Alanis Morissette, the Canadian American pop singer, is an unlikely ambassador to the Middle East, but in some ways, she is a good one.
The cease-fire between the Israelis and the Palestinians seems to be holding, but tensions are running high. On Monday , as the European diplomatic community was considering punitive action after Israel announced a plan to develop 3,000 new settler homes near Jerusalem, and the American press corps was chiding Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for being insufficiently tough on Israeli leaders, Morissette was singing before a sold-out crowd at Nokia Stadium in Tel Aviv.
Stalking the stage in leather and boots, her long hair streaming, Morissette, wearing a Cheshire-cat grin, let the audience sing the first several lines from her 1996 hit “Ironic.” “Amazing concert. Come back soon. We love you, Alanis!” read the tributes on YouTube.
Morissette performed in Tel Aviv despite intense pressure not to. She, like so many other left-leaning artists, was the target of an organized social-media campaign encouraging her to protest the Israeli government’s policies in Palestine by leaving Israel out of her travel plans. “In solidarity with [the Palestinian people], we are asking you to not to play for apartheid,” implored a group called Don’t Play Apartheid Israel. “Alanis, please cancel.”
The idea – promoted on college campuses, in mainline Protestant churches and in other potentially sympathetic communities in the European Union and the United States through a movement called BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) – is to exert global pressure on Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and to recognize the human and legal rights of the Palestinians. (How BDS aims to achieve any kind of negotiated peace is far less clear.) And in a lot of cases, it’s worked. Elvis Costello and Roger Waters have both canceled performances in Israel. Last week, Stevie Wonder canceled a gig at a benefit in Los Angeles for the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, saying, “I am and have always been against war, any war, anywhere,”
But Morissette remained firm, saying that when she traveled to Israel in 2000, she had “a great time . . . professionally, spiritually and emotionally.”
Perhaps Morissette is a foreign policy savant and understands, as the British peace activist Hannah Weisfeld explained in Haaretz in March, that a broad boycott of Israel conflates too much: its politicians with its people; its current policies with its legitimate history; its businesses in the occupied territories with those inside its 1949 borders.
“When a state and its government’s policy become inseparable, it is too easy to question the legitimacy of a nation’s right to exist,” Weisfeld wrote. (Some leftist Zionists, like Peter Beinart, make a distinction between boycotting Israeli products and boycotting those produced in the West Bank and Gaza. They’ll support the latter, but not the former.)
Perhaps Morissette understands that a reasonable person can be deeply concerned, even anguished, about the Israeli government’s rightward turn and the danger of its seeming deafness to world opinion without turning against Israel itself.
Or perhaps, as a pop star, she simply wants to play (and sell) her music to her fans and believes that those in Israel are no less deserving than those in, say, Arizona, where government leaders have taken actions that penalize illegal immigrants – people with darker skin, who will work for cheap and have second-class status under the law.
BDS has succeeded in dividing the left at a time when unity – and making peace a priority – is crucial. Elvis Costello wouldn’t play in Israel, but his wife, Diana Krall, did. Lady Gaga, Madonna and Leonard Cohen have all played in Israel in recent years. Asked to decline the Jerusalem Prize, which he was awarded this year, the novelist Ian McEwan scoffed. “If you didn’t go to foreign countries whose foreign policy or domestic policy is screwed up, you’d never get out of bed,” he said. Then, in his acceptance speech he criticized both Palestine and Israel for holding nihilism above creativity and freedom.
Engagement, in this case, is better than disengagement. I am old enough to remember that flurry of celebrity aid concerts of the 1980s and 1990s, launched so memorably with Live Aid and “We Are the World.” What if instead of declining to perform in Israel, artists insisted on it – singing together, as one peace activist friend of mine imagined, by the fence that separates the country from the West Bank. Is that a Yoko Ono-ish fantasy?
Morissette might have served the cause of peace (if, indeed, that’s what she supports) better by clearly articulating her reasons for going to Israel. But maybe she thinks her music speaks for itself. She closed her show last week with a rendition of her song “Thank You,” a paean to human frailty and fallibility that goes, in part, like this: “Thank you terror, thank you disillusionment. . . . How bout me not blaming you for everything . . . how bout how good it feels to finally forgive you.”
The audience went crazy.