Radiohead is scheduled to play a gig in Tel Aviv July 19, as the Forward reported in February. Several of Radiohead’s contemporaries have asked the band “to think again” about playing the gig, writing an open letter on the website Artists For Palestine-UK. The letter includes the likes of Roger Waters, Thurston Moore, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, science fiction writer China Mieville, and Desmond Tutu, along with dozens more.
The letter argues that Radiohead will be “playing in a state where, UN rapporteurs say, ‘a system of apartheid has been imposed on the Palestinian people” and notes that Radiohead has already been approached by Palestinian campaigners asking Radiohead to “respect their call for a cultural boycott of Israel”, but has turned them down.
The letter cites Radiohead’s support for Tibetan freedom and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, claiming that Radiohead’s willingness to play in Israel contradicts those stances. Noting Radiohead’s statement that groups like Amnesty International prevent the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from being “mere rhetoric,” the writers question whether Radiohead’s previous statements in support of human rights are in fact “mere rhetoric.
The letter concludes, “You may think that sharing the bill with Israeli musicians Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis, who play Jewish-Arabic music, will make everything OK. It won’t, any more than ‘mixed’ performances in South Africa brought closer the end of the apartheid regime.”
An addenda to the letter allowing personal additions by the artists quotes Thurston Moore as saying that Radiohead’s playing in Israel will be “supportive of the normalization of that country” and notes that boycotting Israel is a “small sacrifice in respect to those who struggle in honorable opposition to state-sponsored fascism.” Moore himself declared his support for BDS and canceled a concert in Israel in 2015.
In another addendum, Robert Wyatt, a founding member of Soft Machine, asked Radiohead if they were comfortable with the “relentlessly accelerating ethnic cleansing campaign” in Jerusalem and claiming that “These international cultural events are of course great propaganda for this ruling regime’s desperately sophisticated image.”
Amna Farooqi, former President of J Street U, is a Muslim Palestinian Human Rights activist who opposes BDS. “I understand Artists for Palestine UK’s frustration with human rights violations against Palestinians,” she told the Forward. “They’re not wrong when they point out [in their letter] that ‘Israel denies freedom to the Palestinians under occupation, who can’t live where they want, can’t travel as they please, who get detained (and often tortured) without charge or trial, and can’t even use Facebook without surveillance, censorship, and arrest.’”
“However,” she explained, “Israel isn’t an apartheid state, and acting like Tel Aviv and Amona [the settlement in the West Bank] are the same thing erases a lot of complicated realities about how the occupation functions,and what life is like for Israelis, Palestinian citizens in Israel, and Palestinians under occupation. Calling for everyone to avoid traveling to Israel and engaging with any sort of Israeli culture punishes all of Israeli society without actually building real political power to ending the occupation. If boycotts as a strategy alone would secure peace for Palestinians and Israelis, we wouldn’t be approaching 50 years of occupation of Palestinian territories.”
Farooqi also questioned the letter’s dismissal of Radiohead playing with Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis, saying ”I don’t think it’s productive to act like partnering with Mizrachi music is the same as endorsing apartheid. Especially since those are artists that are in a position to really contribute to the peace movement in Israel.”
Roger Waters, the biggest name on the letter after Desmond Tutu, has long been a passionate supporter of BDS and critic of Israeli policies. He has also come under fire for allegations of anti-Semitism, particularly because of his use of inflatable pigs with Stars of David at concerts. Waters has vociferously denied the charge, pointing out that he also uses pigs with crosses and the star and crescent, as well as other symbols and that they refer to the evil uses those symbols have been put to, not a depiction of Jews or others as evil.
After defending Waters for years, the ADL reversed course in 2013, citing Waters’s comparisons of the Israeli government to Nazism and his references to powerful Jews in the entertainment industry attempting to silence criticism of Israel. This prompted Waters to issue a detailed self-defense where he wrote, “I am anti-war, anti-apartheid, anti-racist, pro human rights, pro peace and pro self-determination for all peoples. I am not anti-Israel or anti-semitic.”
Radiohead and Waters are not unconnected: Radiohead’s “sixth member,” Nigel Godrich, produced Waters’ forthcoming solo album.
We await Radiohead’s response.
Matthew Gindin is a journalist, educator and freelance writer located in Vancouver, BC. He is the Pacific Correspondent for the Canadian Jewish News, writes regularly for the Forward and the Jewish Independent and has been published in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Religion Dispatches, Kveller, Situate Magazine, and elsewhere. He also writes on Medium from time to time.