Friday, January 11, 2013

Thanks, Stanley Jordan, For Pulling Out of Israeli Jazz Fest


It appears that the movement for a cultural boycott of Israel can claim another victory. On Saturday (5 January) guitarist Stanley Jordan announced he will not be performing at the winter installment of Israel’s Red Sea Jazz Festival. In a brief statement on his Facebook page, Jordan stated: “My performance at the Red Sea Jazz Festival has been cancelled. I apologize for any inconvenience to anyone.” Jordan, an acclaimed an innovative guitarist, had been billed as a headliner at the festival.

The outpouring of gratitude has been substantial. A lengthy stream of comments thanked Jordan for standing with human rights and against occupation, and recognizing that for a working artist to pull out of a show is not an easy decision. Anyone who has had the displeasure of wading through the cesspool of racism and abuse that hardcore Zionists are wont to leave on even vaguely pro-Palestinian Facebook pages can surely appreciate the love and positivity that’s been shown to Jordan.

The Red Sea Jazz Festival -- which takes place twice a year -- has previously been one of the cultural events that the Israeli state could rely on to go off without a hitch (and yes, it is the actual state we’re talking about here; RSJF is backed by several government ministries). Held in the resort town of Eilat on the coast of the Red Sea, the jazz festival has normally been adequate in filling its role in distracting from the realities of Israeli apartheid. Jazz, after all, is a multi-racial art form, and any state that hosts jazz festivals can’t possibly be racist, right?

That changed after the New Orleans street jazz troupe Tuba Skinny cancelled in 2011. The cancellation was last minute, and drummed up a good amount of publicity for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, particularly when the group released a statement explaining its actions. This past summer, as hundreds of Sudanese refugees were rounded up and deported, they were held at a detention center not too far from Eilat itself, which surely poked a few more holes in the city’s idyllic veneer.

Tipping point

More broadly, Israel is obviously facing a serious political fallout from Operation Pillar of Cloud -- its eight-day offensive against Gaza in November. Though its international backers continue to support Israel’s occupation and apartheid regime, its continual slide into racist barbarity surely puts the tipping point in its credibility not too far off. Indeed, some think that it’s already arrived. Either way, it’s getting harder and harder to pull off the kinds of cultural events that have always been used to paint Israeli society as the beacon of cultural tolerance amid a sea of savagery.

Credit is also due to the sustained and patient campaigning on the part of BDS activists attempting to convince Jordan to cancel. And that is what makes this case rather unique. The use of Facebook to campaign for an artist, speaker or a musician to cancel a performance or appearance in Israel is nothing new in our age. What stands out is the way that Stanley Jordan himself used it to come to the decision to cancel.

Several messages and pleas had already been sent to Jordan requesting he cancel, but on 24 December, he made a rather unexpected move, posting the following statement on his Facebook page:

I’ve received several messages from people requesting that I cancel my performance at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel. I promised a detailed response, so here it is. I would like to start a dialog right here to discuss this topic. Next to global warming, the Middle East conflict is the biggest issue of our time, and it’s too important for black-and-white responses that ignore the nuances. And we truly need an open dialog with a spirit of mutual compassion for everyone involved. For my part, I want to use my talents and energies in the best possible way for the cause of peace. This purpose is deeply ingrained in my soul’s code, and I’ve known it since childhood. So the only remaining question is: how can I best accomplish this goal? I invite you all to weigh in. I’d like to start the discussion by recommending a wonderful book called Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East by Rabbi Michael Lerner. I’ve been reading a lot on this topic but this book stands out for me because it resonates with my own feelings. I encourage everyone to read it as background for our discussion. And please keep your comments clean and respectful. Let’s model the type of dialog that will eventually lead to a solution.

As an aside, Michael Lerner isn’t exactly a steadfast ally of the Palestinian cause. The former Berkeley radical has spoken out against Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and the treatment of the Palestinians, but like many liberals he has also equivocated greatly, defending the basic tenets of Zionism and refusing to support BDS.

Refreshing

Nonetheless, Jordan’s move — opening it up for a frank discussion on why artists should support cultural boycott movements — was refreshing. It provided an opportunity for activists to make a clear case for BDS and even perhaps expose the arguments to a sliver of people who had never heard them before. It also worked evidently.

A week after posting the initial invitation for a debate, Jordan commented again:

Our discussion revealed a crisis whose depth was even far greater than I had known, and I felt compelled to help. Like many others, I am deeply dedicated to the cause of world peace, and this situation goes against everything anyone with a heart could ever condone. However, after much consideration I concluded that the best way I could serve the cause would be to do my performance as scheduled, but separately organize an event in a major city in the United States to raise funds and awareness of the plight of the Palestinian people.

Another several hundred comments followed, in a thread that went on for the next week at least. Notably absent was the deluge of hard Zionist trolling that one might expect in such threads. Instead, Jordan revealed days later that such anti-boycott campaigners had actually been messaging him directly -- an odd move.

Again, the conversation was remarkably and uncharacteristically civil, which likely had much to do with the notable absence of those trolling for hasbara (Israeli state propaganda). One can only speculate as to why the abusers weren’t out in such full force; perhaps the political climate is starting to demoralize a segment of them. One can hope. In any event, it made for a fruitful discussion. As was written at The Palestine Chronicle:

The absence of (overt) trolling allowed for an exemplary demonstration of what well-informed, dedicated BDS advocates can do with a thread if they are not constantly fending off accounts spouting Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs talking points. The result was passionate well-reasoned and forceful advocacy for the Palestinian cause from a diverse group of people on several continents, many of whom were unconnected with one another or had just become Facebook friends as a result of the virtual encounter.

The Palestine Chronicle also joined in the debate, publishing an open letter by Rima Merriman where she took to task several of Jordan’s arguments. Jordan’s basic stance is one that we’ve all heard before: that art and music have the power to transform consciousness, and therefore cultural boycotts are counterproductive because they shut down that potential. His concession that he would organize some kind of fundraiser for the Palestinian people was essentially a red herring. Indeed, all of Jordan’s responses after his post at the beginning of January proceeded from this contradictory starting point that because artists can maybe “change consciousness” and affect people on a spiritual level, they have no political role to play.

This is, of course, a fallacy. If for no other reason than it makes the tacit admission that Israelis are deserving of the spiritual nutrition brought by art but Palestinians (who are prevented from attending almost all Israeli cultural events) aren’t. And, as many BDS supporters have pointed out, also flagrantly contradicts Jordan’s own support for those who refused to play Sun City in the fight against South African apartheid.

Victory

After four more days of sustained pressure on Facebook and other online avenues, though, something must have convinced Jordan. His statement of cancellation may have been terse, and it obviously would be much more preferable for him to release something longer, allowing for more in depth reasoning to come out, but it still represents a big victory. One of Israel’s most surefire means of cultural propaganda has had a headlining act deprived of it, and only a couple weeks before the actual event to boot.

What’s more, the actual process of convincing Jordan to cancel is profoundly informative -- if for no other reason than it was an example of people using Facebook for something other than sniping at each other. It was, if one might excuse a slightly pretentious term, an example of real cultural democracy. An artist -- flawed though he may be -- actually takes the time to ask what his fans think. And this is where it gets really novel: he listens to them. In a world where we’re taught to put the artist on a pedestal (an ethos that Jordan has admittedly absorbed) there was finally a sign that perhaps there’s a bit more innate parity between artist and audience than might initially meet the eye.

I’m reminded of the words of the late jazz great Max Roach, a tireless campaigner for racial justice in the US and South Africa, as well as one of the most thrilling composers and drummers to sit behind a kit: “Jazz is a very democratic musical form. It comes out of a communal experience. We take our respective instruments and collectively create a thing of beauty.”

It may have taken some prodding, and may require still more, but in the meantime we can say that Jordan did Roach’s words justice.

First published at the Electronic Intifada

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