An Open Letter to Carlos Santana: Don’t Play in Israel in July

News & Politics

Dear Carlos,

We have met several times before, in a very different era, when Nelson Mandela was still in prison, and then again when Apartheid had just ended and the world seemed so full of hope, including in Israel and the Occupied Territories. The first time we met was at a mid-1980s concert of yours at The Pier in New York City, when you let my friend and I climb on stage and hang a huge banner we’d made calling for freedom for Nelson Mandela. Later, when we met at Woodstock ’94 and had lunch together before your show (I was there helping direct the house band of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe), we talked about how beautiful it was that banner was no longer needed, and hoped that the world would keep moving towards the peace, love and humanity your music has always represented.

When I helped arrange and perform on Ozomatli’s 2005 Grammy-winning album Street Signs, bringing together Moroccan Gnawa legend Hassan Hakmoun and French Jewish Gypsy band Les yeux noirs with Ozo, it was your amazing collaborations with other artists that inspired me. Perhaps most important, my lifelong commitment to human rights, from setting up a college chapter of Amnesty International to working with the global anti-music censorship organization Freemuse, emerged out of your honesty and spirit of love and commitment to social justice and human rights globally.

It’s no understatement to say that I cannot imagine my life as a musician, professor, human rights activist or father without you and your inspiration. And so, with the profoundest possible respect and belief in the rights of all peoples to have their full measure of justice, peace, self-determination and freedom, I am begging you: Please don’t perform in Israel this July.

I write these words with a very heavy heart. I’ve lived, studied and worked in Israel most of my adult life. The first language I ever dreamed in besides English was Hebrew. The greatest music I’ve ever played has come from there, and I enjoy nothing more than working with the many Israeli artists I’ve come to know and respect. However, none of this holds a candle to the suffering of the Palestinian people, which I have seen up close time and time again for the last 25 years. Carlos, you don’t have to believe me, talk with Archbishop Tutu, who I’m sure you know and can easily reach. As he wrote in 2010: “I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid. I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government.” The next year Bishop Tutu came out in support for BDS, as I urge you to do now.

The Occupation has been going on for 50 years. As an historian of Israel/Palestine who has written and edited almost a dozen academic books on the country, its history and the conflict, I can say without a shred of doubt that for not a single day has the Israeli government ever attempted to make peace. Instead with the active encouragement or acquiescence of the vast majority of Israeli Jews, it has sought to expropriate as much of the territory as possible and has used inhuman means, including systematic war crimes and even crimes against humanity, to achieve the goal of “maximum land, minimum Arabs,” as the Palestinian-Israeli rap group DAM so brilliantly put it in their song “Born Here,” whose video I urge you to watch. For decades Palestinian activists and intellectuals tried every tactic possible to achieve a minimum of independence—talking with Israelis, endless “people-to-people” meetings, going to the UN and international organizations and even the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court, but to no avail. The Occupation continues relentlessly and the crimes against Palestinians grow with each passing year.

None of this excuses Palestinian terrorism or violence against Israeli civilians. But they are a response to and symptom of an unending Occupation whose goal, in the world of pioneering Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling, has been nothing short of the “politicide” of the Palestinian people. Moreover, their impact is impossible to measure compared to the systematic costs of the Occupation. The Oslo peace process, as I showed in my 2009 book Impossible Peace as well as in the pages of Tikkun magazine, the most important Jewish magazine in America, was a sham from the start that only enabled further expansion of the Occupation. The denial of the most basic rights of Palestinians, from education to housing to medical care to fair trials, to freedom from torture and extrajudicial execution even for young children, is so publicly evident that not even Israel supporters bother to deny them—in fact, more and more leading Israeli politicians, religious leaders and commentators encourage them, as does the majority of Israeli Jews. Just read the reports of Rabbis for Human Rights or B’tselem or the pages of Haaretz. There’s nothing left to hide.

In this circumstance, BDS was overwhelmingly decided upon by Palestinian civil society as the best means available to fight the occupation non-violently. Its logic should be familiar to you because it’s the same logic that motivated the anti-Apartheid era BDS that you rightly supported. Critics of BDS are probably telling you that its discriminatory, that it stops dialog and violates artists’ right to perform everywhere. These are patently untrue. BDS has encouraged more dialog and discussion than any other strategy I have seen in a quarter of a century of work as a musician or activist in and around Israel/Palestine. BDS merely forces Israelis to confront the fact that the Occupation is not normal and can never be normalized, that there has to be a price to pay for continuing, as a society to support an illegal, brutal and utterly disastrous Occupation and settlement enterprise.

While I plead with you not to perform for money in Israel as long as the Occupation continues, I urge you to travel there, meet with Israeli and Palestinian activists, go to the West Bank and see the realities that I have seen and so many other activists have seen. This would be a great service to the cause of peace, because once you see the realities of the Occupation up close, your life will be changed forever. Call up Roger Waters or Brian Eno and ask them what their experiences have been. Talk to the many Palestinian and Israeli artists, activists and scholars who can no longer sit by while an entire people is choked out of its national existence while the world sits idly by.

You may also think that if you supported BDS against Israel, by the same principles you couldn’t tour anywhere. After all, Russia, China, Britain, France, even the US, not to mention most of the authoritarian regimes across the Arab world, Africa, Asia and now even Turkey, are all engaged in systematic human rights violations and worse. This is no doubt true, and we all should do our best to ensure we don’t encourage or legitimize these regimes by performing in these countries without saying anything while their own citizens or others are brutalized, jailed, repressed, tortured and murdered by these governments.

But the reality is that while other governments may commit grave crimes and artists absolutely should not lend them support (the way so many well-known musicians shockingly continue to do), activists in their societies have for various reasons not put out a call for BDS. On the other hand, after decades of trying every other method possible, Palestinian civil society as a whole determined that BDS is the best if not only non-violent way they can resist the unending repression by Israel, for reasons that are well-articulated by BDS organizers, including their explanation of why Israel is uniquely susceptible to such public pressure compared to other states. In this situation, I truly believe our job as artists, activists, scholars, and indeed human beings, is to honor their call, just as it would be if and when Tibetan, Egyptian, or other peoples make a similar call.

Finally, supporting BDS is not anti-Semitic or even anti-Zionist. The large and growing number of Israelis openly supporting BDS, as well as the leading role of American Jews in the movement here (as epitomized by the amazing growth of Jewish Voice for Peace, the fastest-growing Jewish organization today which explicitly endorses BDS), put the lie to such slanderous claims. As I have written elsewhere, supporting BDS is most likely the only truly “pro-Israel” stance anyone can take if you care about Israel and don’t want it to slide into fascism and permanent war, just like fighting against the Vietnam War or structural racism was and remains the truest form of patriotism in America, whether in the 1950s or the 2010s. To put it more simply, true friends don’t hand their drunk friends the keys to the car, or a man abusing his wife a baseball bat. True friends refuse to enable others to head down the path to ruin of other peoples lives as well as their own.

I know that it would be a very difficult and even costly decision not to play Israel, one which would no doubt lead to a lot of criticism. But it would also lead to incredible support and love, and place you squarely on the right side of history where you have always been and still belong. Indeed, the greatest sense of solidarity and shared humanity I’ve ever experience has been on the front lines of this conflict with Palestinian, Israeli Jewish and international artists and activists, struggling together against the Occupation. It is a beautiful struggle despite all the obstacles, and even mistakes.

In that regard, playing Israel today, in the midst of an ever deepening occupation where Palestinian children or killed weekly with impunity, where hundreds of thousands of trees, including untold numbers of olive trees dating back to Roman times, have been destroyed, wells poisoned, water stolen, land expropriated, an entire people disenfranchised, tens of thousands tortured, thousands expelled from their home land, millions locked into the world’s largest open-air prison, Gaza, and on and on—to perform now is to legitimize all this, no matter how you might try to explain or justify it, no matter how much you offer to also play in the West Bank or meet with Palestinians. To be sure, the Israeli government and its hugely powerful propaganda machine will use your concert to discredit the sacrifices made by so many artists and activists fighting the Occupation. After all, if Carlos Santana is playing Israel, how bad can it really be?

I very much hope you’ll heed the words of so many Palestinians, Israelis, Jews and people of good will from around the world and support freedom, dignity and human rights for all the inhabitants of Israel and Palestine, by refusing to perform in Israel until the Occupation ends.

With love and respect,

Mark LeVine

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