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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Has Elvis Costello joined the 'Hate Israel' club?

May 19, 2010 |  2:26 pm

Elvis_costello Being a fan these days isn't easy.

What do you do when someone you respect and admire takes a political stand that you find abhorrent? I think Sean Penn is a stone-cold brilliant actor, but there is no way to react other than with great dismay to see him forever locked in an embrace with oppressive Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. My colleague Tim Rutten is feeling the same way about L.A. Lakers wizard Phil Jackson, who is arguably one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time, but has come out in support of Arizona's mean-spirited new anti-immigration law that will inevitably lead to all sorts of ugly racial profiling.

And now, just to add to our torment, Elvis Costello, who is surely one of the most endlessly fascinating and inventive pop songwriters of the modern era, has canceled all of his scheduled shows in Israel this summer, citing concerns over the treatment of Palestinians. Here's an excerpt from his explanation:

There are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act ... and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent. I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security, I hope it is possible to understand that I am not taking this decision lightly. It is a matter of instinct and conscience.

Costello's act is simply a new chapter in a growing cultural boycott of Israel. Carlos Santana recently canceled plans to perform there as well, citing similar concerns about the country's treatment of Palestinians. Last September, the Toronto Film Festival became embroiled in a huge uproar over whether the festival should be spotlighting Tel Aviv in its City-to-City spotlight program designed to celebrate international film culture.

After an obscure Canadian filmmaker pulled his documentary short from the festival, a raft of artists and political activists signed a "No Celebration of Occupation" letter claiming that the festival had become "complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine." The signees included such well-known artists as David Byrne, Julie Christie, Viggo Mortensen and British director Ken Loach, who had already urged a boycott of the Edinburgh International Film Festival because the festival was slated to premiere a movie by an Israeli filmmaker and was paying his way to the festival.

A rival group of filmmakers, led by David Cronenberg, Ivan Reitman and Norman Jewison, stuck up for the festival, charging the protesters with censorship, But clearly with a host of artists, Israel was cast as the villain.

All in all, dealing with artists' involvement in politics has become a huge mess. Conservatives routinely advocate staying away from films made by or starring left-wing activists like Penn, Tim Robbins, Oliver Stone and Susan Sarandon as a way of punishing them for their outspoken support of liberal causes. I've always believed that the conservatives are nuts, since that would mean that, as a liberal, I'd have to stop watching "24" (created by the arch-conservative Joel Surnow) or throw out all my beloved John Wayne Westerns just because he was a flaming right-winger. Not a chance. Or as Wayne once famously said himself: "That'll be the day."

It's just dumb to let an artist's politics get in the way of your enjoyment of their work. What they do off-stage is their own business. Like Costello, I happen to have grave concerns about Israel's treatment of Palestinians and the spread of illegal settlements -- it's a bad thing both for the Palestinians, and in the long run, for Israel too. But is that a good enough reason for Elvis to cancel his concerts? Not to me. Unlike its neighbors, Israel is a free society, so when Costello was there, he could have met with Palestinian activists, joined an anti-settlement protest and found dozens of other ways of expressing his views -- views that are openly shared by a sizable number of Israelis as well.

Canceling concerts are really no different than supporting a cultural boycott which, for me, is a terrible thing for any artist to do who believes in free expression. Elvis should go to Israel. He'd have far more impact, and perhaps far more to learn, by expressing his views in person rather than staying away and voicing disapproval from thousands of miles away.

I guess Lakers fans like Tim Rutten don't have the same luxury about Phil Jackson and his support for Arizona's anti-immigration law. As Rutten wrote this morning: "[The Lakers] have to distance themselves from Jackson's wrongheaded endorsement of a law whose implementation can only affront Latinos' constitutional rights. If the Lakers, who have given this community so much joy and excellence, close their eyes to Arizona's affront to so many of its members, then at least one disappointed fan will be withholding his support, and inviting as many others as will listen to do the same."

I know it must agonizing for Tim to have such mixed feelings about the Lakers' march to the NBA championship series. But for me, that's one ideological brawl I can safely watch from the sidelines. I'm a Boston Celtics fan. So all I have to say about the Lakers is: Bring it on!

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Photo: Elvis Costello performing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April. Credit: Skip Bolen / European Pressphoto Agency