An unusual silence has blanketed the circumstances leading up to music icon Stevie Wonder’s canceled performance at the Friends of Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Western Region Gala on Dec. 6 at the Hyatt Regency in Century City.
The 25-time Grammy winner was set to appear for an expected 1,200 FIDF supporters, including dignitaries from the United States and Israel as well as friends in Hollywood, when he suddenly canceled on Nov. 29. A press release issued by the FIDF national office last week reported “representatives of the performer cited a recommendation from the United Nations to withdraw his participation given Wonder’s involvement with the organization.” The release also included a statement from Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon, FIDF’s national director and CEO, that said, “We regret the fact that Stevie Wonder has decided to cancel his performance at an important community event of the FIDF, an American organization supporting the educational, cultural, and wellbeing needs of Israel’s soldiers, their families, and the families of fallen soldiers.
“FIDF is a non-political organization that provides much-needed humanitarian support regardless of religion, political affiliation, or military activity.”
Not mentioned was the fact that an online campaign entreating Wonder to cancel his performance in protest of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians had garnered thousands of signatures. Members of that same coalition are also planning to protest outside the event; as of press time, according to the event’s Facebook page “Protest Dec. 6 at LA Fundraiser Supporting Israel’s War Crimes,” more than 1,000 had said they would show up.
Wonder was appointed a U.N. Messenger of Peace in December 2009 by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. His cancellation came on the same day that the U.N. General Assembly upgraded the Palestinian territories to a non-member observer state through an overwhelming majority vote of 138 to 9, with 41 countries abstaining
The Messenger of Peace role is a largely ceremonial post held by distinguished figures in the fields of art, literature, music and sports who agree to use their celebrity to bring attention to U.N. concerns and causes. Other messengers include author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, actor and activist George Clooney and world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
That FIDF officials did not condemn Wonder, however, may have its root in the fact that FIDF Western Region dinner chairs, media mogul Haim Saban and his wife, Cheryl, also have close ties to the United Nations. In September, President Barack Obama appointed Cheryl to the post of U.S. representative to the U.N. General Assembly.
The Internet campaign calling for a boycott of the FIDF event only targeted Wonder, however. Cheryl Saban’s longstanding support of Israel and the FIDF, along with her husband, distinguishes her from Wonder, who in 1995 performed in Israel and met with Israeli and Palestinian officials, but has not performed there since.
The Web site endtheoccupation.org, an arm of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement — the international group that advocates for the use of economic, political and cultural pressure on Israel “until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights,” according to one of the movement’s major Web sites — featured a letter with more than 4,000 electronic signatories pressing Wonder to abandon his FIDF plans.
“We are a diverse group of people of conscience and social justice organizations around the world, saddened by the announcement that you will be performing and helping to raise money for the Israeli army,” the letter said. It also draws parallels between South African apartheid and Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, and says a performance by Wonder at the FIDF gala would show support for those practices.
Another letter, posted on the Web site change.org, which listed 4,570 signatories on the day of Wonder’s cancellation, made a more direct address: “We call on Stevie Wonder, as a conscientious American advocate for human rights and dignity not to support the Israeli Defense Force by performing at their gala fundraiser ... The IDF is an institution which promotes, enables, and protects Israel’s Apartheid regime.”
Moments after Wonder made his announcement, endtheoccupation.org wrote that they were celebrating a “victory.”
The targeting of high-profile celebrities who express plans to perform in or on behalf of the State of Israel is not uncommon. In response to such efforts, a group of music industry executives established the nonprofit Creative Community for Peace (CCFP) to privately and publicly counter artist boycotts of Israel. The group’s co-founder, former Universal Music Group CEO David Renzer, now president of music ventures at Saban Capital Group, has, in the past, spoken out against such intimidation but declined to comment for this article.
However, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel was quick to point fingers at the BDS movement, referring to a press release issued by the consulate that specifically condemns the BDS movement as a “front for a campaign aimed at delegitimizing the very existence of the State of Israel.”
“BDS is not about peace,” Siegel said during a phone interview on Dec. 3. “It’s about vilifying Israel.”
Asked if he thought the FIDF’s U.N. explanation might be intended to deflect attention from an effective boycott by Wonder of one of the largest Israel fundraisers in the country, Siegel said, “I don’t know. We weren’t involved in the whole FIDF thing. But the BDS effort is very significant; we know that.”
When asked how or why he had made the connection between Wonder’s cancellation and BDS when the FIDF was offering a different account, Siegel said, “I didn’t mean to make any connection like that. What we’re talking about is BDS in general; there are attempts to enact a cultural boycott, which we think is counterproductive. That’s a general statement. It doesn’t relate to Stevie Wonder.”
A coalition of self-described L.A. “peace activists” had promised, however, to stage a large demonstration outside the Hyatt, where they planned to enact a mock funeral procession with a “child’s casket” on the night of the gala. The protest also was to include participants donning placards with the names and ages of civilians killed during Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza last month.
In a press release, the coalition of two dozen groups and a half-dozen individuals claims credit for Wonder’s cancellation is due to “thousands of activists around the world using social media, e-mail and phone calls.”
A collection of speakers from both secular and religious organizations say they will appear, including Israeli-American activist Miko Peled, son of an Israeli general and author of “The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine.”
As of press time on Dec. 4, the Western Region FIDF had not announced plans for a prominent musical replacement, though, as in past years, Grammy winner David Foster & Friends will perform, and “Seinfeld” veteran Jason Alexander will reprise his role as emcee. The absence of a major headliner stands out because the gala is known for bringing in rarified, glamorous musical acts. Past years have featured musical legends such as Barbra Streisand and the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.
But Haim Saban, known for dazzling surprises, insisted on Dec. 3 that the gala will go on with its usual splendor, undeterred.
“Life is good,” he wrote in an e-mail, “and we’ll have the best gala YET.”