When British novelist Ian McEwan accepted a prestigious Israeli literary award last week, he used the occasion to criticize Israeli policies
in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
His high-powered audience, which included the nation's president and the mayor of Jerusalem, responded in an unexpected way: They gave him a warm ovation, ecstatic that the renowned writer had even agreed to show up.
Like many other celebrities and artists of late, McEwan faced calls urging him to boycott the Jewish state.
The campaign is led by Palestinians, Israeli leftists and other supporters who oppose Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and are attuned to the power of celebrity in this age.
It has had some success, deterring a string of famous entertainers from performing.
McEwan said he faced "vigorous calls" with "varying degrees of civility" to turn down The Jerusalem Prize – Israel's most prestigious award for foreign writers. Instead, he decided to come to engage Israelis, not isolate them.
"If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed," the author of the best-selling book "Atonement" told The Associated Press. "It's not great if everyone stops talking."
Most artists have resisted the pressure and gone ahead with their Israel
appearances. Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Madonna and Paul McCartney are among the entertainers to perform in Israel in recent years.
Others have bowed to the pressure.
Over the past year, Elvis Costello
and the Pixies
canceled concerts, as well as the British dance band Klaxon and the Gorillaz Sound System. Santana and Bjork also called off concerts, without explaining why.
Announcing his decision last year, Costello spoke of "intimidation, humiliation or much worse" inflicted by Israel on the Palestinians and said sometimes "merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act." Costello's representatives refused to comment for this story.
Considering how strong and widespread the international opposition is to Israel's 43-year-old occupation, it might seem striking that the country is so well integrated into the world community: a close ally of the United States with a tight association with the European Union and growing trade with the emerging giants of Asia.
Israel has faced occasional boycotts of its academics, unions and in some cases commercial products – but it is the cultural snubbing that may be hardest to swallow.
"We are used to being threatened physically by our neighbors, but this is a new intellectual threat," said Oren Arnon, a music promoter who had to cancel the sold-out Pixies concert after the group bailed out.
"Saying that you are wrong is one thing – which is what McEwan is saying – but saying you have no right to a normal life because of your government's actions is something that is easier to take offense to."
Boycott activists say that's precisely the point.
"When people come to Israel, it gives a false sense of business as usual," said Ofer Neiman, an Israeli boycott activist. "As long as this atmosphere goes on, the Israeli public will not be motivated to change things."
Neiman is linked to the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, which "urges a total boycott of the state of Israel until justice and the rule of law are reinstated in historic Palestine." Neiman was among a small group of activists who heckled McEwan at a literary function Tuesday.
Activists connected to the group even produced a clip called "BDS Bieber," parodying Justin Bieber's hit "Baby," with lyrics calling on the 16-year-old pop star to cancel his upcoming concert in Israel.
Israel accuses boycott advocates of capitalizing on artists' ignorance.
"I doubt Justin Bieber would be able to tell the difference between Tel Aviv and Tashkent on the map," said Eytan Schwartz, who has campaigned against the boycott movement.
"I don't hold Elvis Costello responsible for British troops killing people in Afghanistan and I don't hold Justin Bieber responsible for what happens in Iraq. So why are concertgoers in Tel Aviv accountable for the policies of their government?"
Italian writer Umberto Eco, attending the same book festival as McEwan, said boycotting Israelis for their governments' policies was itself "a form of racism" and "absolutely crazy."
McEwan said that despite rejecting the boycott, he felt compelled to voice his opposition to Israeli policies, particularly because his award recognizes writing that promotes the idea of "the freedom of the individual in society."
In his speech, he railed against Israel's "confiscation, land purchases and expulsion in east Jerusalem" – but he also credited the country with "extraordinary vitality" that manifested itself in an abundance of opinion and has produced an "amazing literary culture."