British rock band Radiohead’s insistence on playing in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, in violation of the global boycott of Israel, has shocked and disappointed many fans.
In response to an appeal from filmmaker Ken Loach last week, lead singer Thom Yorke put out a statement littered with cliched anti-boycott arguments, which might have come straight out of a Zionist hasbara (propaganda) manual.
But ironically, the group’s decision to flout the picket line has inadvertently demonstrated just why the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement makes sense.
In defence of his actions, Yorke claimed that “playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government”. Generally, this is of course true. But the dynamic changes when an oppressed people, who have lived for 50 years under occupation and been subjected to ethnic cleansing for almost 70 years, ask for international support through boycott.
All Israeli governments – not just the less liberal ones, as the musician’s statement implied – have upheld settler colonialism. As such, when an artist consciously chooses to refuse an indigenous people’s request for solidarity, they become complicit in normalising the status quo.
Normalising the status quo
By ignoring the views of Palestinians, Radiohead effectively endorsed the Israeli government, mimicking its own attitude of utter disdain. To borrow from the band’s lyrics, it’s as if Palestinians’ opinions “are of no consequence at all”.
Indeed, as the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) pointed out, Yorke’s repeated failure to even respond to requests for a meeting with those struggling for liberation smacks of classic colonial arrogance.
His case rested on “whataboutery”, a common tactic of Israel’s apologists, and an attempted analogy with the US. “We don’t endorse Netanyahu any more than Trump but we still play in America,” Yorke said.
But boycott is a tactic, not a principle. The small matter of the BDS call – which the Radiohead frontman studiously neglected to acknowledge – makes all the difference. Issued by 170 civil society organisations in 2005, this call is supported by an absolute majority of Palestinians; it launched a movement which just marked its 12th year.
In the absence of such a movement holding US state power to account, it would be absurd for Donald Trump to hail a Radiohead gig in New York or Detroit as a slap in the face of his critics. Conversely, the huge transformative potential of the Palestinian-led BDS movement is precisely the reason the Israeli state has hailed Yorke’s rejectionism as a great victory.
A fig leaf for apartheid
Last month, the Israeli government’s official twitter account triumphantly quoted Yorke’s comment that BDS is a “waste of energy”. There could be no better illustration than this of the impossibility of remaining neutral in a situation of grave injustice. Like it or not, by breaking the boycott and pressing on with business as usual, Radiohead are providing a fig leaf of legitimacy to the apartheid system imposed by Israel.
Perhaps tellingly though, Yorke even disputed the reality of Israeli apartheid in a June interview with the Rolling Stone magazine. This not only undermines his pretence of detachment but suggests that either ignorance or complete disregard for Palestinian equality – rather than qualms with the tactic of boycott – may lie behind the band’s decision (they refused to say whether they would have also broken the boycott of apartheid South Africa).
Faced with such denial, it’s tempting to quote the singer’s own lyrics back at him yet again: “You have not been paying attention”. Talk of Israeli apartheid is “not a scaremongering, this is really happening”.
There are numerous examples of formal, institutionalised discrimination in Israel and the territories it occupies: separate roads, separate legal systems, and racial immigration rules, to name just a few.
Radiohead can 'take the money and run'. The Palestinians' struggle for freedom, justice and equality goes on.
Palestinians in Israel live as second-class citizens. Millions in Gaza and the West Bank have no vote in the polity that controls virtually every facet of their lives. Refugees in exile are afforded no rights at all. These are the concrete realities that constitute Israel’s system of ethnic privilege and subordination, which leading scholars convincingly argue meets the legal definition of apartheid.
This is also a government which uses culture in the service of propaganda, a policy which exposes Yorke’s facile claim that “music, art and academia are about crossing borders” for the vacuous platitude that it is. Indeed, a key rationale for the cultural boycott is its instrumentalisation by the state.
Culture as propaganda
As part of its official “Brand Israel” campaign, the foreign ministry has funded artists’ overseas tours on the proviso they sign a contract recognising themselves as “service providers” hired “to promote the policy interests of the State of Israel via culture and art”.
Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, deputy director general of the campaign, has explained: “We are seeing culture as a hasbara tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture.”
And in 2009, after Israel killed more than 1,300 Palestinians in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, foreign ministry official Arye Mekel spoke explicitly of the need to “show Israel’s prettier face” to counteract the global outrage caused by this slaughter. To do this, the government would “send well-known novelists, theatre companies, exhibits and writers overseas”. Similarly, international artists who play in Israel – from Mariah Carey to Radiohead – are consciously and systematically exploited for PR.
We should marvel at Thom Yorke’s hypocrisy. This is a man who pays lip service to “open minds” and “shared humanity”, and complained about “useless politicians” during his set at the Glastonbury festival, yet sticks his middle finger up – literally – at a non-violent, grassroots social movement which emerged precisely because politicians have failed for decades to build a just peace.
But by playing at a Tel Aviv park built on the ruins of a Palestinian village, Radiohead merely diminish themselves. The episode has been constructive in showing that it’s no longer tenable for artists to flout the boycott and still present themselves as politically progressive.
Radiohead can “take the money and run”. The Palestinians’ struggle for freedom, justice and equality goes on.
Hilary Aked is a UK-based PhD researcher and freelance journalist. Their thesis investigates the pro-Israel lobby’s response to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.