Leila and BDS

Posted on September 5, 2012


My role model and hero in life is Martin Luther King, Jr. His views on civil disobedience, on boycotts, and on the civil rights movement are commendable and I only wish I could live like he did. I try. I really do. Of course, when I started hearing about BDS, I was excited to see a non-violent, positive movement that I truly felt had the potential of changing things for the better, for the world and specifically for Palestinians.

I became a supporter of BDS, without ever truly getting involved in any specific actions. I started reading up more and more about it, and, because it was using a non-violent approach, I supported it.

But I was uneasy. I couldn’t put my finger on what was making me uneasy, but I felt that the movement was not as empowering as I wished it would be.

And then Mashrou3 Leila announced that they were opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers in Beirut.


I applaud Mashrou3 Leila for their decision to pull out of their performance. It was probably the toughest decision they ever had to make, and by pulling out, they have helped the BDS movement and shown solidarity with Palestinians.

This is far from being a victory for the BDS movement though. True, the cause and message has reached new audiences and thousands of people in the region have discussed the movement over the past week. But to claim this as a victory is to believe that Machiavellian methods are justified.

All of this has helped me better understand my discomfort with the movement. I have thought about it quite a bit over the last few days, and have managed to pinpoint issues that have made me uneasy. I point them out here not to attack BDS or discredit it, but rather to open a discussion on the issues, in hopes of finding ways to address them.

1. Where does it stop?

I can understand the boycott of Red Hot Chili Peppers. They have chosen to perform in Israel, and that directly violates what BDS stands for. Mashrou3 Leila has not. As far as I know (and admittedly I don’t know much about their touring plans), they don’t plan to ever perform there. If we decide to attack them for opening for someone who is playing in Israel, then we’ve moved down one degree. And if that’s the case, then we should be attacking the airline that flew RHCP in, the hotel that is hosting them, the restaurants that are feeding them, the venue that is hosting them, the designers of the clothes they will be wearing on stage, the makers of the instruments they will be using on stage. And if we move down degrees, then where does it stop? Do we then boycott people who own Mashrou3 Leila’s CDs? Do we boycott places that host Mashrou3 Leila in the future? I feel the attacks can be justified when there is a first degree link to Israel. Once you move to second, third, or eighth degree, then the justification becomes delicate.

2. Focusing on a weaker party

The campaign against RHCP, which I am told dates back to 6 months ago, has not been very successful, thus far. Understandably so. The Chili Peppers are one of today’s biggest rock group and their fans are everywhere. They are established, rich, and well-represented. They can withstand attacks. Mashrou3 Leila cannot. They are a local band, with a strong fan base that is still developing. They still depend on every single fan. In that aspect, they are weak. That makes them an easy target for BDS campaigns. Deciding to attack someone who is weak is called bullying. I have a problem with that. True, people are more emotionally attached to them, but that should be more of a reason to understand the weak position they come from.

3. “You’re either with us, or against us”

Activists across the world have tried for years to fight the damaging effect of the Bush’s administration black and white approach to things. It is a pity to see BDS using such tactics. If Mashrou3 Leila decided to play the concert, it would not have meant that they are traitors, Israeli supporters, or part of the Apartheid regime. The enriching thing about a boycott is that people consciously, willingly, and freely decide to partake in it. Bullying Mashrou3 Leila into pulling out put them in a situation where they had to decide if they were for BDS or against it. It doesn’t leave room for the grey areas, such as, for example, that some people may not believe that cultural boycotts are an effective way of fighting the Israeli machine.

4. Tactics

While the overwhelming majority of messages posted on the group’s Facebook page were calm, as time passed by without a word from the band, messages got more aggressive. Posts varied in calling them shit (visual included), to expressing hate, to calling them traitors, to linking them to the death of Rachel Corrie. In addition to this, the campaign took on such proportions that their wall was flooded with messages, in a way that must have clearly been overwhelming. It took on elements of guerilla warfare, attacking a helpless target. Ideally, BDS, as a movement, should have used more positive tactics, focused on encouraging the band to join their movement, as opposed to pressuring them and bullying them into it. I am fully aware that BDS is not one cohesive group. But the movement and its leaders should advocate for different tactics.

5. Loss of focus

At some point, the conversation went from “Is it wrong to open for RHCP because of BDS?” to “Can they survive as a band if they don’t boycott?” BDS loses its effectiveness when it bullies people into agreeing with it, as opposed to encouraging them to do it out of their own free will. It became more about hurting Mashrou3 Leila, should they decide to perform, than about hurting Israel.

6. Beyond criticism

It’s been less than 24 hours since Mashrou3 Leila have announced that they were not performing at the RHCP concert. The message was cause for celebration for thousands of fans, but, regardless of how you feel about it, it had a touch of sadness to it. I have no proof of this, it is just a feeling I got when I saw the message, which was short, simple, and lacking emotions (except for emotions linked to capitalization and punctuation, but that’s a whole different post). And as a result of the statement, there has been quite a bit of talk about the decision and BDS in general, with criticism popping out on social media. The criticism is not being taken well by BDS supporters. That is unfortunate. I strongly believe that BDS supporters need to take this opportunity to engage the public, and try to learn from what happened here. That is precisely why I decided to write this article. BDS should not be beyond criticism. On the contrary, it should engage people and build on the criticism it receives.


Mashrou3 Leila will now be celebrated as heroes, as the band that stood up to apartheid, as people who gave up the opportunity of a lifetime to stand up for something, as a group who has paved the way for other local bands.

That’s a good thing. They should be applauded, celebrated, thanked, cheered, and supported. That’s what BDS should be about. By celebrating their actions, the BDS movement encourages others to follow in the footsteps of Leila. It shifts the focus from bullying to encouraging.

Next time though, we should be more aware of the tactics we use to create the heroes of the BDS movement.