International Artists Square Off Over Israel

The Middle East isn’t just the geographic center of the planet. With so much activism on different sides regarding the region, particularly with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict recently stoked by an Israeli flotilla raid, it’s also a sort of philosophical center. Over the past two years, and particularly in the past week, artists from around the world have thrown their take into the debate, using their artistic expression as a soapbox. The results have been fascinating so far.


The recent flotilla controversy has led directly to cancellations from a number of international musicians scheduled to perform in Israel. The cancellations from Elvis Costello, the Pixies, and Gorillaz (pictured) certainly casts an interesting light on the way artists are voicing either their support or discontent with Israel.

The country itself has seen its vibrant artist community gain international attention. Multimedia artist Yael Bartana was recently awarded the Artes Mundi Prize for Contemporary Art while three Israeli artists made the final cut last year of Flash Art’s “100 Emerging Artists” list. With Israeli artists even contributing to graffiti murals in China, the bulk of their work has been apolitical. But the artistic debate over Israel worldwide has really intensified over the past two years.  

Some international artistic expression has actually looked to beautify a troubled situation in the region, much like the artists who worked with Artists 4 Israel to paint bomb shelters in the cities of Sderot and Kiryat Gat.  But on the heels of Israel hosting its first international music conference, the anti-Israel tone from artist has become considerably more pronounced.

In Berlin, two artists installed maps in May featuring an Israel-less map of the Middle East. This after large-scale boycotts of Israel at the Toronto International Film Festival, along with other large artist boycotts of Israel, including one spearheaded a few years ago by British novelist John Berger.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has been a divisive issue for decades, but never before has the global artistic community taken on such a proactive role in the debate. No one can say how effectively any of these artists can contribute to solving the issue, but it certainly creates a unique forum contributing to a very difficult issue.

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