Interview: Why is concert promoter suing Lebanon boycott activists?

Grafitti in Beirut in support of boycotting companies profiting from the Israeli occupation.

Katrine Syppli Kohl Flickr

Lebanese concert promoter Jihad el-Murr recently filed a lawsuit against four groups over a boycott campaign they organized against the band Placebo in June 2010. El-Murr is suing the organizations — Dar al-Adab, represented by Samah Idriss; the Palestinian Refugee Rights Center Aidoun; the Lebanese Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel in Lebanon and the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The lawsuit was delivered to Idriss and a representative of Aidoun.

El-Murr claims that the boycott protest caused his company To You To See $180,000 in financial losses, and he is suing the activists for that amount. The activists say that Placebo’s performance in Lebanon after playing in Tel Aviv was in violation of the 1955 Lebanese law that bars acts that serve the interest of Israel, and assert that it is their free speech right to protest. They say they refuse to pay the fine, though they risk being jailed for years if they refuse to do so.

Activist Rania Masri, assistant professor at the University of Balamand, was one of the organizers of the Placebo boycott campaign and one of the defendants in the lawsuit. In an interview with The Electronic Intifada, she explains the circumstances of the lawsuit and gives an overview of the BDS movement in Lebanon. She also says that this lawsuit mirrors the anti-boycott law recently passed by the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) that allows for litigation against individuals or groups calling for the boycott of Israel.

Maureen Clare Murphy: Can you give a brief overview of the lawsuit that BDS activists and groups are facing in Lebanon right now?

Rania Masri: Now what that lawsuit says, what that prosecution says, and just a little bit on the legal status here: Jihad al-Murr has opened the case against us. Until all four of the defendants actually receive a written notice of the lawsuit, the judge cannot schedule a time for that lawsuit. So the court system has agreed that this is the applicable case to go to court but they have not yet designated a specific court time and they can’t designate a specific court time until we all receive that notice.

So what Jihad al-Murr is stating in his lawsuit is that because we, back in June 2010, made statements encouraging the boycott [of the Placebo concert] — and he alleges that we also spread rumors and that we encouraged people to believe that something could happen so people’s security was threatened — consequently he had 3,000 fewer people show up to the Placebo concert in 2010 than had shown to the Placebo concert in Lebanon in 2004. Thereby we are liable to pay his loss of $180,000. So he’s presenting a correlation but no legal causation here.

We stated that Placebo’s performance in Lebanon, because they had performed in Israel, is a violation of the 1955 boycott law. El-Murr disagrees. He says it’s not a violation, therefore he’s also suing us on those grounds. The lawsuit could be regarded as a defamatory lawsuit in the sense that we are accusing him of actions that he says he did not do, which is breaking the law. And it’s also regarded in a very strict financial sense, that we have caused him financial harm.

Now what struck me when I read this, and it’s a 16-page lawsuit, is that he seems to have been inspired by the Israeli Knesset law. If we remember back in June when Israel passed the anti-boycott law, for them the statement was very clear. If you encourage the boycott, therefore you can be held liable without the [plaintiff] company proving that your statements caused their losses. So that’s kind of where we are right now.

What’s really interesting is that we did have a press release, and yes we did have a protest at the site, and we did hold a press conference, but this was all in June 2010. Placebo did come and play and now el-Murr is suing us one year later. So the timing of the lawsuit is really quite interesting and unfortunately people in the press here haven’t really been talking a lot about why he’s choosing this particular time now to take us to court.

MCM: What kind of penalties are the sued activists facing?

RM: If this goes to court, which is still up in the air, and we lose, then we’re going to be charged with $180,000. Of course, we’ll refuse to pay; we’ll appeal it.

Right now the way that we’re responding to this is both campaigning through our media and at the same time, following the advice of our lawyer. And our lawyer says that since [el-Murr] is suing two campaigns, the Lebanese campaign and the BDS campaign, then he needs to be able to place the lawsuit in the hands of every member of that campaign. You can see by the statement that we distributed, the lawyer wrote a statement in Arabic that we distribute to our comrades in Lebanon and all the pro-boycott supporters in Lebanon. And then I translated that statement and put it on my blog and now we’re getting supporters from around the world that are saying “Yes, sue me. I’m also a defendant in this case, sue me.” I’ve received more than 130 signatures literally from around the world. And what is even more important is that around a dozen of them are representing organizations, which then means [el-Murr] needs to sue that organization. So we’re making it difficult for him right now legally.

MCM: It doesn’t seem like it’s a foregone conclusion that this case would stand up in or even make it to court. But it does seem like it’s diverting activists’ attention, at the very least.

RM: I wouldn’t say it’s diverting activists’ attention; it’s another catalyst. And this is a self-criticism that I’m making here. Unfortunately, activism in general, we tend to be reactive. So, for example, in Lebanon we waited until this band was going to come and when we heard about it, then we had an event. It’s really hard when we’re boycotting not to actually be reactive. So in this sense, when I said it in an interview to a local paper here that we welcome this, I meant it. This could be a really golden opportunity not only for us to spur the boycott even further along but also to awaken it in Lebanon and to take it to court.

We do believe the law is on our side, the 1955 boycott law is on our side and furthermore we believe that the laws protecting freedom of expression in Lebanon are on our side. And since Lebanon remains a country at war with Israel, then we want to take this opportunity to remind our fellow Lebanese that Israel is not a regular neighbor here. Israel is still regarded legally, let alone historically and ideologically, as an enemy, and we hold on to our moral and national obligation to treat it as such. So for us as Lebanese, it’s not simply a stance in solidarity with the liberation of Palestine and a stance in opposition to apartheid. It’s also a stance in recognition of our own history and our own struggle as Lebanese against Israeli apartheid and Israeli occupation and oppression.

MCM: Why were activists protesting Placebo’s June 2010 concert in Beirut?

RM: Placebo had been to Israel a few days before they had come to perform in Lebanon. So there were two reasons here. One: we are calling for all artists around the world to boycott Israel. This is part of the cultural boycott of Israel. It’s not enough to simply boycott Israeli products coming from the illegal settlements or coming from 1948 Palestine.

What is critical and possibly even more important is the academic, cultural and athletic boycott of Israel. This is what really empowered the boycott movement in apartheid South Africa and this is particularly what we need here. We need to remove this whitewashing that the state of Israel has been doing so powerfully. Which is that Israel is just another country — you can come and you can sing and you can leave talking better about Israel. No. Israel is a pariah. Israel is committing acts that are abnormal. So we cannot have a normal relationship with it. This is vital.

When a singer chooses not to perform in Israel, there’s no real harm being done against innocent men, women and children. But there is harm being done against the reputation of the country, which is arguably more powerful. Furthermore, the state of Israel recognizes this and works vehemently to encourage performers to come to Israel to continue to whitewash their crimes. So this is not simply a passive act. And there is no separation between music and politics; they’re all one in the same. So that is one reason that we then boycott every band and every performance that goes to Israel.

[Placebo] had the audacity to perform in Israel and then come to Lebanon, as if they regard it as performing in Egypt and coming to Lebanon, or performing in Jordan and coming to Lebanon. If this band or any entertainment [act] chooses to ignore the international appeals to support the boycott movement, it cannot then expect a welcome in Lebanon. We refuse to give them the hospitality that they may think they’re getting.

Now to make matters even stronger in our case, the lead singer of Placebo, when he was in Israel, after their performance he was asked by Israeli journalists: what do you think of Israel? He spoke positively about it and he was asked specifically: would you think that you are supporting Israel by coming here? And he said, ‘I suppose so, particularly if you want to go sailing.’ This comment could easily be regarded as offensive because this happened just a month after the Gaza Freedom Flotilla massacre. It wasn’t simply just another day in the apartheid State of Israel, this was basically on the eve of that massacre, and here he was making light of that massacre.

MCM: Can you give a brief overview of the BDS movement in Lebanon at the moment? What other types of campaigns are being undertaken?

RM: We led similar campaigns against Diana Krall when she came, against DJ Tiesto when he came, because they also chose either to perform in Israel before or after [playing in Lebanon]. We also did support for other performers who chose not to perform in Israel and came to Lebanon.

Unfortunately we have H&M stores everywhere in this country; we have three H&M stores in the capital. The international movement [to boycott H&M] is being led by our comrades in Sweden and we have activists in California that are also working to boycott H&M for a number of reasons, including the presence of stores in occupied Palestine as well as the fact that they have an Israeli designer. And it doesn’t hurt our movement that they’ve also violated the rights of their workers.

Basically in a nutshell in Lebanon we have a boycott law, but that boycott law is not being enforced and it’s not being implemented. And for a significant portion of the Lebanese population, to them boycott is either irrelevant or it makes no difference — why should I boycott H&M just because it has ties to Israel? Why should I boycott Placebo just because it has ties to Israel? They think this is not their struggle. Or for some others, they think it is their struggle but the boycott won’t make a difference.

We live in a country where we have a very strong armed resistance movement against Israel, and one would say that it should be easier for us to understand boycotts since we’re still suffering from Israel, and they continue to violate our airspace, our land space and our water space. Nevertheless, the issue of boycott has not reached that plateau of acceptability in the country. I would say half the people in this country support boycott but they may not understand its importance and the other half oppose boycott because of their different views on Israel. So it’s still a struggle here. And it’s quite possible that this lawsuit that [el-Murr is] conducting against us will give us more opportunity to talk about the importance of boycott.

MCM: How can activists outside of Lebanon support the BDS groups that are being targeted by this lawsuit?

RM: Right now we’re asking people to sign our statement that’s on my blog. So that’s one aspect but to me, much more powerfully than that is if you want to support the BDS activists in Lebanon, then you have to support the BDS movement internationally. And we have to be working quite strategically.

I just read today in The Jerusalem Post that there is now a movement of Zionist supporters who the moment that they hear about any band that is being booked in Israel, they find somebody who knows the band personally and they meet with them to encourage them to resist our efforts to call on them not to perform in Israel. So the counter-insurgency, the counter-boycott movement, is definitely growing in strength. So we ourselves need to grow strategically and need to be developing very consistent efforts and not be so much in a reactive mode. To me that would be strongest statement that people can do in support of us here in Lebanon, to support BDS wherever they themselves are.

What is scary about this lawsuit [in Lebanon] is not so much that it is anti-boycott, as much as it is anti-freedom of expression. And both of those are strongly tied. We saw it in the Knesset law that passed. Israelis were in uproar over it not so much because of boycotts but because of the stifling of freedom of expression. I think it’d be beautiful if BDS activists around the world could be thinking ahead, that if we start to gain strength, we should expect such laws being used against our colleagues in the US, against our colleagues in Europe, against our colleagues elsewhere.

If we do want to win, the struggle is going to be tough and the stronger that we get, the more resistance we’re going to face. So how do to we truly develop our actions strategically, thinking about several different scenarios and what should we do? If we’re talking about our US colleagues, then it is integral that they connect the struggle with other struggles in the US — other struggles for freedom, other struggles over freedom of expression, other struggles against censorship. These struggles absolutely need to be tied. There’s no way that we can be victorious on our own. We are all in this together.

Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada.