Thom Yorke and his band Radiohead are not friends of the Jews because they withstood pressure from left-wing anti-Israel groups and plan to go ahead and play a concert in Tel Aviv later this month. Although, as a matter of precedent, it certainly doesn’t hurt. No, they’re friends of the Jews because they are treating the people of Israel as they would any other diverse and free people. The idea that artists should engage in a cultural boycott of one liberal democracy but then go play in China, Russia, or wherever, is morally absurd.
Then again, the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement”– in this kerfuffle, represented by odious former Pink Floyder Roger Waters–isn’t merely anti-Semitic because it is critical of the government of Israel, or even because it peddles a bunch of age-old anti-Jewish tropes. It’s anti-Semitic because its ire and condemnation is reserved for the Jews (and their allies), and Jews alone. If Israel — the idea itself — is worthy of your ire but not the actions of Iran, Turkey, or, well, pick any illiberal regime in the region, there is almost surely a historic animosity driving your position.
And to be fair, Waters isn’t exactly hiding it, playing in front of a giant evil pig with Jewish star and blaming the failure to recruit more artists to his cause on the “Jewish lobby,” which he says is “extraordinarily powerful here and particularly in the industry that I work in, the music industry.” Of course, he will explain that he abhors “Zionism” rather than Jews. That’s what they all say.
It was heartening to read that French President Emmanuel Macron had denounced anti-Zionism as “a reinvention of anti-Semitism” this week. There has been a long, unconvincing effort to untether these two ideas. I’m often asked if one can be critical of Israel without being an anti-Semite. The answer is: of course, yes. But “anti-Zionism,” an increasingly popular brand on the progressive left, is by definition a rejection of a Jewish homeland and thus an attack on the inalienable right of Jews to defend themselves. The last century has made that unacceptable.
If you believe a Christian-majority Israel would also face the same antagonism and violence from Arabs and the radical Left, you’re probably right. The reality of today, however, is that the divestment movement and its champions are functionally anti-Semitic no matter their intentions.
Because Macron’s comments were framed within a speech about French complicity in the Holocaust, The New York Times and others spent most of their time focusing on the nationalistic movements in Europe that often entail some undercurrent of anti-Jewish sentiment. While this is certainly troubling, there are forces that are more dangerous in Europe and elsewhere — like, for instance, those who make common cause with state-run Holocaust denial in Iran, or with Hamas or with a government that pays the families of those who kill Jewish civilians. Today Linda Sarsour and Jeremy Corbyn, the types of terror apologists being mainstreamed in Western liberal circles, are far more concerning than some trolling Nazis with miniscule followings.
Now, I have no clue what Radiohead’s general disposition is on political issues, and I imagine it’s to the Left. But I do know that their stated reasons for playing in Israel exemplify the genuine spirit of liberalism. In a retort to divestment proponent and filmmaker Ken Loach — a bully and hypocrite you’ve probably never heard of — Yorke responded:
Playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government. We’ve played in Israel for over 20 years through a succession of governments, some more liberal than others. As we have in America. We don’t endorse Netanyahu any more than Trump, but we still play in America. Music, art and academia is about crossing borders not building them, about open minds not closed ones, about shared humanity, dialogue and freedom of expression.
What kind of person would disagree with this sentiment?
It was nice, as well, to see former R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe support Radiohead. “Let’s hope a dialogue continues, helping to bring the occupation to an end and lead to a peaceful solution,” he wrote in an Instagram message. It’s probably quixotic to say that Stipe has a point, though perhaps not in the way he intended.
Pop culture, obviously, has only a minimal effect on serious geopolitical situations. Yet seeing bigger-name artists embrace tolerance will go a long way to marginalize Waters and his fellow travelers. In the broader sense, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict features only one side that’s shown a propensity to make genuine peace. Allowing that side to be culturally or economically ostracized will continue to telegraph to the Palestinians that their violent tactics are working rather than just being a protracted exercise in self-destruction.