News & Politics

Vision: How Flash Mobs and Lady Gaga are Energizing Protests for Palestine

Boycott Divestment Sanctions, a non-violent Palestinian-led protest movement, is showing how enthusiasm and new media can drum up power within an activist movement.

Not long before Christmas, in a Best Buy in a St. Louis mall, 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein performed a synchronized song-and-dance number to the tune of “Telephone,” rocking black pants and a turtleneck in lieu of Lady Gaga's metal-studded bra and crotch cover. Epstein, along with a cohort of mostly young women, urged the bewildered holiday shoppers to “hang up on Motorola,” a company that sells Israel surveillance equipment used in the Occupation. "Aiding in apartheid and being sneaky/tell us what you're doing with your technology," they sang.

On YouTube, the Lady Gaga parody became something of an instant classic in a small but burgeoning activist video genre. “I had always wanted to be a part of a flash mob,” explained coordinator and co-lyricist/choreographer Banan Ead, a 32-year-old Palestinian-American, remembering the fad’s heyday a good half-decade ago.

Flash mobs were the pre-YouTube brainchild of former Harper’s editor Bill Wasik. In June 2003, an email invite brought 200 people to a Manhattan Macy’s, where they converged around a giant carpet, telling clerks they lived together in a commune and were shopping for a “love rug.” Soon, flash mobs were like Starbucks: everywhere. Wasik had set out to make a grand joke of hipster conformity, calling his creation “an empty meditation on emptiness.” While the original flash mob was essentially an apolitical situation comedy, today it is enjoying a revival as a movement builder.

The cause is Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS), a non-violent, Palestinian-led movement inspired by the campaign against Apartheid South Africa. Launched in 2005 by a call from Palestinian civil society groups, in the wake of the 2008-2009 assault on Gaza, BDS is gaining traction both globally and within Israel.

The demands of BDS are threefold: a withdrawal from the Occupied Palestinian Territories; the right of return for Palestinian refugees (in accordance with UN Resolution 194); and an end to legal discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

As with any non-violent movement, its power and promise can be gauged by the backlash. In February, the Knesset passed an initial reading of a bill criminalizing support of BDS in Israel. Last November, the Jewish Federations of North America, the oft-arbiter of American Jewish discourse on Israel, launched a $6 million campaign against BDS, calling it“an existential danger” to the Jewish state.

The fear of BDS is palpable, and for good reason: it’s working. Practically every week brings news that yet another company has pulled out of business dealings with Israel due to political pressure. Last week it was Deutsche Bahn, a major German company that pulled out of a planned high-speed railway project that will cut through the West Bank.

The real genius of BDS is its big tent appeal: supporters might choose to stick to boycotts of consumer goods made in settlements (e.g. SodaStream); some might launch divestment campaigns aimed at companies involved in the Occupation; or others might support the “full call,” which asks artists and academics to boycott Israeli institutions (as opposed to individuals) that have not hopped on the BDS bandwagon. Notable full BDS supporters include Pink Floyd, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Naomi Klein, and Judith Butler. "If you only want to boycott an egg, we want you to boycott an egg,” Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, told the Nation, explaining BDS’ grabbag of tactics.

***

Not all BDS flash mobs involve singing and dancing, but many are parodic rewrites of pop songs. Last year, the BDS group Adalah-NY sang “Don’t Put a Ring on It” at Lev Leviev’s Madison Avenue storefront, letting blood diamond shoppers know the company also builds settlements. In March, Adalah-NY channeled Journey in Grand Central Station with “Don’t Stop Boycottin’”—replete with a marching band and an impressive array of synchronized arm pumps and spin-clap moves. (“[‘Don’t Stop Believin’] has become an uplifting anthem of hope to many different people of differing backgrounds, beliefs, and circumstances,” Journey wrote of itself, in a copyright infringement lawsuit filed shortly thereafter.)

With Lady Gaga a go-to for BDSers, “Bad Romance” has become, among other things, “Bad Café” when sung in Aroma Espresso, which has an outlet in the settlement of Maale Adumim. Gaga’s chord repetition, the driving beat—“She’s easy to parody,” veteran flash mobber and CodePink staffer Rae Abileah explained with a laugh. (Would that BDS re-version Gaga’s meat dress.) I knew flash mobs had officially become an activist fad when my mom informed me that her Palestinian rights group wanted to do “one of those BDS singing and dancing things.”

If there is one rule of the digital era it is this: the Internet is a ravenous beast, ever hungry for short intervals of even mildly amusing distraction. Do something absurd in public space, and somebody will click on the video in their Facebook news feed. Kristel de Wit of Holland’s BDS Platform illustrated the timeless truth of a little bit of humor going a long way on YouTube with a story about a recent aerobics class. “My teacher is an absolutely nonpolitical person,” de Witt explained, “and she says to me, ‘I saw you in a funny video! It was something about boycotting Israeli products.’” If the goal of protest is to have one’s message heard and remembered, then: mission accomplished. But I had to wonder if laughter is the wrong register for conveying the suffering of Palestinians. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with singing or dancing about ending the occupation,” replied Banan Ead, the Palestinian-American Motorola flash mobber. A woman after Emma Goldman's own heart.

And what is more big tent than a goofy song and dance? To be sure, it is just one of the tactics that might comprise a larger targeted campaign. CodePink's Rae Abileah and Colleen Kelly, a Catholic Worker and member of St. Louis Justice in Palestine (of Motorola flash mob fame) are borderline flash mob evangelists, who praised the form’s ability to engage a diverse group of people and build community.

Both Abileah and Kelly grew up choreographing Spice Girls dances at slumber parties; in flash mobs, the teen girl consumer culture they were weaned on meets the “don’t buy that” movement of their adulthood. It is, by and large, a movement dominated by women. “I think that’s everywhere though,” not just BDS, Kelly said. “When women are leaders, men are not as present.”

Dalit Baum, a member of the established Israeli feminist organization Coalition of Women for Peace and the founder of whoprofits.org, agreed. “Women do most of the grassroots organizing,” she said. “Always.” What’s more, she added, they’re disproportionately queer.

But, of course, powerhouse women leading the charge—often with gutsy public actions--does not mean the end of the enduring tale of misogyny on the radical left, especially in the private sphere. “There is still sexism within our movements to combat too,” Abileah wrote in an email, stating the obvious, which can’t be said enough when advocating for the liberation of others. In a recent essay, Amirah Mizrahi, an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace, addressed the darker components of justice in Palestine work—that which is hard to reconcile with spectacles of joyful song and dance. “There is a problem with gender violence in this movement,” Mizrahi wrote. “If we cannot respect something so fundamental—the autonomy of another person over her own body—what are we fighting for?”

Counting myself among the BDS supporters, I too have swapped painful stories with female friends of sexism playing out in the most intimate ways, as if reenacting scenes from the early Women’s Movement days. I have been degraded exactly once in my life—by an Israeli BDS activist, a self-professed male feminist who talked of linked struggles, who knew better but did not act better. Knowledge, I learned in a lesson I will not soon forget or forgive, does not necessarily stop someone from violating women’s physical boundaries. It is a notch on a belt I wish no one owned.

***

“Just having a demonstration and shouting, ‘Boycott Israel’—we do that all the time! Do you ever see that online? I don’t,” Coalition of Woman for Peace's Baum said. “I don’t think people care.”

In November, Coalition of Women for Peace did a flash mob in Tel Aviv outside the Capetown Opera’s performance of “Porgy and Bess,” which came to Israel despite Desmond Tutu’s pleading to the contrary. The many levels of cruel irony made for a different kind of flash mob, one without the usual tinge of cringe one feels when watching the average BDS videos of amateurs parodying the latest pop song. “Palestine and the wall is so high,” they sang to the mournful tune of “Summertime,” the opera goers walking by, oblivious. Or rather: oblivious without the jolting reminder that would’ve been brought by an artist boycott.

Baum was happy the Capetown Opera flash mob video helped raised the visibility of Israel’s vibrant BDS movement around the world, but she emphasized, “The thinking should not be around the next cool action that we do but about building a campaign.” Baum noted some campaigns have no need for protests and flash mobs, just old-fashioned organizing. The global successes of the divestment campaign targeting the French multinational company Veolia have been decidedly un-YouTube-friendly affairs, with activists quietly convincing municipal governments to drop contracts. Veolia operates bus lines and municipal services for not only settlements but also cities around the world. According to Jewish Voice for Peace, among those campaigning against Veolia, the company has lost about $8 billion in contracts due to BDS.

And then there’s Ahava, a case study in raising a giant stink. Ahava beauty products are manufactured in the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Shalem, and BDS has put the company in the crosshairs. Leading the charge has been Code Pink with their “Stolen Beauty” campaign, at once ferocious and fun. Ahava stores around the world have seen protestors wearing bathrobes, bikinis, singing Occupation-themed flash mob songs to the tune of “Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair,” and even chained together blocking entrances.

An early win came when Sex and the City star Kristin Davis was forced to drop a spokeswoman gig for Ahava. When I spoke with Ahava chairman of the board Arie Kohen by telephone a few months ago, he was deeply and truly mystified by the outpouring of international outrage. “The factory has been there more than 20 years," he said. "So what happened all of a sudden? What happened? I don’t know…” His voice trailed off. “We don't disturb anybody, believe me,” Kohen added. (Exploiting the resources of occupied territory is a violation of the Geneva Conventions--not to mention how settler-only roads splice up the West Bank into ever-shrinking Palestinian cages to which IDF soldiers hold the keys; how settlements guzzle Palestinian water resources; and all of the other myriad ways in which the Occupation does much more than “disturb” the occupied.)

Last month, in another big victory for BDS, London’s flagship Ahava store was forced to shut down after neighboring shops complained to the landlord, tired of the ruckus.

Although AIPAC is also a favorite target of flash mobs, there is no chance that the hawkish pro-Israel lobby will close up shop. It is the Goldman Sachs of Washington’s Middle East policy. May 22-24, AIPAC will hold their annual policy summit in D.C., and nearby will be “Move Over, AIPAC,” a conference hosted by Code Pink, Jewish Voice for Peace, and about 100 other groups collectively challenging the great vampire squid wrapped around Congress’ face. With the Arab Spring sweeping through Palestine this week, and Israel now joining the ranks of Syria et al in killing scores of unarmed protestors—or rather, more unarmed protestors than usual--perhaps AIPAC’s stranglehold will prove untenable. Rae Abileah hinted a choreographed song-and-dance number will be performed within the bowels of AIPAC power, but naturally any details beyond that are secret. You’ll have to wait to see it on YouTube.

Kiera Feldman is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist. She has reported for Mother Jones, n+1, PRI's The World, Killing the Buddha, and elsewhere. Her work has been supported by the Nation Institute's Investigative Fund. She is also a monthly co-host of Beyond the Pale (http://beyondthepale.org/) on WBAI, New York's Pacifica station. Follow her on Twitter here (http://www.twitter.com/kierafeldman).