Entertainment industry bigwigs push back against musicians boycotts of Israel

A group of 30 leading music executives, talent agents and entertainment lawyers gathered in late April for lunch in the downstairs conference room at the law offices of Ziffren Brittenham in Century City. Together, the group represents the likes of Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Aerosmith, Jennifer Lopez and Justin Timberlake — to name a few.

Organized by the nascent group Creative Community for Peace (CCFP), a nonprofit seeking to counter artist boycotts of Israel, the meeting would include an educational PowerPoint presentation and an informal discussion with Los Angeles’ Consul General of Israel David Siegel.

Cueing up the first slide, adorned with photos of famous musicians — Carlos Santana, Roger Waters, Elvis Costello and the alternative rock band the Pixies — David Renzer, the former chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group, asked, “What do these artists have in common?”

Marin rocker Carlos Santana refuses to play in Israel

The room remained quiet. Renzer clicked to the next slide, displaying photos of jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, alt rocker Cat Power and U.K.-based electronic artist Joker.

Then, in his most equanimous voice, Renzer offered the big reveal: “They’ve all boycotted Israel,” he said. “They’ve all canceled their tours to Israel.”

Among the music industry executives, producers, lawyers and agents, few were aware that Israel faced an international campaign to create a cultural boycott of the country.

Renzer described the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) as a loose collection of self-described “pro-Palestinian” activists who use every means — from sophisticated websites to tables on college quads — to spread a pro-boycott message.

He showed videos of BDS in action, including one of the BBC cutting off its live broadcast of the Israel Philharmonic’s performance at Royal Albert Hall last fall, after pro-boycott demonstrators disrupted the concert.

“This is an example of the stuff that gets put in front of artists,” Renzer said, adding that in April, Oscar-winner Emma Thompson joined three dozen other actors, directors and writers in protesting the inclusion of Tel Aviv theater troupe Habima in a Shakespeare festival at London’s Globe Theatre. Not only musicians are targeted, Renzer said. “This is about culture.”

“Well, where’s our music video? Where’s the counter-publicity?” griped an angry Gary Stiffelman, a partner at Ziffren Brittenham, who has represented Eminem, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson. “Don’t the Jews still control the media?”

Everybody chuckled.

“It just shocks me that this ragtag group is doing a better job at the PR battle than Israel,” Stiffelman said. “There should be a global campaign! I don’t see it. I don’t see counter-PR happening on YouTube.”

Lady Gaga continues to perform in israel.

Talk turned to producing a pro-Israel promotional video; then, inevitably, questions followed about who might pay for it.

“We need to make Israel cool,” Atar Dekel, cultural attache for the Israeli Consulate, concluded.

CCFP is the first group led by industry insiders to try to counter negative messaging about Israel targeted toward the artistic community.

At a time when Israel’s image as a vibrant, democratic society is constantly threatened, the presence of world-class entertainers, many of whom have large, impressionable audiences, can help make life there seem, and feel, more normal. These days, however, luring mostly liberal-minded artists to a country whose reputation is often defined by its detractors can be a challenge.

CCFP was created to demonstrate to artists that Israel is a decent place, and that whatever their opinion of Israeli national policy, the boycott and divestment efforts unfairly punish the Israeli public.

But while some high-profile musicians have succumbed to pressure to cancel their Israel tours, many prominent artists are still performing there, including Lady Gaga, Elton John, Rihanna, Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen. This summer, 46 musical acts are scheduled, including Madonna, who will debut her world tour in Tel Aviv, as well as Rufus Wainwright, Herbie Hancock and Lenny Kravitz. For the classical palate, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will perform; for spectacle, Cirque du Soleil.

But elsewhere, there may be trouble ahead. CCFP is already monitoring a situation arising with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, scheduled to perform in Israel in September, who have become the subject of an intense Internet campaign to cancel.

CCFP germinated in the summer of 2010 on a master class trip to Israel organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. It was just weeks after the Gaza flotilla raid prompted an international uproar, and soon musicians such as Elvis Costello and the Pixies began to cancel. Renzer and his friend Steve Schnur, worldwide head of music for Electronic Arts video games, got to talking about what they could do.

Schnur had just come from an Elton John concert at Tel Aviv’s Ramat Gan stadium.

“Elton walked on stage and said, ‘They’re not gonna stop me from coming here, baby,’ ” Schnur recalled. “I was on the verge of tears, because someone was speaking up when all others were protesting. And the press was turning [the flotilla incident] into a forum for significant misinformation, and people have a tendency to believe what they read.”

Renzer and Schnur held an informal meeting, which also included Ran Geffen-Lifshitz, CEO of Media Men Group, a music publishing company based in Tel Aviv, and Doug Frank, former president of music operations for Warner Bros. Pictures. They decided they could use their connections to reach out to artists who were planning to perform in Israel.

“The initial mission was: Make sure no one else cancels,” Renzer said during an interview with CCFP co-founder Schnur last fall. “We saw the boycott movement was getting some wins,” he continued, referring to the initial spate of cancellations, which also included spoken word artist and poet Gil Scott-Heron.

Costello, the most prominent artist to cancel, publicly vacillated at first, but ultimately did not want to get caught in a political tug-of-war, according to a post on his blog.

While some might see CCFP’s raison d’etre as fear-mongering, Geffen-Lifshitz sees it as prudent. “If you boycott Israel in art, the next thing is boycotting Israeli manufactured goods, then a boycott of Israel as a tourist destination. Then a boycott of anything that has anything to do with Israel. We have to nip this in the bud.”

But the point, really, is that music goes beyond politics. It is personal, emotional and can cut across language barriers, boundaries and borders, and spread messages of openness and peace.

“People who live in Israel are music fans and have a right to hear the music they love,” Schnur said.

“Musicians that play there don’t have to agree with the current or previous policies of the Israeli government — but they can go there and speak toward it or against it. Where else in the Middle East can an artist do that?”