THE BLOG
10/30/2014 03:21 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Celebrities and Another Kind of Cultural Work

In August the Washington Post ran an article entitled, "Celebrities Get Nasty Over Gaza and Israel," which began, "Your average celebrity feud starts with a personal slight that escalates into a hashtag-laden Twitter battle and culminates with a late-night talk show appearance. But when celebs fight about Israel and the Palestinians, things can get really ugly. Recently, Hollywood had a lot to say about the conflict in the region -- and much of it wasn't very nice." The celebs in question were Bill Maher, Joan Rivers, Selena Gomez, Penelope Cruz, and Javier Bardem. While the WaPo makes the distinction between the two kinds of celebrity disputes (personal, and political), and while it's always good when the fight is over something non-trivial, it's perhaps better to look toward other kinds of public figures for an index as to how the issue of Israel-Palestine is finally but firmly finding its way into our larger cultural consciousness.

Take two very different examples of cultural "boycotts." While activist organizations have petitioned artists such as the Rolling Stones and Neil Young to join the cultural boycott of Israel, the results have been uneven. Despite the fact that some artists and musicians back out of their initial commitments to work in Israel, they often are quiet about why they are doing so. On October 21 the news came that the Beach Boys had cancelled their concert. But no one knows why. So one cannot draw much of anything from this announcement.

On the other hand, when Pultizer Prize-winner author and MacArthur "genius" Junot Díaz decides to endorse the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, it carries some weight, especially with the quote he provided that accompanied the endorsement. Díaz's statement leaves no doubt as to his understanding of the significance of his action, and why he is taking it:

If there exists a moral arch to the universe then Palestine will eventually be free but that promised day will never arrive unless we, the justice-minded peoples of our world, fight to end the cruel blight of the Israeli occupation. Our political, religious and economic leaders have always been awesome at leading our world into conflict, only we the people alone with little else but our courage and our solidarities and our invincible hope can lead our world into peace.

It's crucial here to see two things. First, Díaz is not only a celebrated and powerful writer, whose work blends acute political and global-historical consciousness with dazzling verbal artistry, he is also an educator (Díaz teaches at MIT), and in particular his knowledge and understanding of nationalism, race and ethnicity, among other things, gives this statement immense credibility.

Similarly, when Chuck D, co-founder of the legendary rap group Public Enemy, endorses the boycott, and so does poet, producer, rapper Boots Riley, we can see a new cultural formation taking place that is seeing the issue of Palestinian rights in a new historical context linked in any number of ways with rights for other groups.

Remi Kanazi, a noted Palestinian- American performance poet and human rights activist offers a number of reasons why artists are signing on now:

A big catalyst is the most recent massacre on Gaza. More artists are aware of the realities taking place in Palestine today. While celebrities faced intense backlash for tweeting messages as innocuous as "Free Palestine" over the summer, and many are afraid to speak up because of repercussions, the taboo is being broken. As the Israeli government lurches to the right and its bombing campaigns become more frequent, people, including celebrities, are looking for a way to act, to lend their voice to something that challenges the status quo. Cultural boycott is that entry point for effective action.

Kanazi notes a powerful ripple-effect taking place:

Artists have immense power and sway. Millions of Americans know who Roger Waters is. When Waters, Alice Walker, or Stephen Hawking lend their voices to cultural and academic boycott, the mainstream takes notice, other celebrities take notice, and artists who are on the fence or afraid to take the next step are more inclined to join on. It is important to remember that there is precedent for cultural boycott--it was seen as helping to strip away the cloak of invincibility from the apartheid regime in South Africa.

We are seeing cultural boycott campaigns take place across the globe. From 500 artists in Montreal to 240 artists in Ireland to 370 artists in the U.S., more cultural workers than ever are heeding the boycott call from Palestinian civil society. The BDS Arts Coalition, of which I am member, recently called on participants to withdraw from an exhibit featured at Israel's Technion University. Technion University is complicit with Israel's occupation and functions as a critical research center for the proliferation of technologies for the Israeli army. More than 100 artists and intellectuals signed onto an open letter calling on participants to withdraw from the exhibit. Six of the featured artists and groups pulled out and more than ten artists who were featured in the larger global exhibit of Living as Form signed the open letter urging other artists to withdraw.

It's crucial to note that Junot Díaz does not restrict his call to action to simply celebrities, musicians, artists. He recognizes that it will take a mass movement to bring justice to the Palestinians: "only we the people alone with little else but our courage and our solidarities and our invincible hope can lead our world into peace." Celebrities have a huge role to play in drawing attention to the cause; but people need to pay attention to their own actions after they come to understand the situation in Palestine. It is crucial to note that the act of boycotting Israel is not a matter of singling out Israel for criticism, it is, as Kanazi says, a response to a call for solidarity from Palestinian civil society, much like the appeal put out to the world to end apartheid. The prescription Díaz puts forth for us today worked well then, and can now.