Note: The following piece was originally published on talkRadio on 18 July 2017.
Filmmaker Ken Loach’s bullying attempt to get Radiohead to cancel their gig in Tel Aviv is part of a long-term effort by anti-Israel campaigners to build a false analogy between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa and then use the boycott tactics that toppled apartheid against Israel.
It was right that artists did not perform in apartheid South Africa, which was a vile racist regime where a minority white population ruled over a black majority which had no civil or political rights. International popular pressure did contribute to the release from jail of Mandela and the end of the apartheid system.
The situation in Israel could not be more different. Israel is a democracy, with equal rights for all its citizens of all races and religions enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. It was set up as an expression of Zionism, the movement for the Jewish people to have national liberation and their own state in their historic homeland after two millennia as a persecuted minority. It provided a haven for survivors of the Holocaust and the ultimate guarantee of Jewish security against any future genocide.
Israel found itself occupying Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza after a war of self-defence against invading Arab armies in 1967. Ever since then it has been offering to withdraw in return for peace, but negotiations have always foundered due to Arab rejection of Israel’s status as a Jewish State. In the meantime both sides have suffered – the Palestinians from decades under occupation, the Israelis from repeated terrorist attacks.
This uniquely complex conflict between two traumatised peoples, both seeking national self-determination in a tiny area of land, will not be solved by clumsy and one-sided calls for boycotts, which seek to demonise and isolate one side – Israel.
It isn’t even clear what the objective of boycotting Israel is. For some people it is just a tool to get Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, for others its ultimate objective is to delete Israel from the map as a nation-state for the Jewish people and replace it with a single, Palestinian-majority state.
Boycotts are a particularly insensitive tactic to deploy against Israel given the long history, culminating in Nazi Germany, of antisemitic boycotts of Jewish businesses.
Furthermore, one has to question the motives of people singling out the world’s only Jewish State for a cultural boycott, when there are a host of countries where egregious human rights abuses are happening but there is no boycott call.
A cultural boycott of Israel collectively punishes every Israeli, however pro-peace, and including Arab Israelis, for the alleged crimes of their government.
It makes Israelis feel isolated and resentful and strengthens forces in Israeli society who don’t want to compromise. It makes Palestinians feel they don’t have any responsibility to make concessions as global pressure will end the conflict without them having to address Israel’s concerns about terrorism and security.
Culture actually has a role to play in building coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, creating settings where they can enjoy the arts together and build relationships of mutual trust and respect.
It is absolutely understandable that people look at the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, at the pain and the suffering on both sides, and the unresolved case for a Palestinian state, and want to do something.
The negativity of boycott as a tactic is not the answer. Ordinary citizens can contribute to ending the conflict by supporting projects involved in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together and creating peaceful coexistence. Governments should offer positive economic incentives to the Israelis and Palestinians to encourage them back to the negotiating table.
Ken Loach has picked the wrong target with Radiohead. This is an iconic band with an intelligent and thoughtful global fan base who will not appreciate the attempt to bully them. Thom Yorke and the other members of Radiohead know the details of the situation in Israel – lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood is married to an Israeli. They made an informed and considered choice to perform there and are articulate in defending their decision. It is unlikely to have been commercially driven – Israel is not a big enough market for bands to need to play there.
Loach has also been exposed as a hypocrite – his own film “I, Daniel Blake” is showing now at a number of Tel Aviv cinemas. Left-wing Israelis go to see it despite Loach’s anti-Israel views, showing a lot more open-mindedness than he does. It is a shame he can’t make common cause with Israelis who share his beliefs in peace and social justice, rather than singling out their country to be boycotted.
Ultimately a Two State Solution – Israel alongside Palestine – will bring peace to the region. It won’t be brought about by stopping ordinary Israelis enjoying a Radiohead concert.