UK band Radiohead breaks silence on Israel concert

Thom Yorke says boycott sows division, but activists say remarks ignore ‘apartheid conditions’ Palestinians live under.

Lead singer of Radiohead Thom Yorke performs on the opening day of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
The Radiohead frontman called boycott efforts 'an extraordinary waste of energy' [Reuters]

Radiohead have hit back at a campaign urging the British band to cancel a scheduled concert in Israel, calling efforts to get them to adhere to the Palestinian call to Boycott, Divest from, and Sanction (BDS) Israel “offensive”.

The experimental rock icons are scheduled to close a tour on July 19 in Tel Aviv, but a number of activists and artists, including Nobel Prize-winning anti-apartheid icon Desmond Tutu, novelist Alice Walker and Pink Floyd musician Roger Waters, have urged Radiohead to heed Palestinian activists’ calls.

The open letter, signed by dozens of other artists and public figures, reminded Radiohead: “Palestinians have appealed to you to take one small step to help pressure Israel to end its violation of basic rights and international law.” 

“Please do what artists did in South Africa’s era of oppression: stay away, until apartheid is over,” the letter added.

Radiohead had initially stayed silent on the boycott calls, even as a banner urging them to cancel the Tel Aviv show was hung at a recent concert in Berkeley, California.

But Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke responded on Friday that boycott campaigns sow divisions that fuel right-wing leaders such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May

“All of this creates divisive energy. You’re not bringing people together. You’re not encouraging dialogue or a sense of understanding,” Yorke told Rolling Stone magazine.

“It’s such an extraordinary waste of energy. Energy that could be used in a more positive way,” he said.

But Samir Eskanda, a British-Palestinian musician and manager, said that boycotts are in fact meant to be divisive.

“Boycotts called for by an oppressed people against that system of oppression are by definition ‘divisive’,” Eskanda told Al Jazeera.

“They divide those who support human rights and an end to oppression from those who choose to be oblivious to the struggle for those rights and who abrogate their moral obligation to do no harm.”

Yorke and his bandmates have played concerts to support Tibetan rights, Amnesty International and the battle against climate change.

The Radiohead frontman called it “patronising in the extreme” to presume Radiohead is unfamiliar with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, pointing out that guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s wife is an Israeli.

“It’s really upsetting that artists I respect think we are not capable of making a moral decision ourselves after all these years,” he said.

“They talk down to us and I just find it mind-boggling that they think they have the right to do that,” he said.

But Seamus O’Brolchain, a member of the UK-based activist group Radiohead Fans for Palestine, said that Yorke seemed to be mistaken about the origins of the boycott call.

“Thom seems to think the call to boycott has come from people like [award-winning director] Ken Loach and Roger Waters, but that isn’t true. The call has come from the Palestinian people who are living under apartheid – how can they talk down to a millionaire rock star?” O’Brolchain told Al Jazeera.

“Our fans campaign has tried to open a dialogue with the band, but they ignored us,” O’Brolchain added. “Radiohead bassist] Colin Greenwood refused to accept our letters when they were presented to him. He didn’t even want to read them. The band’s publicists and agents haven’t returned our calls.”

“We made the mistake of thinking Radiohead were the kind of band who would be willing to have a dialogue with their fans.”

In the interview, Yorke also lashed out at the academic boycott, saying of universities: “The one place where you need to be free to express everything you possibly can. You want to tell these people you can’t do that?”

But according to Eskanda, Yorke’s comments appear to be made without regard to the situation that the Palestinians live under: “While the Palestinian BDS movement endorses a free exchange of ideas, it is obvious that it has to be just that: free, which excludes situations of colonial oppression, apartheid and military occupation.”

Debating the Israel boycott

Speaking to Al Jazeera in response as to why Yorke “just can’t understand why going to play a rock show [in Israel … is a problem]”, Eskanda quoted Enuga S. Reddy, who was director of the UN Centre Against Apartheid, and in 1984 spoke of “people who have performed in South Africa because of ignorance of the situation or the lure of money or unconcern over racism.

“They need to be persuaded to stop entertaining apartheid, to stop profiting from apartheid money and to stop serving the propaganda purposes of the apartheid regime,” Reddy said.

Yorke’s latest comments also appeared to be at odds with public opinion in the UK.

A new poll published on Friday by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign showed that “43 percent of Brits thought the Palestinian call for BDS was reasonable – over three times as many as those who thought it was unreasonable (13 percent)”. 

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s findings also found that “support for Palestine is remarkably consistent across party lines – despite [Labour Party leader Jeremy] Corbyn and May’s differing views on the subject”, as nearly half the British population think the UK should review its trade and financial relationships with illegal Israeli settlements.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies