Why israel loves Madonna

"Later this month Madonna – now a.k.a. Esther – descends on Israel with her four children to … launch her ninth world tour … an 80-date musical and spiritual trek, [that] will solidify Madonna's own journey from iconoclast to icon, from Catholic to Kabbalist, from flirt to convert. To dismiss Madonna's Jewish shtick as a Kabbalistic craze is to turn a blind eye to a lifelong and serious journey. Madonna, it seems, is finally one of us." — Jerusalem Report, May 21, 2012

Please let me start this column by stating: Oh dear, or as Esther might say, oy vey. Now let's move on, for a quick minute, to DJ Hardwell. Who is DJ Hardwell? He is a moderately popular trance DJ from the Netherlands, and just one of the latest artists being pressured to boycott upcoming performance dates in Israel. Some of the pressure is coming from a group called Trance Addicts Against Israeli Apartheid, an organization not so interesting in terms of power, or the fascinating inclusion of the word "addict" in their name, as much as symbol.

In terms of pop music, there is only one genre where Israel makes a significant world contribution, and that is in the realm of trance, a sometimes hippy-dippy psychedelic subgenre of techno. Israel has always been a fertile and influential ground for the music, with a giant scene that has exported some of this genre's best loved DJs and producers, like Offer Nissim, and the horrendously titled but supposedly very trippy Infected Mushroom.

So even though more marginal, the boycott reaching the shores of Israel's peacenik trance scene, a place where there is a real opportunity for creating dialogue, because it is part of an interconnected web of similar scenes that spans the whole globe, is in a way a bigger deal than it seems. It might even be a bigger deal than the well-publicized cancellations of gigs by Elvis Costello, The Pixies, or the 500 Montreal artists who in 2010 very vocally joined the cultural boycott of Israel, stating that Palestinians "face an entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation, resembling the defeated apartheid system in South Africa."

Somehow I doubt the lack of Gilles Vigneault or Richard Desjardins has been much felt by Israelis. Roger Waters and Carlos Santana bailed? Bruce Springsteen or Coldplay won't come? OK. But the trance scene is a living Israeli culture that carries a total message of peace. Say what you will of kids going all freaky to repetitive beats, you cannot deny that the practice breeds the opposite of cloistered thinking. A boycott in such an open-minded place is only useful if you want to give more single-minded
areas an opportunity for growth.

I know this argument has been made before, when, for instance, Israeli professors have been taken off conference rosters, or in the face of protesters who decide the best place to scream murder is outside the venues where Israeli dance troupes are hopping about barefoot. I am saying what's been said already when I write that boycotting the arts and academia, progressive places sympathetic to change, are dunderheaded tactics.

Certainly, within Israeli society, the cultural boycotts have bred pretty much only feelings of isolation, and entrenchment of the very useless us-against-everybody sort. You can see it every time an artist decides they will play in Israel. Morrissey comes, or Alanis Morissette, or Leonard Cohen, and it gets covered in the media as if royals are visiting. So while the aging Red Hot Chili Peppers are no bigger deal in Israel than they are here, their stop in Tel Aviv was covered as if truly major news (six stories in Ha'aretz alone). The headlines might have read, "HEY SOMEBODY LIKES US!"

Which rounds us back to Madonna, who in the summer, made herself out to be some kind of politicized pop messiah when she kicked off her world tour in Tel Aviv. The event got six articles in the popular Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, ten in the left-wing Ha'aretz and nine in the Jerusalem Post, a more conservative newspaper read by English speakers. Pictures of Madonna with Binyamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres ran rampant. ("I am an ambassador for Judaism," she once told Peres.) The adulation reached the level of outright pandering, especially when considering how truly weird Madonna's recent Jewish "conversion" has been — an uproariously un-Judaic toe- dipping I will encapsulate in the one line "Jewing is the new Voguing."

Plus, it's Madonna. The fact that, by sheer process of elimination, she can become some kind of political mouthpiece when visiting Israel is nuts. She called her concert in Tel Aviv "a concert for peace." She told the crowd: "If we can all rise above our egos and our titles and the names of our countries and our religions, and treat everyone around us with dignity and respect, then we are on the road to peace." Then she went on with her show, which involved blood-splattering dancers toting faux machine guns, and a huge, video-screened image of Front National leader Marine LePen with a big honking swastika on her forehead.

This coming August, the American music festival Lollapalooza, which also launched in Chile and Brazil over the last two years, launches an Israeli edition in Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park. No artists have yet been announced, and Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell is remaining blithe in the face of calls to boycott the festival, and pressures to cancel, and growing petitions insinuating that Farrell is part of an insidious propaganda machine whose final aim is pure evil. It will be interesting to see who gets to Yarkon Park. And if there is a trance tent, I hope it's as international as possible.