Why Radiohead’s Israel show matters


(JTA) — It may be the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s seminal album “OK Computer,” but for some Jewish fans of the band, like me, all is not OK. You might even say I’m feeling “Let Down.”

Here’s why: In February, the British band announced that it was playing Tel Aviv in July as part of their world tour. These days it’s a big deal whenever a band of that stature decides to play in Israel amid the political climate in the Middle East, and as a supporter of both the band and the country, I was excited.

But earlier this week, an open letter to Radiohead signed by dozens of high-profile artists was published, urging the band to cancel the show.

“We’d like to ask you to think again — because by playing in Israel you’ll be playing in a state where, UN rapporteurs say, ‘a system of apartheid has been imposed on the Palestinian people,’” the letter reads. (The U.N. report it cites has since been retracted and criticized by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.)

Reading the letter was like a punch in the gut. It was signed by many artists I respect, such as the director Mike Leigh and the screenwriter James Schamus, but it was the first signatory that hit me the hardest: Tunde Adebimpe, the lead singer of TV on the Radio.

TV on the Radio may be one of my all-time favorite bands. Radiohead may actually be my No. 1 all-time favorite band. Having them pitted against each other is like watching my best friends get in an afterschool scuffle.

The letter was the most recent action in a long series of cultural boycotts called for by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to exert economic and political pressure on Israel for its policies toward the Palestinians. Roger Waters, the former frontman for Pink Floyd, who also signed the letter, has become a poster boy for the cultural boycotts — or attempts to discourage artists from performing in Israel and working with Israeli institutions.

Other famed musicians, such as Lauryn Hill and Elvis Costello, have followed his lead.

Adebimpe’s signing of the letter is a big win for the BDS backers. While Waters may be an old-timer whose music hasn’t been particularly relevant since the 1970s, Adebimpe’s band — which arguably hit its peak with its 2008 album “Dear Science” — is still a cultural force and the object of adoration for millennials.

Which is why his critique seemed particularly damning. After all, what if you support Israel’s right to thrive — culturally, at least, whatever you think of its current right-wing government — and love TV on the Radio? (Or, for that matter, Waters’ recent music?) Boycott attempts like this one pose uncomfortable dilemmas for Jewish music fans of all ages.

If this were a letter criticizing Israel’s current government, or even an impassioned plea to bring about a two-state deal that would meet the legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians, liberal Zionists and even casual supporters of Israel’s right to exist would not be so put off.

But the BDS movement has long denied Israel’s very legitimacy, and it calls for Jewish withdrawal from Palestinian “lands” — not just the territories that came under Israeli control after the Six-Day War, but presumably the entire country established in 1948.

The letter offers shallow accusations, comparing Israel to apartheid-era South Africa and calling out Radiohead for ignoring a call to “stand against the denial” of Palestinian rights — painting the Jewish state as the only side to blame in the conflict. It fails to mention the decades of Palestinian terrorism that has helped swing Israel’s populace to the right, the rejected peace deals that turned hopeful Israelis cynical, or even the robust Israeli NGO human rights sector that advocates for Palestinian rights.

As for the efficacy or justice of a cultural boycott, the people who would actually be affected by a Radiohead concert boycott are young, liberal Israelis who are most likely to sympathize with the Palestinian cause. Rather than engage with Israel’s cultural sector, whose members can actually bring their tools and talents to bear on shaping public opinion, boycotts leave them ever more isolated.

Furthermore, boycotts strengthen the very forces in Israel who are least likely to support an accommodation with the Palestinians.

“See?” they say. “Our enemies grow by the day!”

With those frustrations in mind, should I look at TV on the Radio any differently? A pro-Israel colleague of mine, who used to be a big Pink Floyd fan, now says Roger Waters is as good as dead to him (he often uses less family-friendly language). So should I not listen to TV on the Radio’s music? Should I boycott its concerts?

The awful part of this whole ordeal is that the decisions of these artists are breeding bitterness and divisiveness — the opposite of what music should be doing today (something I’m sure Adebimpe would agree with).

Radiohead has yet to comment on the letter. If the group keeps its concert on the tour schedule, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about TV on the Radio, but I’ll probably end up loving Radiohead even more. That’s because its Tel Aviv performance gives some love to their fans in Israel and helps cultivate the culture scene there.

The band, which has garnered critical acclaim for over two decades and won multiple Grammy Awards, is also bringing along two Israeli acts on its world tour, which has taken them from Europe to Mexico and many places in between. Both Israeli bands promote cross-cultural expression. Shye Ben Tzur, who collaborated with a band of Indian musicians and Radiohead’s lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood on the album “Junun” — a collection of songs with Hebrew lyrics inspired by Muslim prayer music — will open for some of Radiohead’s upcoming shows in Europe.

Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis, led by the Iraqi-Jewish Tassa, revives music written by his grandfather and great-uncle, the Al-Kawaiti brothers. As The Times of Israel noted, Haifa-born Muslim Nasreen Qadri, who sings in Arabic, will join the group on the U.S. leg of Radiohead’s tour.

“You may think that sharing the bill with Israeli musicians Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis, who play Jewish-Arabic music, will make everything OK,” the BDS letter reads. “It won’t, any more than ‘mixed’ performances in South Africa brought closer the end of the apartheid regime.”

Well, no one act will make everything OK. But if music is about building bridges, Radiohead is on the right track.

Recommended from JTA