Culture Is A Weapon. Join the Fight:

Punk and Apartheid Don’t Mix

Why Musicians Should Join the Boycott of Israel

/ February 16, 2016

Photo of Israel’s Separation Wall. By Adam Nieman. 

American financial support for Israel, amounting to roughly three billion dollars a year, is one of those things you just don’t criticize in polite company. Politicians and apologists across the political spectrum regularly assert that the state of Israel embodies democratic values in a region of autocratic and, increasingly, failed states. Any critique of the so-called “special relationship” between the USA and Israel is met with stonewalling and anger, even in some progressive political circles and arts communities. Politicians may express discomfort with Israel’s practice of building illegal settlements in the West Bank, but they never question the fundamental notion that American taxpayers should be subsidizing the Israeli state’s military. “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East” and other cheap one-liners masquerading as political wisdom have served to shut down any discussion of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.

Today, the veneer is fading. Since 2008, the world has watched Israel carry out three massive bombing campaigns in the Gaza Strip, a territory that effectively functions as an open air prison. Israel has maintained a land, sea and air blockade of Gaza since 2007, one result of which is chronic malnutrition for Palestinians. A senior Israeli official openly stated that one goal of the blockade was “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” In 2010, international solidarity activists organized a flotilla of aid ships as a means of delivering much needed resources to Gaza and educating the public about the nature of the Israeli siege. In response, Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish owned aid-ship in international waters and summarily executed twelve of the activists on board.

In the West Bank, Israel continues to build illegal settlements. The settlements are built on occupied Palestinian land, and constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva convention, which bars the transfer of an occupying power’s population into occupied territories. The American Friends Service Committee writes, “Although Palestinians and settlers in the West Bank live in the same geographic area, they live under separate and unequal legal systems. As Israeli citizens, settlers are provided with all of the rights afforded by Israeli civil and criminal laws. However, their Palestinian neighbors are subject to Israeli military law.” There is a word for two sets of laws for people living in a common geographic area: apartheid. Even former President Jimmy Carter has embraced the term to describe Israel’s policies.

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The continued settlement building, periodic bombing campaigns against a defenseless population, and the growing awareness of apartheid policies have created a large and growing PR nightmare for Israel.

The weakening of the Israeli narrative has been accompanied by a rise in international solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement emerged from Palestinian civil society in 2005, offering a way for international activists to give concrete aid to the Palestinian freedom struggle. The goal of BDS is to pressure institutions and states to sever ties with Israel, with a long term goal of rendering Israeli apartheid financially and politically untenable. Sherry Wolf, a long time activist and member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, describes BDS’ importance: “First and foremost, as a movement launched and led by Palestinians across the political spectrum—extraordinary in and of itself given the historic splits—BDS is an expression of the self-determination of the Palestinians. Its human rights-based framework uses international law to expose the hypocrisy of nations like the United States that claim adherence to such high-minded principles, yet defy them in their collusion with apartheid Israel.”

BDS has three main objectives:

  • “Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;
  • Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  • Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”

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In just over a decade, BDS has scored some impressive victories, winning the allegiance an array of universities, trade unions, religious groups, and cultural workers. Elvis Costello, Lauren Hill, The Pixies, Cat Power, and Carlos Santana are among an impressive list of musicians and artists who have made the decision to honor the boycott.

In November of last year, Roger Waters, Tunde Adebimpe, visual artist Swoon, and others released a video once again calling for all musicians to refuse to play in Israel until Palestine is free. Musicians similarly banded together to boycott South African apartheid in the 1980s.

We need more musicians to take up the call. I sing and play bass in the punk band Somos based out of Boston, Massachusetts. We have nowhere near the influence of the artists listed above, but I wrote this piece in the firm belief the broad tent that is punk needs to start having this conversation. There has always been a politically militant strain within punk, from Rock Against Racism’s defiant challenge to the racist National Front in Great Britain, to the current wave of bands who are taking head on questions of structural oppression within the music scene and broader society. However, there is currently little discussion of Israel’s crimes against Palestinians, the cultural boycott, or the role that musicians can play in building solidarity with Palestine. That needs to change.

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Many artists fear speaking out because of the backlash they will receive from Zionists within their communities. Indeed, there is still a price to pay for many who express their sympathy with the Palestinian freedom struggle. Steven Salaita was fired from him his job at the University of Illinois ostensibly for tweeting his opposition to Israeli policy in Gaza. Here in Boston, the Northeastern University chapter of Students in Justice for Palestine faced harsh penalties after they distributed mock eviction notices on campus meant to raise awareness about Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes. Legislation attempting to curtail the growing BDS movement is making its way through various state legislatures across the U.S. Apologists for Israeli apartheid may be losing the PR war, but they certainly won’t go down without a massive fight.

Our music community should do everything we can to publicize the boycott, and to educate our peers about the nature of the Israeli state and its treatment of the Palestinians. We must be brave enough to stand with Palestinians, who of course face much harsher consequences for their beliefs and their very existence. To bands and artists that tour internationally, our message should be loud and clear: don’t perform in Israel until Palestine is free.