Educating Stanley Jordan: Facebook Showdown Produces BDS Victory

Noted American jazz/jazz fusion guitarist and pianist Stanley Jordan.

By Rima Merriman

On January 5th, to everyone’s surprise, noted American jazz/jazz fusion guitarist and pianist Stanley Jordan posted this news that was music to the ears of BDS activists everywhere:  “My performance at the Red Sea Jazz Festival has been cancelled. I apologize for any inconvenience to anyone.”  Those who had been tracking the debacle will know that this is a reversal of his earlier decision, one in which he had announced he would go forward with his gig.   Although he did not say why, or even attribute his own agency in his new announcement, the backlog on Facebook is telling.

On Dec. 24th, Jordan posted this update on his Facebook page explaining that he had “received several messages from people requesting that I cancel my performance at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel,” for which he was billed as the headlining artist for the Israeli festival (his image was used to create publicity posters in Hebrew for the state-funded event).  In that initial post, he wrote:

“I’ve received several messages from people requesting that I cancel my performance at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel. I promised a detailed response, so here it is. I would like to start a dialog right here to discuss this topic. Next to global warming the Middle East conflict is the biggest issue of our time, and it’s too important for black-and-white responses that ignore the nuances. And we truly need an open dialog with a spirit of mutual compassion for everyone involved. For my part, I want to use my talents and energies in the best possible way for the cause of peace. This purpose is deeply ingrained in my soul’s code, and I’ve known it since childhood. So the only remaining question is: How can I best accomplish this goal? I invite you all to weigh in. I’d like to start the discussion by recommending a wonderful book called, “Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East,” by Rabbi Michael Lerner. I’ve been reading a lot on this topic but this book stands out for me because it resonates with my own feelings. I encourage everyone to read it as background for our discussion. And please keep your comments clean and respectful. Let’s model the type of dialog that will eventually lead to a solution.”

His invitation came on the heels of an unsuccessful attempt to secure the compliance of the academic and cultural boycott by another jazz musician, Native American poet Joy Harjo who rejected the call and went ahead with her performance at Tel Aviv University.  In that case, the “dialogue” was derailed from the get go by both her obvious disingenuous claims to solidarity with the Palestinian people and the persistent efforts of Zionist trolls that ended up colonizing her Facebook timeline. As such, Jordan’s announcement posed a challenge for all BDS supporters, especially those who work in concert with the Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).  Like Harjo, Jordan  – as his subsequent Facebook comments  revealed – had cited the spirit of his art and higher consciousness as a major reason for not honoring the international boycott.

The ensuing discussion on Jordan’s Facebook page was a remarkable drama for two reasons.   For one thing, the hasbara trolls, who had plagued the discussion with Harjo, were nowhere to be found until after (indeed, immediately after) Jordan announced his decision to cross the picket line. That announcement came on January 1st in a status update that read:

“Our discussion revealed a crisis whose depth was even far greater than I had known, and I felt compelled to help. Like many others, I am deeply dedicated to the cause of world peace, and this situation goes against everything anyone with a heart could ever condone. However, after much consideration I concluded that the best way I could serve the cause would be to do my performance as scheduled, but separately organize an event in a major city in the United States to raise funds and awareness of the plight of the Palestinian people.”

Only after close to 600 comments (out of over 800 on that one thread) were posted by activists seeking to educate Jordan on all aspects of the plight of the Palestinians and the nature and objectives of the BDS appeal did the artist reveal that individuals from the Zionist contingent were in fact pressing their case with Jordan via private messages, out of the sight of the BDS activists.

Second, the absence of (overt) trolling allowed for an exemplary demonstration of what well-informed, dedicated BDS advocates can do with a thread if they are not constantly fending off accounts spouting Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs talking points.  The result was passionate well-reasoned and forceful advocacy for the Palestinian cause from a diverse group of people on several continents, many of whom were unconnected with one another or had just become Facebook friends as a result of the virtual encounter.  Palestinians, Jews, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Israelis, European-American settlers, Australians, Native Americans, and many others took part in the discussion which continued throughout New Year ’s Eve across various time zones on the globe.

It is worth asking why Jordan, who once publicly endorsed the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa, was ultimately not convinced by the extensive discussion in which he actively participated, and what, if anything, it tells us about the efforts of PACBI supporters. One also wonders what it was that made Jordan reconsider.  It would be really useful if he were to make a full clear statement of support for BDS in the future.

The  ebb and flow of the discussion, in what eventually turned out to be a long thread of over 800 posts, shows how well the activists’ comments elaborated on and complemented one another.  One person would drop an idea out there, and someone else would pick up on it.  Great care was taken to remain respectful, as people tried to understand Jordan’s frame of reference and engage him meaningfully within it without patronizing him.  One turning point in the discussion was an explanation of what constitutes being “in solidarity” in the human and civil rights movements. “Being in solidarity,” wrote Adrian Boutureira Sansberro, “entails being able to take direction from those one claims to be in solidarity with.  Learning how to take direction, as to what is it that those we are in solidarity with wish us to do, is a huge aspect of shifting the relationships of power between the oppressed and the oppressor. It is also a way to really come face to face with our own true commitment and power issues.”

One of the many things on which Jordan was called up is the claim that he had no prior political involvement as a musician.  It became apparent, however, that he had, in fact, made very clear, public, and political statements on the subject of playing Sun City with fellow artists in 1987.  At the time, Jordan had supported the spirit of the boycott but was never put to the test.  But in the discussion thread, he waived off the contradiction between the principled stand he took then (and his position in support of various other human rights causes) on the one hand, and his reluctance to take a comparable stand on the boycott calls on the other.  At that point in time, he appeared to want to have it both ways.

After Jordan made his January 1st decision not to support the boycott, some suggested that the entire dialogue was intended to provide cover to a decision Jordan never intended reconsidering. Others have pointed to the difficulty of responding to arguments one cannot see. I believed that, although he did come to see the justice of the Palestinian cause and even to sympathize with it,  Jordan simply did not wish to let go of his gig for financial reasons (what he described as “the reality of my situation”).  At one point in the discussion Jordan asked Israeli boycott supporters, “why should we outsiders bare [sic] the economic brunt of the boycotts? You want me to quit my job, so then shouldn’t you be quitting yours too? After all, any economic activity aids Israel and can be seen as de facto normalization.”  In answer to that, people, of course, pointed out that being asked to cancel a gig is not the same as quitting a job.

Anyone who studies the thread can easily see that, throughout the discussion, Jordan and his publicist (who eventually jumped into the discussion in his stead) were searching for a line that would validate his strong desire to keep the gig but that would also allow Jordan to sympathize or “ally” himself (as opposed to being in solidarity) with the Palestinian people (hence, the charity concert that would follow in the United States).  At that time, Jordan kept insisting that, as a musician he had no political role to play (even as it was made crystal clear to him that he himself was, in fact, being played by Israel’s politicians).  He was just a guitar player.   He felt his music went “to the heart of the subjective, interior dimension, and the world of all things spiritual” and had the power to “influence humans to be more humane”, so he just wanted to perform and to leave it up to his Israeli audience to “decide for themselves how to use the inspiration”.

Once his first frame of reference as represented by Lerner’s book was summarily critiqued, Jordan kept introducing into the discussion therapeutic frameworks, such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming, the study of the structure of subjective experience. He ultimately turned away from Ali Abunimah’s vision in One Country:  A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, which posits that a principled and sustained campaign to impose a cost for Israeli government abuses of Palestinians would, in fact, ease tensions. As Abunimah puts it, once “freed from the hardships of occupation, discrimination, and exile, and engaged by Israeli counterparts genuinely interested in building a tolerant, multicultural, multireligious society, the Palestinian majority would gladly, forgivingly, and open-mindedly choose the same course.”  To Jordan, it seemed that would never happen, unless people were “getting along first” – a catch 22.

Jordan’s initial inability to grasp even rudimentary facts about the campaign turned his statement, “You’re also educating me so that I can hopefully someday speak intelligently on this matter” into a farcical proposition.  The Palestine Chronicle published an article I wrote after the January 1st announcement he would play, “Stanley Jordan: You Don’t Get to Peace without Real Solidarity”,  in which this point was made:  “Jordan is now trying to justify his decision by expressing inchoate beliefs  about the power of his art to achieve “world peace” by “changing consciousness” while propounding the notion that the boycott undermines the freedom of the artist and limits the transformative power he possesses over his audience.”

Now, in light of Jordan’s January 5th announcement that he will not play, he has demonstrated his decision to stand on the right side of history.  Still, it would be ideal if he would issue a statement that explains what finally lead him to respect the boycott.  But regardless, BDS activists who worked tirelessly to educate Jordan can claim this a victory – and we can all surmise that it was his conscience that prompted him to do the right thing.

– Rima Merriman is a faculty member in the English department, Al Quds University in the occupied West Bank. She contributed this article to

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