Caught in the crossfire: Should musicians boycott Israel?

The former Dead Kennedys frontman goes to Israel and the West Bank, and shares his thoughts on the BDS movement.

separation wall
Israel's wall is intended to permanently enclose Palestinians [GALLO/GETTY]

Last summer, punk rock icon Jello Biafra and his band decided to cancel a show they had planned on playing at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv. At the time, Biafra wrote that ‘the toll and stress on the band members and myself has been huge, both logistically and as a matter of conscience‘. In August, Biafra decided to travel to Israel and Palestine himself to explore his thoughts on the cultural boycott of Israel.

San Francisco, CA – So now I have been to Israel. I have also been to Palestine. I got a taste of the place, but not in the way I’d originally hoped.

In many ways I really wish my band, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, had played in Tel Aviv. But I also share most of the boycott’s supporters’ feelings about Israel’s government, the occupation and ongoing human rights violations.

I hope people take the time to understand how deeply this has torn at the fabric of our band. The promoter in Tel Aviv lost thousands, and I am eating thousands more in lost and re-booked airfares that I have no idea how I am going to pay, or how I will pay my bills for the rest of the year. Real human beings got hurt here.

This whole controversy has been one of the most intense situations of my life – and I thrive on intense situations. But the rest of the band was not used to this. How fair was it to drag them there in the first place? This is not like fighting Tipper Gore and the Los Angeles Police Department, greedy ex-Dead Kennedys members or more-radical-than-thou thugs who think it’s OK to put someone in the hospital for being a “sellout”. I gradually felt like I had gotten in over my head sticking my nose into one of the longest and nastiest conflicts on earth.

So with the rollercoaster still in my stomach and my head, I flew solo to Israel instead. The mission: to check things out myself and hopefully at least get closer to some kind of conclusion on whether artists boycotting Israel, especially me, was really the best way to help the Palestinian people.

The first people who wrote asking us to boycott went out of their way to be diplomatic and communicate how they felt. Then the gloves came off, and so did some of the masks. Our Facebook page went from eye-opening and educational to a childish, bickering orgy between a handful of people. Racial slurs began to appear on this and other boycott sites. Many writings seemed to have no idea who I was or what punk is. One called me a “fanatic Zionist with a clear touch of cultural racism”.

I also got an invitation from a self-proclaimed fan to “come meet the Israeli right” and see the settlements through their eyes, complete with a wine-tasting party.

Many people I met on my trip to Israel feel that the boycott has damaged the Israeli opposition more than it has anyone else and “helped silence the peace camp in Israel”. A veteran journalist I met later told me, “the best way to contribute to peace is to try and work to understand both sides” and that he felt that boycotts strengthen extremists by keeping people apart.

Others felt the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement “is not all bad”, and can raise awareness across the pond of what the US is letting Israel’s government get away with. One wrote to me later, saying that: “I don’t disagree with BDS myself … and I definitely feel that BDS is a legitimate way to do so [raise awareness]. But if the price paid for this is worldwide ignorance, then I think I believe the price is too high. If musicians were to boycott Israel or Palestine, they would miss out on the opportunity to educate themselves – and then hopefully preach that opinion when and where they see fit.”

Facing the music

My second day in Israel began with a long, tasty meal above the ocean in Jaffa with two guys (both named Guy), the promoters of the show that my band had originally planned on playing. I felt I owed it to them to sit down and talk, and it is a good thing we did. They said they were more disappointed than angry – and they were sure disappointed. They were also grateful that I at least came to Israel to see things with my own eyes, and was willing to talk to them.

They both described themselves as “left”, a more respectable and widely used term in Israel than in post-Crass Europe or the United States. They felt that concerts and politics should be separate. For me, it’s a little more complicated. “Our fight is not for land or religion, it is for peace,” said Guy from the Barby Club, claiming that some pro-boycott Israelis he knew bought tickets to our show anyway. The Guy from Useless ID, the band that was supposed to open for us, told me: “My band has done benefits for families in Gaza and the West Bank. What have the boycotters on your Facebook page done besides write in?”

He went on to say that we were the only cancellation all year; that I was, in effect, boycotting my own fans. If I cancel Israel, I should also cancel Germany because of the Holocaust and neo-Nazis, Holland because their right-wing government supports Netanyahu, and the UK for occupying Northern Ireland and Scotland. If I want to talk about war crimes, I should be looking at my own country. In other words, why Israel?

The show at the Barby Club went ahead anyway, with the other bands on the bill playing for free. The two Guys encouraged me to come. With so many people so upset, I wondered if that was the worst thing I could do. I finally decided to go. I went up and talked to some of the fans outside. They were the most emotional yet about how heartbroken they were that we didn’t play. Others said they were glad.

“One of the few things both Israelis and Palestinians seem to agree on is that one of the main obstacles to peace these days is the settlers.”

I asked them how they felt the boycott helped, and their main answer was that it was to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. They felt the boycott was already having a major impact and the government was already afraid.

Several felt guilty and angry that they were living in such privilege while people suffered so badly right next door. As I listened, I tried, but could not come up with any quick advice to offer in the way of hope, or step-by-step ideas to lift their own situation and build a future.

Beast in the belly of the beast

One of the few things both Israelis and Palestinians seem to agree on is that one of the main obstacles to peace these days is the settlers.

Today the illegal settlements are completely out of control, with 300,000 settlers planted across the Green Line in the West Bank and another 200,000 beyond the Green Line in East Jerusalem. Borders are creatively moved and enforced by the infamous wall, started by the ideas of Yitzhak Rabin and greatly expanded by Ariel Sharon. It’s a black eye on the face of Israel’s reputation today, considered so even among many of Israel’s citizens and supporters.

Some people told me that if the wall had been built along the Green Line, it might have actually worked. But Sharon then used it as a land grab, creatively and maniacally routing it through the middle of Palestinian towns, Palestinian farmland and across Palestinian roads, in a deliberate attempt to make the West Bank such a splattered Swiss-cheese hodgepodge of impassable walls and checkpoints that a free Palestinian state could never get off the ground.

Any fantasy that Palestinians could one day be broken down to stay on “their side” of the wall and live happily ever after is ridiculous. It flies in the face of all human instinct and human rights. It is never going to happen. Like the Berlin Wall, it is destined to fall sooner rather than later.

However, some activists emphatically denied to me that Israel was an apartheid country. “It is not apartheid. It’s a military occupation. There’s a difference.” OK, how about this: The occupying army is practicing apartheid in the occupied territories, and enforces and maintains it to the smallest, most obsessive detail. Like South Africa, there is a pass system called Tasrich, and a census law requiring people’s ethnicity on their ID books. Jewish Israelis have a blue book, Palestinian books are orange and state whether they are Muslim or Christian, and non-Jewish immigrant workers’ books are green.

A boycott of products made in settlements has begun inside Israel. There is also a growing boycott by artists refusing to cross the Green Line and perform for the settlers. A fancy venue has opened in one of the largest settlements in Ariel. Many artists refuse to perform there. With the law passed last fall by Israel’s parliament – which allows citizens to file lawsuits against people or groups who call for a boycott of Israel – will these artists be sued by settlers for declining a gig?

So now what?

It would have been so easy for me and the Guantanamo School of Medicine to quietly decline the Israel/Tel Aviv gig offer, and no one would have been the wiser. Naïve or not, we thought that in our own small way, if we showed up we might be able to do some good. Opinions swung back and forth every day as hell got hotter, even among individual band members.

“Bringing down this regime by boycott may be a much higher mountain to climb than the boycott of South Africa.”

I do not regret speaking out. It has been quite a learning experience along the way. I can’t very well shut up now. It’s as if I’ve been covered with someone else’s chewing gum, and I’ll never be able to scrape it all off. As my friend said, “it gets in your blood” – and it has definitely gotten in mine.

I loved Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem was hardly the “dead city” at night that some Tel Aviv hipsters claim it is. I want to go back. I want to play. But I, too, am as sickened as the next person that not all the cool people I met in the West Bank can cross into Israel and enjoy Tel Aviv – or even worship in Jerusalem. That unnecessary checkpoints prevent them from reaching their farms, schools or even hospitals. Forty-four years of brutal occupation has done no more to solve the problem than the United States has accomplished in its War on Drugs. You can’t just keep almost four million people in prison.

Yet bringing down this regime by boycott may be a much higher mountain to climb than the boycott of South Africa. The 1985 musician boycott of Sun City (a posh, government-owned golf resort and casino in South Africa) was just a promotional tool for the financial boycott, where banks, universities and corporations caved into pressure to pull their investments out of South Africa and broke the back of the white apartheid regime.

With South Africa, there was not heavy-duty religion involved. There were not millions in the US and worldwide so emotionally attached to the other side for that reason. There was not a powerful Americans for Apartheid lobby in Washington DC or Students for a White South Africa on campus. Investors who pulled their money out did not risk an even bigger backlash from pro-Apartheid stockholders and customers.

There was not so much money pouring in from boycott-proof super-rich zealots such as Netanyahu and settler patron Sheldon Adelson, a casino tycoon – whose estimated $28bn makes him reportedly the third-richest American and the richest Jew in the world.

I am not saying the same tactics that brought down apartheid South Africa can’t be done. I am just saying that there are different and heavier obstacles this time and people need to be ready for them.

South Africa never had anything like the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) lobby, which is now considered more of a lobby for Likud than for the Israeli people. Nevertheless, they have a stranglehold over almost every member of Congress of both parties, using Joe McCarthy-type tactics to smear anyone they don’t like as anti-Jewish – and get them voted out of office.

Then there is the massive funding of settlers, extremists and more by the US Christian right. I am told Mike Huckabee is a regular fixture at the settlements. Sarah Palin – whose end-of-the-world doomsday visions rival those of Ahmadinejad – is on board too, telling Barbara Walters that Israel needs to speed up settlement construction because, “more and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead”.

This is not because they love Israel or the Jewish people. This is because, according to certain strains of evangelical Christianity, the Messiah will return only when the Jewish people return to the Holy Land.

This is why the US Christian right is much more interested in aiding Jewish settlers who don’t need the money than they are in aiding Palestinian Christians on the other side of the Wall who do. I asked people in Israel about this and they told me the settlers don’t care about their motives, they just want the money and think they’re using the Christians.

What the Palestinian Solidarity Movement does have on its side is the horror of the occupation itself for all to see. If only more people could see it. This is where I say, yet again, Don’t hate the media, Become the media. In this case, what this means is that people in Palestine and Israel – and people who have been there – need to reach out, one-on-one, and show everyone else – especially those in the US – what is going on and what they have experienced.

Believe me, most Americans are so out of it, they have no idea any of this is happening.

What can one person do, small things, big things? Step-by-step things that an overwhelmed person just trying to pay their rent can actually work in to their daily rat race and do?

With eyes on the prize of something this important, there needs to be room for everybody. We who care (and I do) need all the people we can get from BDS to Peace Now to the International Solidarity Movement to the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolition, Anarchists Against The Wall and beyond.

There is a new Jewish lobby in Washington called J Street, formed to challenge the toxic effects of AIPAC. They may be moderate for my tastes, but anyone who will get in the ring and challenge AIPAC deserves some support.

I heard talk in Israel of a movement started by Rabbi Menachem Froman saying that the settlements in the West Bank should stay, but Jews living in Judea and Samaria [the Biblical term for the West Bank] should be willing to live there under a Palestinian state.

I personally support a two-state solution in hopes that it can lead to a one-state solution in our lifetime. In the short run we may get a three-state solution if Hamas in Gaza splits with its rival factions in the West Bank, like when East Pakistan broke off and became Bangladesh.

“I will not perform in Israel unless it is a pro-human rights, anti-occupation event that does not violate the spirit of the boycott.”

Let’s not forget that the Palestinians and Arabs have rolled their demands way back from the “destroy the Jewish State” rhetoric of earlier decades. Yasir Arafat agreed to a Palestinian state defined by the pre-1967 borders clear back in 1988. It is now ten years since all 22 nations of the Arab League offered peace and full recognition of Israel if Israel would agree to a solution based on the pre-1967 borders.

Jonathan Pollack, an Israeli activist whom I met in Tel Aviv, told me that a friend of his from the United Democratic Front in South Africa told him that the most hopeless period in their struggle seemed to be around 1985-1990. The Apartheid regime seemed more invincible than ever, right before the regime actually fell. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Empire – and now the Arab Spring – it took almost everyone, including me, by total surprise. No one expected it. Luckily, like the former Czechoslovakia, the rebels had prepared for the aftermath and all hell didn’t break loose. No civil war, no bloodbath. Could the same thing happen in Israel too? I did not hear one word of simmering anger over high rents and the cost of living, yet Israel’s “summer of protest” erupted less than a week after I left.

I hope that is where we are today. Because the occupation, the wall and the settlements must go. As horrible as the Arab extremists have been, it does not justify this. I support the people of Palestine in their fight to be free, and the many brave Israelis who are totally fed up with their government’s human rights violations and who want to live in peace.

I will not perform in Israel unless it is a pro-human rights, anti-occupation event that does not violate the spirit of the boycott. Each artist must decide this for themselves. I am staying away for now, but am also really creeped out by the attitudes of some of the boycott hardliners, and hope someday to find a way to contribute something positive here. I will not march or sign on with anyone who is more interested in making threats than making friends.

As for the Arab Spring, I cross my fingers on one hand and bite my nails with the other.

I have a lot to learn and a long way to go.

Jello Biafra was the frontman of punk rock band The Dead Kennedys. He currently plays with the band Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine.