The recent decision by American musician Stevie Wonder to withdraw from a 6 December 2012 concert to raise funds for the Israeli military has drawn widespread acclaim. One activist, Ali Abunimah, even characterized it as a “significant milestone”, contrasting it favorably with “empty gestures” at the United Nations and specifically the General Assembly’s recent 138-9 decision to grant Palestine non-member observer state status.
The facts suggest otherwise. Stevie Wonder may or may not have known he was booked to sing for a colonial army, and most likely learned of this after the fact from his agent. More importantly, the reason Wonder gave for withdrawing from the concert—with what he described as a heavy heart—had nothing to do with Palestine or solidarity with its people. While activists certainly publicized Wonder’s engagement and petitioned him to reconsider, the sole justification he gave for pulling out of the gig was that the United Nations suggested it would be incompatible with his status as one of its official Messengers of Peace. It may therefore well be the case Wonder never changed his mind, found out about the concert only when contacted by the UN, and simply did not give a damn what anyone else felt. Alternatively, Wonder may have gratefully accepted the invitation to sing for Netanyahu’s troops, and backed off when confronted by the UN and perhaps the specter of negative publicity as well. To suggest that his decision was a willful act of solidarity with the Palestinian people is mere—and apparently false—speculation.
Wonder did not mention Palestine, Palestinians, their suffering or their rights even once in explaining himself. The closest he came to denouncing Israeli colonialism was a reference to “the current and very delicate situation in the Middle East”, while his statement that “I am and have always been against war, any war, anywhere” will have to pass for a forthright condemnation of Israel’s recently-concluded murderous assault on the Gaza Strip. And he came no closer to endorsing either the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement or a democratic, secular state in Palestine than announcing that he “would be making donations to charities that support Israeli and Palestinian children with disabilities”. Laudable as this may be it is hardly the Middle East equivalent of Artists United Against Apartheid.
There is, to be sure, much to be gained from international efforts to isolate Israel, including in the cultural realm. It is however less clear why pop stars sheepishly pleading the equivalent of a scheduling conflict are an asset, or more than a significant milestone on the road to nowhere. A public figure who in 2012 remains unwilling to take a clear stand on the issues has zero value to the struggle for Palestinian self-determination and should not be lionized. Compared to the German abstention at the UN, Wonder’s gesture—such as it is—is as empty as they come.
Given the snide dismissal of the UN initiative by some activists, it is also legitimate to ask them the same question they pose to others: how does Stevie Wonder spending an evening at home rather than with the Israeli military’s acolytes in Los Angeles change anything? Who is going to wake up in Hebron, Haifa or Ain-al-Hilwa the following morning or even the following year and notice any difference?
Given that the South African experience serves as inspiration for many BDS activists, it seems appropriate to recall that South Africa was liberated primarily by its people and the ANC using a variety of civil and military tactics, not by Western pop stars or college activists demanding divestment. The latter were only one tactical arm of a larger strategy led by the ANC. And part of this strategy was to ensure that public figures explicitly endorse the strategic objective of a democratic South Africa or face public opprobrium.
The global solidarity movement would not have been nearly as effective without the strategic leadership provided by the ANC and the imprimatur of the United Nations. It assisted the national liberation movement and contributed to the elimination of apartheid, and has every right to take pride in having done so. But it could never have substituted for it. Until the Palestinian national movement is set right, others will never succeed where it is failing.