Friday, 30 June 2017

Radiohead in Israel: why is Thom Yorke so outraged over boycott call?

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke has now made a public statement rejecting calls from Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) and the wider Palestinian solidarity movement to cancel the band's Tel Aviv concert. Disappointingly, it's a piece riddled with liberal evasions, barbed charges, and unfounded assumptions about those making the case for a boycott.

Here's Yorke's full comments on the issue, as reported at Rolling Stone:
I'll be totally honest with you: this has been extremely upsetting. There's an awful lot of people who don't agree with the BDS movement, including us. I don't agree with the cultural ban at all, along with J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky and a long list of others. 
There are people I admire [who have been critical of the concert] like [English film director] Ken Loach, who I would never dream of telling where to work or what to do or think. The kind of dialogue that they want to engage in is one that's black or white. I have a problem with that. It's deeply distressing that they choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw shit at us in public. It's deeply disrespectful to assume that we're either being misinformed or that we're so retarded we can't make these decisions ourselves. I thought it was patronizing in the extreme. It's offensive and I just can't understand why going to play a rock show or going to lecture at a university [is a problem to them]. 
The university thing is more of a head fuck for me. It's like, really? You can't go talk to other people who want to learn stuff in another country? Really? 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? And you think that's gonna help? 
The person who knows most about these things is [Radiohead guitarist] Jonny [Greenwood]. He has both Palestinian and Israeli friends and a wife who's an Arab Jew. All these people to stand there at a distance throwing stuff at us, waving flags, saying, "You don’t know anything about it!" Imagine how offensive that is for Jonny. And imagine how upsetting that it's been to have this out there. Just to assume that we know nothing about this. Just to throw the word "apartheid" around and think that's enough. It's fucking weird. It's such an extraordinary waste of energy. Energy that could be used in a more positive way. 
This is the first time I've said anything about it. Part of me wants to say nothing because anything I say cooks up a fire from embers. But at the same time, if you want me to be honest, yeah, it's really upsetting that artists I respect think we are not capable of making a moral decision ourselves after all these years. They talk down to us and I just find it mind-boggling that they think they have the right to do that. It's extraordinary. All of this creates divisive energy. You're not bringing people together. You're not encouraging dialogue or a sense of understanding. Now if you're talking about trying to make things progress in any society, if you create division, what do you get? You get fucking Theresa May. You get [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, you get fucking Trump. That's divisive.
Noted musician and leading Palestinian campaigner Roger Waters has responded to Yorke, again as reported at Rolling Stone:
I read Thom Yorke’s interview in Rolling Stone. It needs a reply as it doesn’t tell the whole story. 
On February 12th, hoping to start a dialogue, I sent an email expressing my concern about Radiohead crossing the BDS picket line to perform in Israel. A few hours later, Thom replied. He was angry. He had misinterpreted my attempt to start a conversation as a threat. So I tried again. 
“Hey Thom,I’m sorry. My letter wasn’t meant to be confrontational. I was reaching out to see if we could have the conversation that you talk about in your reply. Can we?Love, R.” 
I didn’t hear back. So silence prevailed for three weeks until March 4th when I sent a long heartfelt entreaty to Thom asking him again to talk. 
In Thom’s interview with Andy Greene of Rolling Stone, in referring to Ken Loach and me, he says, “It’s deeply distressing that they choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw shit at us in public.” 
That is not true, Thom. I have made every effort to engage with you personally, and would still like to have the conversation. 
“Not to talk is not an option.” 
Today is the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Palestine by Israel. Fifty years living under military occupation. Fifty years for a people with no civil rights. Fifty years of no recourse to the law. Fifty years of apartheid. 
The BDS picket line exists to shine a light on the predicament of the occupied people of Palestine, both in Palestine and those displaced abroad, and to promote equal civil rights for all the people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea no matter what their nationality, race or religion. All human life is sacred, every child is our child, exceptionalism is always our enemy. There is no Us or Them, only Us. 
Restiamo umani.  
Love,
Roger Waters
The warm and patient tone of that letter from Roger Waters stands in stark contrast to Thom Yorke's hostile lines. Waters also offers a quiet reminder to Yorke of just what Palestinians have endured over 50 years of illegal occupation, and that "the BDS picket line exists to shine a light on [their] predicament". 

Yorke is, of course, entitled to his viewpoint. But why, we might wonder, did he feel the need to respond with such invective-laden charges against BDS and its backers? Why such angry indignation?

Yorke makes a first attempt at moral cover by citing a list of those who oppose any cultural boycott, including JK Rowling and Noam Chomsky. 

While nominally correct regarding Chomsky, it's a disingenuous selection, failing to note Chomsky's more selective and nuanced endorsement of certain boycott tactics, as well as a lifetime's work exposing and resisting Israel's crimes. In that assertive spirit, Chomsky has engaged with leading BDS figure Ilan Pappe over the boycott issue, helping to promote the actual narrative of tactical resistance. 

Strikingly, although a short interview, Yorke doesn't even mention the Palestinians, their treatment, the need to resist Israel's aggressions, or how best to go about it.   

Nor does Yorke care to note JK Rowling's liberal Zionist contortions, or the criticism she faced across Palestinian civil society over her rejection of BDS and endorsement of the pro-Israel grouping Culture for Coexistence.  

Again, it seems, Yorke is seeking safe liberal cover behind major names, and evading the core issue of Palestinian suffering.              

Yorke continues in more injured voice, claiming that it's "deeply disrespectful to assume that we're either being misinformed or that we're so retarded we can't make these decisions ourselves.

Yet, why would Yorke himself make such facile assumptions about the understandings or motives of those campaigners? Does he really believe that bodies like BDS, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Artists For Palestine (including Waters and Loach), alongside groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, Radiohead Fans for Palestine, or anyone else asking them not to play Israel, take Yorke and his band to be so "misinformed" or "retarded" that they're unable to take such decisions for themselves? 

Why resort to such overblown, straw-man language? Why not simply accept that these are legitimate organisations and people making an open appeal based on rational argument, and that Yorke has the same rights and opportunities to oppose that view?  
Yorke also says it's "deeply distressing that they [Loach and others] choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw shit at us in public." Again, that's a remarkably crass and inaccurate claim, as the context and tenor of the reply from Waters clearly illustrates. 
But there's a more particular problem with Yorke's annoyance here: why shouldn't this discussion be conducted in public, as an open and vital issue? Are we all to remain quiet and restrained about artists', like Radiohead's, part in legitimising Israel's brutal and illegal conduct, because it's too "distressing" for Yorke and his band?
Yorke also seems to think that fellow band member Jonny Greenwood has some kind of special emotional status in this regard. He's "the person who knows most about these things", claims Yorke, apparently because he has Israeli and Arab friends and an Arab Israeli wife: "All these people to stand there at a distance throwing stuff at us, waving flags, saying, "You don’t know anything about it!" Imagine how offensive that is for Jonny."
Again, the inverted assumption about those flag-wavers. Why does Yorke presume to know, and dismiss, campaigners' own comprehension of the issues? More importantly, might Yorke imagine how offensive his own prioritised defence of Jonny Greenwood and his 'superior understanding' is to actual Palestinians facing the daily experience of occupation, siege and constant threat to life in the West Bank and Gaza?    
Nor is the label "apartheid" just simply thrown around by campaigners as some lazy slur. If Yorke and Greenwood really are so well-informed, they will know that the application of 'apartheid state' to Israel has been ably demonstrated through a wealth of academic studies, papers and booksUN findings and rapporteurs' reports. Devoid of any serious counter-argument, Yorke can only say that this is "fucking weird. It's such an extraordinary waste of energy."

The call for an academic boycott is similarly derided and dismissed: "It's like, really? You can't go talk to other people who want to learn stuff in another country? Really?

I have no idea whether Yorke has read the particular guidelines for academic disengagement laid out by bodies like PACBI. But it would, at least, be intellectually reasonable for him to know and reference them, rather than present the call for academic boycott as some random ploy to prevent people wanting "to learn stuff in another country." 

In particular, Yorke's anodyne wish for 'open exchange' includes no recognition of an academic system deeply inter-connected with its occupier state, providing every form of support for Israel's military aggression, weapons development and hi-tech surveillance, continued land seizures, control of water supplies and other key resources, as well as the whole vital field of cultural and ideological production helping to hide and excuse those crimes. 
Pointing these things out is, apparently, antagonistic to Yorke, who finds it "really upsetting that artists I respect think we are not capable of making a moral decision ourselves after all these years. They talk down to us and I just find it mind-boggling that they think they have the right to do that. It's extraordinary. All of this creates divisive energy. You're not bringing people together. You're not encouraging dialogue or a sense of understanding."
Yet, without a trace of self-reflecting irony, here's Yorke effectively shouting down to those who won't any longer accept the relentlessly-peddled 'need for dialogue' and proclaimed 'peace process', as though that entire, exhausted posture hasn't been seen, exposed and dismissed by BDS for the sham that it is. 

"Not to talk is not an option," Yorke says. Again, such assured liberal conformity. While voicing his own lofty disdain for those no longer willing to participate in the deceit, there's not a single word here about how Israel and its backers have used that very 'peace' narrative as a weapon of evasion and expanded occupation for over half a century. That's exactly why BDS have asked Radiohead not to give succour to Brand Israel.  

In an impressive letter to Yorke, a list of Israeli musicians set out the same key points about Israel's branding agenda:
Every international artist who plays in Israel serves as a propaganda tool for the Israeli government. International performances in Israel serve the government’s agenda of whitewashing its war crimes against Palestinians by creating a “business as usual” atmosphere wherein the status-quo, a reality of colonization and military occupation for Palestinians, becomes normalized. Maintaining this atmosphere relies heavily on creating a facade of Israel as a hip, advanced, progressive state with a vibrant and diverse cultural scene. In 2005 the Israeli foreign ministry decided to invest in a public relations strategy to “re-brand Israel,” diverting attention away from Israeli crimes by highlighting Israeli cultural and scientific achievements. Needless to say, the government which just celebrated 50 years of brutal military rule over the occupied Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip should not be assisted, even unintentionally. The government which legislated to suppress even the commemoration of the displacement of the majority indigenous Palestinian population in 1948 should not be given the chance to claim that artists and musicians are endorsing its policies. This effect of a performance in Israel can not be undone even with the best intentions. Any statement that you might wish to make on stage would be overshadowed by the fact that you would be crossing an international picket line established by the vast majority of civil society organizations in Palestine. On the other hand, if you decided not to play, it would send a strong message to the Israeli government that their racist policies and grave violations of Palestinian human rights will not be normalized. It would also send a message to the people of Palestine that you’re with them in their struggle in a very real way.
Their letter concludes, like so many others to Yorke, with an open invitation: 
Please reconsider violating the Palestinian call for boycott. We remain at the ready to talk to you about any questions or concerns that you may have, and continue to welcome a conversation with you.
Again, note the studious argument behind that appeal, none of it intended to intimidate. It's a laudable message of solidarity, serving to connect communities in pursuit of just resolutions.

Yet, for Thom Yorke, the boycotting of Israel, an occupier, apartheid state, is, apparently, "divisive", resulting in the emergence of people like Netanyahu. That's quite an inversion of cause and effect. By such logic, not only are BDS culpable, but a mass of Palestinians who support the boycott are responsible for creating their own oppressors. 

If you create division, Yorke says, you get the likes of May and Trump. Once more, the recourse to liberal angst, rather than willingness to address the structural forces underpinning such villains. How easy to slate Netanyahu, May and Trump - what of Obama? - without identifying the very systems of power - neoliberalism, militarism, Zionism - that build and thrive on social division. How easy to wish for peace and dialogue. How noble to want an end to Palestinian suffering without doing anything seriously proactive to bring it about. 

The purpose of BDS is not about creating social division. It's about bringing people together in broad, tactical and effective opposition to the unbending, repressive power and divisive infrastructure of the Israeli state: its illegal wall, inhuman checkpoints and colonialist settlements; its ruthless imprisonment and disconnection of Gaza from the outside world; its apartheid divisions inside Israel and ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
I have no idea whether or not Yorke and his band are able to see the merits of that case. But they should, at least, resist caricaturing those making it as "weird" and "patronising". Yorke's vociferous indignation looks a lot more like feigned liberal deflection of the actual issues.

It seems unlikely that Radiohead will change their minds now about performing in Israel. That's their decision, their moral choice. But Yorke should refrain from slandering a BDS movement with serious, rational and well-supported ideas about how to advance human rights and justice for Palestinians. 

There's been no 'talking-down' or 'telling' Thom Yorke and Radiohead what to do, only fair and reasoned requests for them not to cross this picket line and partake in Israel's whitewash. Accept or reject those arguments, but don't run for cover behind faux outrage.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thom Yorke displays a rather unpleasant artistic personality. He comes across as needy and rather pathetic, painting himself as a victim. He wants our approval for his decision however he offers us no real detailed explanation why he thought it was important for him to perform in Israel. His nasty caricature of BDS supporters was his excuse for not taking the campaign seriously.

I also find the fashionable liberal sentiments, 'we are all the same", "there's more that unites us than divides us" not much different to the slogan used by the Tories to defend austerity, "We are all in this together" We are obviously not all in this together,people in different parts of the world have very a different life experience. We are divided in many different ways and live very different lives and not to acknowledge that is to ignore the suffering others endure who live very different lives to us.

I think he's probably feeling guilty And so he should.

Anonymous said...

Just a small point on JK Rowling her opposition to a boycott is regarding the Scientist Boycott.This is because this has an impact on research into the Medicinal Marijuana The leading researcher in this field by a mile is based in Tel Aviv.He is now in 80s and the boycott is stopping many of us speaking to him.JK Rowling mother died from MS, is a key fund raiser for research into MS and so on.

John Hilley said...

Wrong. JK Rowling is also opposed to any cultural boycott of Israel.

https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/sarah-irving/harry-potter-fans-heartbroken-author-urges-engagement-israel

Wicked One said...

Roger Waters supports fox hunting. He is a piss poor person to preach morality to anyone.

John Hilley said...

Usual deflection.

Address the actual issues: Israel's wicked, expanding occupation, and the purpose of boycott as a tactical form of resistance.