“When colonized people call for solidarity, the Left should respond”

Interview with Stefan Christoff (from Musicians for Palestine) about organising concerts, fighting colonialism and boycotting the Pop-Kultur festival


Stefan Christoff at a recent concert in Berlin. Photo: Phil Butland

Stefan, thanks for talking to us. Can you explain who you are and what you’re doing in Berlin at the moment?

My name is Stefan Christoff. I’m a musician and community activist who lives in Montreal, or Tiohtià:ke as indigenous people call it. I am the coordinator of Musicians For Palestine (MFP), which is a global initiative that brings musicians around the world together to support human rights and Palestine.

We specifically support the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, which is a global effort to try to pressure the Israeli government to respect international law vis-a-vis its policies in the West Bank and Gaza. This is an effort to use pressure within the arts, and academic institutions to build collective power to target the Israeli government.

I’m here in Berlin to play a concert tonight at Morphine Raum, which is an independent cultural space in the city.

Could you say who is involved in MFP and what successes you’ve experienced?

MFP was launched in May 2021. This was a global response to the Israeli bombing of Gaza that May. We specifically wanted to respond as musicians. So we worked very hard, in a brief period of time, to invite artists to sign a common declaration.

We asked artists, organisations and community groups in Palestine who are involved in the Boycott National Committee to review our declaration. This is the representative group of the BDS movement in Palestine.

We circulated the declaration globally and very quickly. A lot of artists who have spoken out about progressive issues, but had not found a context to speak for Palestinian rights support it. This includes members of The Roots, Patti Smith, Rage Against the Machine and Brian Eno.

I was also very happy to see that the initiative was supported by a lot of artists from different countries. For example, from Chile and South Africa, including artists like Msaki and Asher Gamedze. This was a really meaningful moment where progressives around the world came together to support Palestinian human rights.

What is your relationship to Israeli artists? We sometimes hear the accusation that you’re boycotting people just because they’re Israeli.

That’s just not where we’re coming from. We work with a group of Israeli artists called Boycott From Within. They actually helped us with the letters, and helped to coordinate support from Israeli artists who are progressive and support Palestinian human rights.

Since 2017, there’s been a call to boycott Berlin’s Pop Kultur festival because of its links with the Israeli embassy. The festival will be held again this August. What can you tell us about this?

MFP has supported artists who wanted to remove their participation in the festival. Last year, it was only announced at the last minute that the Israeli embassy supported the festival. We helped the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) to draft statements for these artists.

In September 2022, we issued the second global declaration of MFP, which 900 more musicians supported, though Palestine was not in the news. In that declaration, we mentioned Pop Kultur specifically. The declaration was supported by many groups, and collectives and musicians, including Arca, an awesome artist who does a lot of the sound work for Björk and Massive Attack.

At first, the Pop Kultur organisers didn’t acknowledge the connection with Israeli embassy. Then they suddenly said there’s nothing problematic about that connection. Many artists get their travel costs paid by by their embassies. Why are you singling out to Israel? What about artists who are financially supported by the Canadian or other embassies?

This is an opportunity to really look at what the BDS movement is. It is a tactic, a picket line. Palestinian communities who are facing the occupation have called for artists around the world to participate in the global enforcement of a picket line.

Given the system of oppression and occupation which Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have labelled as apartheid, given the siege of Gaza, we are going to respect the Palestinian groups’ appeal to not collaborate with the Israeli state. This is a global effort to pressure the Israeli government.

I want to underline that we are talking about the Israeli state – the government. I live in Canada. My origins are Bulgarian Macedonian, but I was born in Canada, I lived there, grew up there. If somebody is critiquing the Canadian state’s systemic violations of indigenous rights, that doesn’t offend me. That’s not against me.

In the same way, if people are critiquing the Israeli government’s position, it’s about the Israeli government. It’s very clear in any country in the world that there’s a great separation between the government and people.

Going back to Pop Kultur and BDS as a tactic, Palestinian groups are calling for a boycott of the Israeli state. I think it’s important to respect that appeal, because this is a context of colonial occupation, of the Israeli state occupying Palestine.

Palestinian groups have clearly appealed to the world, to artists, academics and labour unions to respect the fact that they are calling for people to not collaborate with the Israeli state. I respect that in the same way as I would if another community were trying to put pressure on either a corporation or a government to respect human rights.

There are lots of historical frameworks to understand what’s happening now in occupied Palestine, within a context of histories of colonialism. We can look to the French occupation of Algeria, or the Portuguese occupation of Angola. The history is different, but the equation of colonialism is the same. It’s important to understand the nuance of every situation. But when colonized people call for solidarity, the left should respond.

There are a number of activists in Germany who will agree with a lot of that in principle, but they will say BDS is not possible in Germany because of German history and the Nazi law “Kauf nicht bei Juden” – “don’t buy from Jews”.

If we equate Jewish identity with the Israeli state, then we accept an exceptionalist framework. This means that the situation in Palestine is removed from the globe. But what’s happening in Palestine is deeply connected to the world. It’s not happening in a historical vacuum,

If we talk about North America and Manifest Destiny, the expansion of the US State in a Western direction, or in the Canadian context, of the consolidation of the “Dominion of Canada” in 1867, this was a colonial process in the same way that Israeli state is a colonial process which is imposing a national structure. This is working against the collective wishes of the indigenous population, who are the Palestinians.

In Germany, we should really address the link between major German corporations like Bayer with injustice. How can we decode the intergenerational wealth that is built on the Holocaust? How can we think about the structures of power within Germany itself that continue to propagate injustice, whether it’s in a local context or internationally?

Despite all the discussion that has happened within the educational system here about the Holocaust, what we haven’t seen is a discussion about the structures of power within this country that are rooted in history.

It is more interesting to think critically about systemic racism from an intersectional point of view, about opposing antisemitism in the same way as opposing anti Arab racism or anti-Black racism. These are connected, and no one is free until we’re all free. That includes Palestine.

Do you think anything has changed significantly since the recent election of a right-wing government in Israel?

Under Netanyahu, a very cold colonial authoritarian rendition of Israeli state power is in control. That will make a lot of people globally to think more critically about the Israeli state. The inherent equation of the colonial edifice of the Israeli state project is amplified with this government.

But it’s important to think about the structure of the state project in Israel as a colonial state project. It’s not simply about the right-wing government as being an exception. It’s part of a continuum of governments over time. The Barak government and others sustained the oppression and occupation of the Palestinian people.

This is similar to how the Trump government in the United States was not without context. For years, the Republican Party was increasingly using racist talking points to divide people and to boost white supremacist Republican nationalism. This did not exist just with Trump – it’s coming from a context.

Do you think that boycotts of itself will change Israel? Or is it part of a wider struggle?

I’ve seen in Montreal a lot of movement towards people understanding the situation in Palestine within a framework of being against oppression, from a state context. These include, for example, a lot of artists who supported Black Lives Matter, and join the protests of Black Lives Matter against police violence and systemic anti black racism.

After those protests, there were a lot of artists who were more open to thinking about supporting MFP, because artists played such a big role in Black Lives Matter. I found the same thing in New York City. So I do think there’s a shift happening.

Quite a few people reading the interview will be artists or musicians. Others won’t be musicians, but they listen to music and have a connection to artists. What is the best thing they can do to support your activities?

First, they can visit our website www.musiciansforpalestine.com. The main thing that we are working on right now is to encourage people to organise local concerts. People often think that activism in the arts happens only at the level of celebrity. But MFP could happen because we had done years of small community events: 30 people in a cafe, 25 people for a poetry reading, 80 people for a jazz concert.

Those events were not just about Palestine, but were intersectional. We included groups advocating for gender justice, or queer rights, or indigenous movements for land. I’d really encourage people to experiment.

I was just in France, for example, and talked with people from different cities about doing small shows. The vast majority of people love music. It’s really cool to have cultural events that are a way of creating a space that is thinking about these issues. It’s not just about protest. People get a lot of sustenance spiritually from music. Cultural events are a really meaningful part of social movements.

If people want to be involved, you can contact us through our website. Or just organize your own thing.

If someone wants to organize an event, and they’ve never done it before, is there any advice you can give them? How can they find artists? Is there anything they shouldn’t do? Who should they be collect collecting money for?

If you want to organise a concert, you don’t always have to do a benefit. Sometimes you can give the money back to the artists – it’s good to support artists too.

But we’ve also done a lot of benefits. I’ve supported 3 groups – Addameer, which supports prisoner rights in Palestine, Medical Aid for Palestinians, which works in Gaza, and Defence for Children International, which does a lot of advocacy work for child prisoners, within Israeli prisons. There are many other groups, but those are the ones I’ve worked with and can recommend.

The second point is to start small. It’s really meaningful to have small events where we listen together to a poet or a musician. It could be at a cafe or a campus. You can also build trust in the arts community over time by having events where you work together. Don’t pour huge amounts of money into it. It’s not about the money. It’s about the people, it’s about sharing space.

The last thing is  to avoid the idea that Palestine is disconnected from the world. It’s really important, also in a German context, to think intersectionally and to think about anti-colonial movements around the world as tied to the Palestinian struggle.

If people want to get involved in such an event in Berlin, they can contact us at team@theleftberlin.com and we can put you in touch with pro-Palestinian musicians and filmmakers. There is also a shortage of venues in Berlin who support Palestine, which is something we can help change.