Guest post by Declan Welsh
Today marks the first day of TRNSMT festival, the T In The Park ‘replacement’ in Glasgow Green. Now, I know attendees reading this are probably at this very moment frantically googling just how strict security is really going to be, filling up water bottles with vodka, planning out who to see and what city centre nightclub to turn up at caked in mud and festival drunk at midnight. God speed festival goers. But I have to talk to you about something important before you head off with 12 cans of Tennents stealthily hidden down two wellie boots and yer boxers. It concerns tonight’s headliners, those purveyors of misery soaked sonic genius: Radiohead. And it concerns those pesky purveyors of apartheid: the State of Israel.
In case anyone is uncertain, or believes that sentence to be somewhat controversial, Israel is an apartheid state. It engages in a systematic policy of segregation and discrimination based on ethnicity. I can offer you statistics, UN reports, video evidence, or various other cold hard factual content which I’m sure you’ve seen a thousand times. But seeing as no one ever cares about evidence, I’m going to tell you about my experience…
Around about this time last year, I was lucky enough to be asked to perform at Bet Lahem Live festival in Bethlehem, Palestine. Because of this, I was afforded the privilege of seeing Palestine, in all its glory and hardship. For the purposes of this article, it’s not incredibly important for me to inform you of just how warmly we were welcomed. Nor how vibrant, inspirational, fun, beautiful and unique a place Palestine is. But it is. It really, really fucking is.
What’s important, is the fact that I witnessed apartheid first hand. We arrived in Jerusalem, where we stayed in the East. This is the Arab part of the city. The city is supposed to be under UN control, but is currently under Israeli occupation. You cannot move ten feet without seeing an Israeli soldier with what I can only describe as a “big stupid fuck off gun”, but such has this reality been normalised, life carries on as if they were not there. From a vantage point in the middle of the city, you can see both East and West. On the west, the Israeli side, there are gleaming skyscrapers, several of which are being developed. There is an abundance of cranes. On the east, the ground is littered with sand coloured huts, and rubble. This is because there is an extensive demolition campaign being ran against Palestinian homes. Sometimes, army officers will come into a home at 4am, and if there is no one in it, and no milk in the fridge, they will demolish it, sometimes within the week. This is legal under Israeli military law, which the Palestinians are subject to. It is written to accommodate this ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem, which the Israelis view as their capital.
We visited Hebron where, with our Palestinian friend as a guide, we entered a home of a Palestinian family. The scene was a familiar one, it seemed a bit Glaswegian to be honest. There was a mother, baby in arm, cooking food, while two small kids pawed at her for attention, and the oldest boy – wearing a Barcelona top – was being shouted at for playing dangerously on the roof. I’m fairly certain what she said in Arabic wouldn’t have been far off
“Wit huv a fuckin telt yi aboot playin up in that fuckin roof boy”.
We emerged on said roof, and the boy pointed over to a fancy looking rooftop fives pitch metres from where we were. It looked very out of place. I was informed that it was part of a settlement, a housing scheme paid for by the Israeli government, usually in the middle of Palestinian territory, where families are moved in along with security forces in order to further expand Israeli borders. The houses were fenced off, and had a watchtower where guards with, what I can once again only describe as “big stupid fuck off guns” looked out. The little boy said something to our friend and pointed over. He looked sad in the kind of way a boy that age really shouldn’t. I asked our friend what he had said. His words were “I’m not allowed to play there”.
I could tell you a million other stories, of the checkpoints, of us being tear gassed at a protest, of the teenage prisoners held with no reason, of us being held in the airport and asked why we associated with Arabs, of the barren Palestinian land in the Jordan Valley bordered by lush green settlements. I mention this to give the following discussion context. Israel is an apartheid state.
You may have missed it, but recently Radiohead were on the receiving end of a decent amount of flack for announcing that they will be playing a show in Tel Aviv, Israel’s capital on July 17. This petition, signed by Ken Loach, Thurston Moore and Roger Waters (among thousands of others) urged the band to reconsider breaking the cultural boycott advocated by supporters of the BDS movement.
To outline briefly this position, it states that – due to the way the Israeli state uses culture as propaganda to normalise their actions – artists should form a picket line in order to bring the issue to the fore. When I say “uses culture to normalise apartheid”, I mean that the Israeli PR machine, funded and watched over by the government, engages in a deliberate campaign to make itself appear modern, westernised and liberal; and in turn Palestine dangerous, barbaric and backwards. Tel Aviv looks like a city in Europe.
We flew into Tel Aviv. I thought nothing of how familiar it felt when we arrived. When we left, I came to see this to be a very deliberate tactic. Just how normal and European everything looked made me feel very uneasy. After experiencing the day to day life of the subjugated Palestinians, just how cosmopolitan and luxurious it could be a mere taxi ride away felt very strange. If all you seen was Tel Aviv, you would think Israel a country which is just like any liberal democracy in the west. It is a beautifully constructed smoke and mirrors routine.
Having the world’s biggest bands play here is all part of that routine. Radiohead are playing a role in a sort of theatre, a show to the world that everything is normal. But the reality under the surface is anything but for the Palestinians. This is why the cultural boycott is important; symbolically as a show of solidarity, tactically as a way to embarrass the state of Israel, and as a matter of principle, as to not be part of this performance.
I’d like to state very clearly that I don’t think the people of Israel are, settlers exempted, truly to blame for this appalling state of affairs. They are also victims of Israel’s internal PR machine. These are people who are forced to perform military service for 2 years, indoctrinated into believing a certain story, and kept largely in the dark about the reality of the apartheid state. The story of every inhumane government has many chapters in which normal citizens are misled. The vast majority of Israelis have far more in common with their Palestinian counterparts than those who action apartheid. So, just in case anyone is even thinking about getting all George Galloway, all criticism should be directed at the state of Israel and its institutions, not the people of Israel, who have very little say in any of this, and are deliberately misled at every turn by an incredibly sophisticated bureaucracy of deception and division.
To clarify, the aim of the cultural boycott is not, as some people misinterpret, to deny Israeli Radiohead fans a gig because of the actions of their government. It is to show solidarity with Palestinians who are denied the same privilege by default, and put pressure on Netanyahu and the like through damaging their reputation within the international community.
Radiohead are scheduled to go ahead with this gig. In response to these calls, Thom Yorke pretty much chucked the toys out the pram in an embarrassing display of bad patter . Seriously, his patter is utterly honking in this. We’re talking John Barrowman indyref levels of shite patter. Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon in a lift levels of shite patter. Fucking Malky Mackay group text levels of shite patter.
The entire tone of the article is one of incredulity, as if Yorke is deeply offended by the notion that people could maybe think it’s a bit out of order to play an apartheid state. But handily, it covers a sort of blanket list of half baked responses to the cultural boycott that I can offer a retort to here:
(It’s worth noting that, though I support the cultural boycott and BDS, there are others (Owen Jones and Noam Chomsky most notably) who are fairly articulate and considered in their opposition. I may disagree with their analysis, but they offer their opinions in a far more measured way than Yorke does here, and thus do not fall into the bad patter bracket)
“You can’t just throw the word apartheid around!”
Starting off with this response, I think it’s the easiest to challenge directly on a factual basis. I’ve outlined previously, and I think there’s a political and academic consensus growing around the world, that Israel is an apartheid state, by all the definitions we classed South Africa as before. No one chucks the word apartheid about. It’s a very specific, very extensive set of circumstances that have to occur to meet the definition. Palestinians are second class citizens in Israel, they are subject to a program of discrimination which is enshrined in a legal system. They are physically segregated, made to go through checkpoints to travel and often denied to the right to travel in and out of certain areas altogether. This is what apartheid is.
Sometimes, people will defend these actions by citing security as a reason to have these laws. Even if we ignore that the perceived threat to Israelis from Palestinians is greatly exaggerated, this still is incredibly problematic. These people are advocating collective punishment of a whole people based on the actions of a few. That’s racism 101. That’s apartheid.
“The cultural boycott is divisive, when we should be trying to bring people together, not exclude people”
I sympathise with this, I really do. But I think it’s misguided. As stated above, this is not an exclusion of Israeli punters, but a tactic to put pressure on the government. BDS is a grassroots movement. It is Palestinians, and those in solidarity with the movement, using the power they have to make important symbolic gestures, and hit Israeli institutions economically. It is only these tactics which work, because the world is not a liberal paradise in which everything can be sorted by dialogue. Gains were never won by those in power deciding that they should be a bit nicer. And negotiation has been tried time and time again. The Palestinian Authority and the Israeli State have failed to do anything for the Palestinian people. It’s always my opinion that we should take our guidance on how to combat oppression from the oppressed. Palestinians overwhelmingly support BDS. The cultural boycott, moreover, worked effectively in South Africa. So, yes, it is difficult to say that we shouldn’t play music somewhere. But as a white person not living under occupation, I have no position whatsoever to dictate the terms of resistance to the palestinians. It is my duty to stand in solidarity with them, and that is what a cultural boycott of an apartheid state is.
“No one should be telling bands where to play”
I don’t think anyone can really tell bands where to play. Except, of course, the Israeli government who would not allow Radiohead to play in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Sometimes, though, you can’t sit on the fence. Injustice cannot be viewed through a cold lense of apathy. We have to stand up to the subjugation of an entire people. The artistic community (Queen and Paul Simon aside, the wanks) has done this in recent memory. We should do it again now, lest history view us as cowards. We have to be evangelical, we have to show people what’s happening, we have to make this case again and again and again until this is fixed.
“It makes this situation black and white, when it’s more complicated, there’s wrong on both sides”
It is complicated. This situation is very complicated. Israel is a European settler colonial project born out of European anti-semitism. Beyond the Holocaust, Europe has and still has a huge anti-semitism problem. Post WW2, both a sense of European guilt, but also a lack of a desire to address racism inside Europe, contributed to the support of creating a Jewish state in Palestine. Anti-semitism, moreover, is real and exists on the left.
It is most apparent in the batshit theories of people who believe in a global banking conspiracy of Rothschilds and Lizards. Sometimes these people conflate Israel and the global Jewish population. That’s unacceptable. If we stand for the rights of the Palestinians, we stand for the rights of all oppressed people in the world, and that includes our Jewish friends. The argument of anti-semitism is also cynically used, though, by both the state of Israel and its supporters to shut down debate. That is why people on the left have to be incredibly careful with language. It is a disservice to our Palestinan friends, and our Jewish friends, to be lazy with our words, and allow cynical right wing opportunists to use the very real problem of anti-semitism as an excuse to ignore the very real problem of the actions of Israel.
Some, meanwhile, paint this as a conflict. A war, where two sides are equally to blame. That is a false equivalency. Yes, there are extreme religious fundamentalists on either side exacerbating the conflict to cling to power. But one side is a stateless collection of refugees. The violence committed by Palestinians ranges from the inexcusable killing of innocents, to the retaliation against military forces. All, though, have one commonality: ineffectiveness. The Palestinians have no recourse to take control. Israeli violence, meanwhile, is frighteningly effective. The Israeli forces have complete control of the land, the law and the people. That is why this is not a conflict, but a complete domination of one people by an occupying state.
“Radiohead are politically savvy, they are spreading a message of peace where it’s needed”.
I by no means think Radiohead don’t care about Palestine. Jonny Greenwood apparently is married to an Israeli and has Palestinian friends, so I’m sure he cares about what happens. Yorke condemns Netanyahu in his response. This is not an attack on Radiohead as people. But their decision to play Tel Aviv is a mistake. It is crossing a picket line that the world needs. Even if they make a statement at their concert, no Palestinian will be there to see it. That can’t be fair. Bringing messages of peace is nice, it’s all well and good, but we cannot respond to violence with damp calls for unity and togetherness. Though a strong statement would be better than nothing, and may do some good, a united response from the artistic community is the only effective tactic to bring about pressure and end this apartheid.
So, TRNSMT punter, what should you do? Radiohead are the highlight of the festival, and you’ve already bought your ticket. “What difference would it make if i didn’t go?” you ask, scrambling for an excuse for you to enjoy Creep along with 40,000 other folk. Aye, Radiohead are brilliant. I’m gutted. I probably would have wangled a ticket if this wasn’t the case. And you’ll do what you’ll do in the end. And no one should really be judged for going to see Radiohead in Glasgow. But if you care, and you boycott them, I promise you, you’ll be showing solidarity, And I never knew that was a real thing until I went to Palestine.
When I went, some people would ask “why are you going? What’s the point?”. To be honest, I didn’t really know before. But I know now, solidarity is a tangible thing. It is the fuel which keeps the oppressed going. Our friends in Palestine constantly feel isolated from the world. They are kept inside by actual massive horrible walls sometimes. To know that people around the world care enough, even to do something small, like not see their favourite band, it will mean something. Their everyday existence is a profound act of resistance, and if you can play a part in helping them go again despite everything, you are doing good in the world that you’ll never truly understand.
If you can’t stomach a boycott, then I understand. But you then need to do the dangerous stuff. Take the biggest fucking Palestine flag you can find, and make sure it gets on telly. I’ll make sure the footage gets to Palestine.
You can find Declan on Twitter and Facebook.
Some noble souls, such as Daniel Barenboim or my friend Roald Hoffmann (check them out) have devoted much time and energy to building cultural bridges, to the extent possible, between Israel and its Arab neighbours. BDS does the very opposite of this. it isolates those we should be encouraging within Israel, including of course Israel’s own million or so Arab citizens, among them MKs (ie MPs), professors and students, and artists. It would put an end to all collaborations with Israeli universities, including collaborations they have with universities in Arab countries. It is, in itself, a form of collective punishment, something you rightly deplore. it also serves (the Israeli government cynically exploits this) as a rallying point for those whose real goal is to end Israel’s very existence.
Moreover, as your own experience shows, visits to Israel and Palestine greatly increase awareness of everything that the Israeli government is trying to hide. Radiohead, as you yourself point out, know about the situation from personal contacts. I think they’ve got this one right. You don’t. Fair enough. But the idea of a second order boycott of Radiohead is that much censorious self-indulgence.