The stunning arc of pop superstar Demi Lovato’s recent trip to Israel — which took her from a deep “connection to God” to a whiplash apology for “hurting people” — is right there in her song titles: She went from “This Is Me” to “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore.”
What was lost on no one was how tricky it is for celebrities to negotiate a visit to Israel in an age of heightened BDS activism, where every appearance by an A-list singer — even if there’s no actual performance — can lead to a new salvo in a long-running culture war.
Late last month, Lovato’s 74.4 million Instagram followers were treated to three photos from the singer’s September visit to Israel. In one, Lovato is cradling a little girl at the Shalva center for disabled children. In another, she is standing in the Jordan River after being baptized. The third photo is from Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.
At a time when BDS activists are pressuring artists to boycott Israel, these images and Lovato’s warm praise for the country were music to the ears of Israel’s supporters.
“I am an American singer. I was raised Christian and have Jewish ancestors. When I was offered an amazing opportunity to visit the places I’d read about in the Bible growing up, I said yes,” Lovato wrote on Instagram, without revealing who had invited her.
(Unconfirmed reports suggest that some of the funding — $150,000, according to Ynet — came from an Israeli ministry and the Jerusalem municipality, but that most came from private sources. Rolling Stone reported Monday that “a lawyer representing private individuals who claim that they paid for the trip” contacted the magazine “to claim that the trip was not paid for by the Ministry of Culture.”)
“I’ve never felt such a sense of spirituality or connection to God … something I’ve been missing for a few years now. … I’ve never felt more renewed in my life,” Lovato said after her baptism.
“I’m grateful for the memories made and the opportunity to be able to fill the God-sized hole in my heart. Thank you for having me, Israel,” she concluded.
Lovato’s words were all the more poignant given that she survived a drug overdose in July 2018 and subsequently thanked God for saving her life.
Why, then, did Lovato suddenly imply that she had been manipulated into coming to Israel and inadequately warned of the potential consequences?
“Sometimes people present you with opportunities and no one tells you the potential backlash you could face in return,” she wrote in an Oct. 3 statement that has since been deleted from Instagram.
“This was meant to be a spiritual experience for me, NOT A POLITICAL STATEMENT and now I realize it hurt people and for that I’m sorry. Sorry I’m not more educated, and sorry for thinking this trip was just a spiritual experience.”
Lovato appeared to be a response to critics she didn’t name, although the criticism had all the hallmarks of supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel.
“While Israel denies Palestinians their rights and freedom of movement, it recruits international celebrities, politicians, pilgrims, and others on visits that obscure the reality of Israel’s state violence,” tweeted the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a nonprofit that supports BDS.
The reaction to Lovato’s apology was swift, with some in the pro-Israel camp questioning her claim that she hadn’t been adequately informed.
“You’re a grown woman w/a massive social media following who was offered a press trip; don’t make it seem like you were tricked into going to #Israel,” StopAntisemitism.org, a watchdog group, tweeted.
David Brinn, managing editor of The Jerusalem Post and a veteran chronicler of Israel’s battle against BDS cultural boycott efforts, told The Jewish Week that it was “hard to believe” that before accepting the offer to visit Israel, Lovato wasn’t briefed by her own people or by the ministry that invited her about the inherent publicity risks involved.
As BDS has grown over the years, “it’s become standard practice” for Israeli promoters who are bringing over artists to lay it on the line that they will be pressured, threatened and boycotted for agreeing to come to Israel, Brinn said.
“There’s even a pro-Israel organization in Los Angeles — Creative Community for Peace — that works with artists who have booked shows in Israel to counter the pressure and provide them with support and information,” Brinn said.
“And if a celeb agrees to visit under those circumstances, they should have no qualms about posting about the trip, and about facing the potential wrath afterwards.”
Still, it’s impossible to know how an artist will respond to the BDS machine until faced with it, Brinn acknowledged.
“Some artists are just overwhelmed by the vitriol and sheer onslaught of the anti-Israel zealots, to the extent that even if they knew it might happen, it still takes them aback. They have a natural inclination to recoil and appease the attackers, whether they have their career in mind, or as just a human reaction to something they may not have a strong conviction about, like Lovato.”
Israel has suffered from some BDS cancellations from stars like Lorde and Lana Del Rey, yet others such as Madonna, Bon Jovi, Jennifer Lopez, Enrique Iglesias, Alanis Morissette, Backstreet Boys, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld have been in Israel in the past few years. Celine Dion has scheduled two shows for next August.
Ashley Perry, director general of the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Communities, met Lovato, who is of Mexican and British heritage, during the trip and praised her commitment to learning about her Jewish ancestry.
“I was invited to meet with her one morning because she and her mother were very interested in learning more about their Sephardi heritage and ancestry,” Perry, president of the Sephardic roots group Reconectar, wrote in a Facebook post.
Perry said he told them about the history of the Sephardim, their Hispanic culture and the forced conversions, “and how as many as one in four Latinos and Hispanics have significant Jewish DNA. She told me about her family name, history and birthplace, all of which from my knowledge and experience confirm that she is indeed a descendant of Sephardi Jews.
Both Lovato and her mother “were extremely excited and asked a lot of questions,” Perry said, and the meeting went on far longer than scheduled.
“I believe that she came away with an extremely positive view of Israel and only upon posting pictures from her trip did she witness the dark and threatening side of anti-Israel advocacy,” Perry said.
People like Demi Lovato “should be embraced, and we should cut her some slack as she navigates the complexities that we in Israel, the Jewish world and those involved in pro-Israel activity now understand intuitively,” Perry said.
“Let’s all take a deep breath and welcome these journeys and take them at face value, and not use everyone who engages with Israel in any way for some fantastical score card between ‘us’ and ‘them.’”