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Locals "Face" in on the Macy Gray Debate
Some of them didn't particularly care for the music of Macy Gray, an R&B and soul singer from Ohio. Others had never even heard of her, or that she had plans to perform in Israel next month.
Nonetheless, a contingent of Israel advocates from the Philadelphia area took the time last week to become Facebook fans of the musician in order to weigh in on a social media debate over whether or not she should cancel her Feb. 11 and 12 concerts in Tel Aviv.
A celebrity like Gray could easily influence members of the public, explained Becca Yasner, a Cherry Hill native who spread word of the situation to about 20 fellow Israel supporters at her school, Carnegie Melon University, where she's a junior. Even those with no other connection to the conflict could develop a "hugely negative image of Israel," depending on Gray's actions.
Gray waited only two days between asking Facebook fans for their opinions and announcing through a tweet on Jan. 19 that she'd decided to play in Israel as scheduled.
But her solicitation has continued to generate comments and even global media attention, the latest evidence of the passionate debate that issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inspire. Other cultural artists in recent years have also roiled debate with their decisions to cancel or go ahead with performances in Israel.
The original Jan. 17 status read: "I'm getting alot of letters from activists urging/begging me to boycott by NOT performing in protest of Apartheid against the Palestinians. What the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinians is disgusting, but I wana go. I gotta lotta fans there I dont want to cancel on and I dont know how my NOT going changes anything. What do you think? Stay or go?"
At first, Philadelphia businesswoman Sally Mitlas said she was so turned off by Gray's appeal that she wanted to tell her "to take her music and her negative feelings towards our country and stay home, don't bother coming."
But doing that, she said, wouldn't have made any inroads against the negative publicity directed toward the Jewish state. The vast majority of the Facebook comments urged Gray to stay away from Israel and thanked her for supporting the Palestinian cause. Another Facebook page called Macy Gray: Please Cancel Your Show in Israel, established late last year, had 497 "likes" as of Jan. 27.
"I felt like I was back in Nazi Germany reading some of those comments," said Mitlas, who runs an entertainment and documentary filmmaking company. "It was just so much misinformation. You can't turn your back on it. We have to learn how to fight some of these media wars. You don't know how these things can fester."
It felt strange, Mitlas said, to become a "fan" of an artist she doesn't care for in order to post a response, "but I just kind of put my feelings aside."
Both Mitlas and Yasner learned about the proposed boycott from Sharon Singer, who oversees public affairs and social media for the Israeli Consulate in Philadelphia. Singer said she wrestled over whether she should involve the Israeli government, but opted not to for fear that "if there was a big debate it would've done a lot of damage."
Instead, she emailed about 50 carefully selected local students, Israeli advocacy groups and colleagues at other consulates, hoping that direct social action from real people would make a stronger statement than a government call to action.
"When you think about it, so what, it's Macy Gray, it's not the Rolling Stones," Singer said. "But these are people who care because they understand the implications."
Singer's contacts, in turn, passed along the site to their friends. While the comments -- upwards of 10,900 as of late this week --- still skew in favor of a boycott, Singer said she was proud to see a marked increase in the number of pro-Israeli posts. Likewise, she noted, Gray went from about 11,000 fans to more than 18,000 over the course of the week.
In a blog entry posted on Jan. 26, Gray expounded on the uproar, saying she had never intended to upset or insult anyone and had no idea her question would elicit so many passionate responses. She said she had been genuinely torn about what to do after receiving hundreds of requests to boycott, something that hadn't come up the last three times she performed in Israel (in 2008, 2009 and in Caesarea in 2000).
"Of course, I do not support oppression or violence, but I am a strong believer that music builds bridges and brings joy and offers peace," Gray wrote.
Music, she continued, "offers magic and escape and laughter and the opportunity to feel good and dance."
"My thought was: what good is the absence of that? And how arrogant it would be of me to think that my appearance or lack of would change anything?"
Gray said she has learned much over the past month and plans to visit the West Bank during her trip to Israel to learn more.
"I honestly believe that if musicians are more aggressively invited to Israel, you, on either side, have the opportunity to educate and influence and inspire them to spread your beliefs," she wrote. "My prayer is that this conflict will end soon and, most of all, that it will allow all people to live in peace, side by side, as equals.
"We bring with us one of God's most important and powerful gifts, music," she wrote. "It is the best we can do for change right now."