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Bambie Thug’s quiet protest was more effective than any Eurovision boycott

It is worth restating that criticism of the Israeli state is not anti-Semitism. But it is also the case that anti-Semitism never went away, that it still exists and that it is on the rise again

As protests go, it was quieter than Sinéad O’Connor tearing up a picture of the Pope. Ireland’s Eurovision entrant Bambie Thug, who had resisted calls by 400 artists to boycott the competition, signalled their stance on Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza at Thursday’s semi-final through the medium of Ogham.

Or at least that was the plan. An hour before the live show the singer was instructed to wipe the inscriptions off. It is not clear how the European Broadcasting Union – which banned Russia from participating but, inexplicably, has ignored calls to blacklist Israel – was alerted to the fact that the inscriptions on the singer’s face and legs spelt out the words “Ceasefire” and “Saoirse don Phalaistín” in an early medieval script. (The fact that it was all over social media may have had something to do with it.)

A spokeswoman for the EBU said the “writing” seen on the performer’s body during rehearsals “contravened contest rules that are designed to protect [its] non-political nature.” So Bambie Thug’s performance went ahead without the coded message – but social media saw to it that the point was made anyway.

The question of how best to effectively signal your revulsion at Israel’s actions has intensified in the aftermath of weeks of courageous and effective student protests in the US.

When those calls for boycott centre on financial divestment, they are relatively straightforward. There is surely no real dilemma about insisting that no taxpayers’ money goes toward funding, even indirectly, the atrocities being carried out in Gaza. Academic boycotts, however, are more difficult. On the one hand, the principle of academic freedom must always be protected; on the other hand, universities in Israel have been characterised by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement as “major, willing and persistent accomplices” of the Netanyahu regime and stand accused of enabling the Israeli military.

But it is when demands for cultural boycotts centre on individual artists and performances rather than institutions that it becomes significantly more complex. You can understand the point of those who, after it became clear the EBU would allow Israel to participate and RTÉ declined to pull out, called for Bambie Thug to boycott the competition. Faced with the nearly 35,000 dead; the genocidal language of some members of Binyamin Netanyahu’s cabinet; what is grossly called the “pinpoint operation” in Rafah; the small, shell-shocked children with faces encrusted with blood and the ashes of what was once their homes staring nightly out of TV screens, how can you not see their point?

Those calling for a boycott would also point to the long history of social justice movements successfully leveraged to force political action, including the protests against the Vietnam War and the apartheid regime in South Africa. The BDS movement outlines the broader context: “when international artists perform at Israeli cultural venues and institutions, they help to create the false impression that Israel is a ‘normal’ country like any other.”

But calls for boycott now go far beyond asking artists not to perform at Israeli institutions. Performers from other countries have been asked not to “share a stage” at the Eurovision with an Israeli singer in the name of refusing to support “artwashing”. Ballet Ireland dropped one of three pieces it was due to perform in Dublin in March simply because of the involvement of an Israeli choreographer, after it came under pressure from a group calling itself Apartheid Free Dance. And universities including Trinity have been asked to go beyond divesting from Israeli companies and end all ties with Israeli academic institutions.

It is of course true – and worth restating – that criticism of the actions of the Israeli state is not anti-Semitism, something underlined by the fact that on US campuses, some of those most loudly supporting the protest were Jewish. But it is also the case that anti-Semitism never went away, that it still exists and that it is on the rise again. And it is a fact that Jewish students in some universities, including in Trinity, have spoken about feeling marginalised on campus. Orli Degani, a German Jewish woman with Israeli citizenship, accused the Social Democrats of deselecting her as a local election candidate after she raised concerns about anti-Semitism (a source told The Irish Times that her candidacy became “unsustainable” after she objected to the use of the Palestinian flag at party events.) She has spoken about her experiences dealing with overt anti-Semitism and what she called “nuanced racism” in Irish society.

Boycotts that could be seen to hold every Israeli, including liberal voices who are opposed to Netanyahu, accountable require careful consideration in this context – as do those that make no distinction between the work of critical voices within the country and, say, state-sponsored initiatives. An Israel Democracy Institute poll this week found that 56 per cent of Israeli Jews and 88 per cent of Arabs believe that Israel should prioritise a hostage deal over a Rafah offensive; the figures rises to 92 per cent of Israeli Jews who describe themselves as left-leaning.

Then there is the question of whether some boycotts might ultimately just feed into Netanyahu’s increasingly deranged demagoguery. He claimed this week that the events unfolding at US campuses were “reminiscent of what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s”. As a comment piece by Dr Dahlia Scheindlin in Haaretz reflecting on Israel’s response to its increasing isolation notes: “Israelis have a long-established practice of deflecting blame for such opprobrium on anything but their policies ... Most of the countermeasures taken by the international community ... did not truly constrain Israel or individuals, and amounted to little more than bad vibes.”

Boycotting is one way to make a stand. But as Bambie Thug demonstrated this week, participating can sometimes be a more effective one.

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