Why is Texas festival SXSW hosting a “happy hour” for Israel?

Denied right to relax: Palestinians were attacked watching World Cup games in Gaza last summer.

Mohammed Asad APA images

Texas-based activists have urged a popular arts festival to drop a “happy hour” and other events sponsored by the Israeli government.

The group Austin Artists Against Apartheid is calling on South By Southwest (SXSW) to heed the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

The group has started a petition urging SXSW — nine days of concerts, films and conferences — to drop events sponsored and promoted by the Israeli government.

The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, the Interfaith Community for Palestinian Rights and the University of Texas - Austin’s Palestine Solidarity Committee have also joined the campaign. 

Last year, an estimated 134,000 people attended SXSW, bringing more than $315 million to the city of Austin.

In the petition, Austin Artists Against Apartheid decry the Israeli authorities’ “long-standing history of distracting the global community from their atrocious human rights violations by presenting themselves as champions of progressive culture and modern technology.”

Rabiya Ali, director of Austin Artists Against Apartheid, said that “Texas has been fertile ground for Israeli hasbara for a while now.” Hasbara — often translated as “explaining” — is the term Israel uses for its propaganda or “public diplomacy” activities.

“We’ve noticed an increase in Israeli-sponsored trade, commerce and cultural events and partnerships here in the past several years. As artists, we’re outraged over the use of a creative forum as a propaganda tool, of course, but the issue is much larger than SXSW alone,” Ali told The Electronic Intifada. “We hope that this current campaign can be part of a much larger BDS effort that needs to happen in Texas.”


Listed on the 2015 SXSW schedule is “Israel: Small Country, Big Ideas” — a forum  to “expose SXSW attendees to the Israeli startup and tech scene and showcase the opportunities that exist for investment, collaboration, and [research and development].”

“This discussion will also touch on why Israel is helping lead the way for advancements in technology in areas such as health-tech, big data, privacy and cyber-security,” the event description adds.

One of the event’s presenters, Jon Medved, is an American-born Israeli venture capitalist who went on CNBC to stoke anti-Palestinian sentiment during the 51-day assault on the Gaza Strip last summer.

More than 2,200 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians, during that offensive.

Medved tried to portray Israel as the victim. “We want our lives back,” he said at the time. “We want Hamas to stop firing rockets at us. We want these tunnels to be gone so we don’t have to worry about people popping up and taking hundreds of hostages or killing people.”

The other presenter is Bruce Taragin, the managing director of Blumberg Capital, a venture-capital firm that manages significant investments in Israeli companies, according to a 2013 article at the Al-Monitor website.

“Ugly truth”

In an August 2011 letter to the editor at the Inside Bay Area newspaper, Taragin lashed out at Palestinians.

“Gaza is ruled by the Islamist Hamas government, where women are second-class citizens, and being an LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] is a capital offense,” he claimed. “Schools teach children to aspire to murder Israelis. Those who murder Jews are idolized and have parks named after them.”

Taragin did not mention Israel’s frequent attacks on the Gaza Strip, which have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians.  

The “Israel Innovation Showcase and Happy Hour Reception” will welcome the Israel-sponsored delegation on 16 March, according to a webpage for an Israeli trade office in America’s Midwest. Those attending the event are promised music, snacks and drinks.

The idea of such a “happy hour” is deeply ironic when one considers how Palestinians are denied the right to relax. Israel bombed the Fun Time Beach café in Gaza last July, killing nine people as they watched a World Cup soccer game.

Austin Artists Against Apartheid’s petition also alludes to the Brand Israel campaign, an initiative launched by the Israeli government in 2006 to employ marketing strategies, particularly in the fields of art and culture, to give a positive image of Israel.

Brand Israel is part of a broader Israeli strategy designed to combat the growing global solidarity with Palestinians.

Austin Artists Against Apartheid condemns Brand Israel as “using artists, authors and performers to project a false image of a culturally diverse and progressive nation, while taking the spotlight off of Israel’s continuing annexation and occupation of Palestinian land, and its oppression and persecution of the Palestinian people.”

Israel, the group says, is attempting to distort “the ugly truth that lies behind Israel’s ‘prettier face.’” Pointing to Israel’s summer assault in Gaza, the artists argue that “Israel’s [2015] presence in the SXSW Interactive Festival is more significant than ever.”

Update, 28 February:

Along with the Interfaith Community for Palestinian Rights, Codepink - Austin, Jewish Voice for Peace - Austin and other groups, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation sent a joint letter to SXSX’s marketing director, Katie King, but received no reply.

“By partnering with the Israeli government and providing a platform for this whitewashing campaign, SXSW will become a participant in it,” the letter reads.

In reaction to SXSW’s failure to reply, the groups launched their own petition. ”SXSW has long been a cherished mecca for art, innovation, and revolutionary thinking,” the petition states. ”Please ensure it stays that way by heeding the call, Keep SXSW Creative, Not Criminal: No Hipster Apartheid!”



Patrick Strickland

Patrick Strickland's picture

Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist and frequent contributor at The Electronic Intifada. He is presently working on his first book for the London-based publishing house Zed Books. See his in-depth coverage for EI.