanitarian for her role as founder of HIV charity Keep A Child Alive, and her support for causes including Frum Tha Ground Up, Teens in Motion, CARE, Oxfam, Equal Justice Initiative, the Trayvon Martin Foundation and War Child.
Keys also just penned an op-ed in The Guardian proclaiming her commitment to social justice. Yet Keys ignored the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of Israel, a move similar to artists who insisted on playing in South Africa’s Sun City during the 1980s.
By doing so, she turned her back on a large-scale campaign asking her not to play, disregarding appeals from author Alice Walker and other distinguished African American artists and intellectuals.
During her concert in Tel Aviv, Keys brought Idan Raichel on stage to perform with her. During the same trip, Keys was photographed in what appears to be the office of the aforementioned organization Thank Israeli Soldiers, with a woman believed to be staff person Rachel Greenberg.
More than a year later, Keys and Idan Raichel resurfaced together at the Global Citizen Festival, this time with Palestinian qanun player Ali Amr (aka Ali Paris). They touted a new organization, “We Are Here,” and used language about building bridges virtually identical to that of the mission statement of the StandWithUs-connected Creative Community For Peace.
Just weeks ago, Keys congratulated Raichel after he received an “MTV Role Model” award, proclaiming before an audience in Jaffa, “You are an incredible human being and you inspire me all the time.”
Swimming against a rising tide
In July, actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz were among one hundred Spanish celebrities who wrote an open letter that went so far as to describe Israel’s actions in Gaza as genocidal and correctly identified the Israeli military as the “Israel occupation forces.”
Taking things a step further, rapper Talib Kweli canceled a show in Israel, endorsing the cultural boycott in July. He was joined in October by fellow rappers Chuck D and Boots Riley. In September, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz, joined by dozens of prominent literary figures, signed a letter calling on the Brooklyn Book Festival not to take Israeli government funding.
Whatever the reasons for Keys’ unusual affinity for someone who seems to embody everything she stands against, both Keys and Raichel are swimming against a rising tide of celebrities critical of Israeli state policies that includes Waka Flocka Flame, John Cusack, Joey Barton, Mark Ruffalo, Eddie Vedder, Peter Gabriel and Keys’ own husband Swizz Beatz.