Have you ever wondered why more musical artists don’t speak out on the occupation of Palestine? This is actually a question put recently by a journalist to someone who could be considered an expert on the matter–Roger Waters.
His answer? To state it bluntly, “They’re scared shitless.”
More than a quarter of a century ago, black South Africans were waging a struggle against apartheid–and there was no shortage of western musicians expressing open solidarity with them–not only with words, but even in their music. In 1980, British rocker Peter Gabriel made an overnight folk hero out of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, while in 1985 musician Steven Van Zandt enlisted a host of famous entertainers in his musical production, “Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid.” Those who participated in the project included Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Lou Reed and many others (click here for the full list). All expressed the same thing: they would honor a boycott and refuse to perform in South Africa.
The message these artists helped to transmit was that while South Africans were fighting a ruthless and brutal government, a good portion of the world was with them. By contrast, the Palestinians, with the exception of Waters and a few others, have had to go it alone.
“The only response to BDS is that it is anti-Semitic,” Waters told The Independent. “I know this because I’ve been accused of being a Nazi and an anti-Semite for the past 10 years.” He added:
“My industry has been particularly recalcitrant in even raising a voice [against Israel]. There’s me and Elvis Costello, Brian Eno, Manic Street Preachers, one or two others, but there’s nobody in the United States where I live. I’ve talked to a lot of them, and they are scared s***less.
“If they say something in public they will no longer have a career. They will be destroyed. I’m hoping to encourage some of them to stop being frightened and to stand up and be counted, because we need them. We need them desperately in this conversation in the same way we needed musicians to join protesters over Vietnam.”
Especially interesting is the bit about musicians’ fears of having their careers destroyed–and there is evidence to substantiate what the former Pink Floyd bassist says on the matter. In 2014, singer Rihanna tweeted the hashtag #Free Palestine. The tweet was later removed, and a spokesperson for the singer said it had been posted by accident, however, as the TMZ celebrity gossip website commented, the explanation is “curious” because “in order to tweet, someone would either have to type the message or cut and paste it, and then click the ‘Tweet’ button.”
Of course, it isn’t only musical artists. Sports stars, too, for all their valor in the contest arena, seem to suffer from a lack of nerve when it comes to speaking out on the conflict in the Middle East as well. Like the singer Rihanna, Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard got in trouble with a pro-Palestine tweet. The tweet prompted a backlash from the Zionist Organization of America and was hastily removed, the athlete following up the deletion with not one, but twofollow-up tweets in which he apologized profusely.
Both Howard and Rihanna posted their tweets in the summer of 2014, both apparently prompted by Israel’s murderous carnage in Gaza. And both probably had good reason to fear, or we could presume at least that certainly Howard did. Leslie Alexander, owner of the Houston Rockets, is Jewish.
Waters, of course, seems to be made of sterner stuff. Over the past ten years he has faced a tide of cacophonous criticism, and clearly today is on the blacklist of the Simon Wiesenthal Center as well as a number of other organizations. Oddly, though, it doesn’t seem to have eroded his fan base much. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned in that for other musicians. The Independent article comments on the irony of it all:
Waters expected to be shouted down by critics, but it is the Nazi accusations that he considers the most absurd, especially given that his father, Lt Eric Waters of the 8th Royal Fusilliers, died aged 31 fighting the Nazis at Anzio, Italy, in early 1944. His body was never found but his name is commemorated at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Monte Cassino.
The pain of not knowing his father, who was killed when Waters was five months old, influenced some of Pink Floyd’s most famous songs.
Waters went on to say:
“I have veterans coming to all my shows and meet them at half time. At a gig in 2013, one veteran came up to me, took my hand, wouldn’t let go and looked me in the eye… I can hardly tell you this now without welling up. He said: ‘Your father would have been proud of you.’
“My father died fighting the Nazis, my mother [a strong CND and Labour supporter] devoted her life to doing everything she could to create a more humane world.”
Contrast the hastily-removed tweets by Rihanna and Howard with the list of some 300 people who signed on to a letter of support for Israel. This too, like the tweets, came out in 2014, and the signatories include a number of big-name celebrities–Sylvester Stallone, Bill Maher, Sarah Silverman, Ziggy Marley, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lon Lovitz, Kelsey Grammer and many others. Posted in 2014, the letter is still online today. Obviously none of those who signed on were too worried about any setbacks for their careers.
The letter was the project of Creative Community for Peace (CCFP), a group that seems to have germinated out of the pro-Israel Stand With Us organization, and whose domain name reportedly was registered in 2010 with SWU founder and executive director Roz Rothestein listed as contact. In November 2014, SWU received a grant of one million shekels (approximately $254,000) from the Israeli government, money designated for the setting up of “interactive media war rooms” from which students would be paid to post comments favorable to Israel on the Internet.
As for SWU’s offshoot, the CCFP describes itself as “dedicated to promoting the arts as a means to peace and to countering the cultural boycott of Israel,” and it seems obsessed, almost literally, with recruiting as many performers to come to the apartheid paradise as possible.
“Robbie Williams is coming to Israel!” reads a post on its Facebook page from October 2014. “Robbie is the best selling solo artist in the United Kingdom and the best selling non-Latino artist in Latin America. He’s performing in Tel Aviv next year!”
Not surprisingly, the group currently is fixated upon Jennifer Lopez. “ACTION ALERT,” reads a post from February 12 this year. “Jennifer Lopez is planning a performance in Tel Aviv this summer, and has been receiving an onslaught of negative comments calling her to cancel.” The post goes on to encourage Israel supporters to post “messages of love and support” to Lopez on her Facebook and Twitter pages.
Recruiting artists to perform in Israel while promulgating messages of “love and support” seems in fact to be CCFP’s chosen métier, and you can go to the group’shome page and view a video featuring clips of a number of artists who have crossed the boycott line and performed there. “Music speaks its mind and knows no borders,” proclaims the video. Ironically, one of the artists featured is Rihanna, who performed in the Jewish state in 2013 and who is seen describing her visit to Jerusalem as “an amazing, amazing experience.”
Theoretically, Roger Waters could also have been featured, for yes, he did indeed perform in Israel, in 2006–and the experience seems to have been a watershed moment for him:
A trip to Israel in 2006, where Waters had planned to play a gig in Tel Aviv and the end of the European leg of his Dark Side of the Moon Live tour, transformed his view of the Middle East.
After speaking to Palestinian artists as well as Israeli anti-government protesters, who called on him to use the gig as a platform to speak out against Israeli foreign policy, he switched the concert from Hayarkon Park to Neve Shalom, an Arab/Israeli peace village. But as the tickets had already been sold, the audience was still entirely Jewish Israeli.
Waters said: “It was very strange performing to a completely segregated audience because there were no Palestinians there. There were just 60,000 Jewish Israelis, who could not have been more welcoming, nice and loyal to Pink Floyd. Nevertheless, it left an uncomfortable feeling.”
He travelled around the West Bank towns of Jenin, Ramallah and Nablus, seeing how the two communities were segregated – and also visited the security barrier separating Israel from the Occupied Territories spraying a signed message from his seminal work “Another Brick in the Wall”, which read: “We don’t need no thought control”.
Waters soon joined the BDS movement, inviting opprobrium and condemnation for daring to do what so few musicians are prepared to. “I’m glad I did it,” he says, as people in Israeli are “treated very unequally depending on their ethnicity. So Palestinian Israeli citizens and the Bedouin are treated completely different from Jewish citizens. There are 40 to 50 different laws depending on whether you are or you are not Jewish.”
Many Zionist supporters, including the CCFP, argue that the apartheid label doesn’t apply to Israel. Another favorite argument is that boycotting will not lead to peace. But given a number of factors–including the blockade of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank, along with the enormous toll on Palestinian lives compared to the tiny number of Israeli soldiers prosecuted for gunning them down–then clearly the apartheid duck quacks like one, and is indeed a duck. This is irregardless of any small number of Palestinians who may get elected to the Knessett.
The Apartheid Duck in Action…
February 14, 2016–Hebron
The other argument–that a boycott of Israel will not lead to peace–is equally faulty, for of course we have the historic precedent of South Africa. Does anyone really believe that South African apartheid would have come to an end absent the international boycott that was waged against it? Possibly it would have, but it would have taken much longer.
And of course, a major part of that boycott was the contribution made by artists and performers. Here is a video of Peter Gabriel performing his classic song interspersed with images from the 1988 film, “Cry Freedom,” which starred Hollywood actor Denzel Washington in the role of Biko:
And here is the Sun City production, featuring a conglomeration of singers and musicians performing as Artists United Against Apartheid:
A lot of anger against apartheid expressed in that video. Where is all that anger now? Would that the Palestinians had one-tenth as much support from the entertainment world that the South Africans had. The fact that they don’t makes their plight, if anything, doubly tragic.
Interestingly, four of the artists who participated in the Sun City project back in the 1980s went on to perform in Israel in more recent times. They are: Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed. If there was a Grammy Award for hypocrisy, all four would be deserving of it. The Rolling Stones’ concert in Israel took place on June 4, 2014–one month before the onset of the Gaza slaughter that killed at least 2,100 people. “Hag Shavuot Sameah [Happy Shavuot Holiday], Israel!” Mick Jagger greeted the audience from the stage.
There is actually substantial evidence that Israel may be guilty of an even worse crime than apartheid. The text of the UN-adopted Convention on Genocide can be found here, and includes–under Article II–a five-point definition of what constitutes genocide. Parties carrying out any one of the five acts described are presumed guilty of the offense. By my reading, at least four, and possibly all five, are applicable in the case of certain Israeli officials.
Peter Gabriel, who did such an eloquent job calling public attention to South African apartheid back in the 80s, is still performing today. In fact he is planning a joint tour–with Sting–that will take place in the summer of 2016. Details of the tour and the dates can be found here. Thankfully no concerts in Israel are listed. But is it possible Sting and Gabriel could be induced to speak out on the occupation of Palestine at some point during the course of their tour?
It seems to me that veteran artists whose names are already firmly established with the public run far less risk speaking out than do those whose careers are still in their early stages–and of course, both Gabriel and Sting have a lengthy history of activism on social justice issues.
Would it be worthwhile for the public to appeal to the two veteran performers to issue a simple call for Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank? Perhaps it would. You never know. At any rate, Gabriel’s Facebook page is here, Sting’s ishere. Give it a try. It couldn’t hurt.
The battle-hardened Waters, of course, is a veteran as well–in the music business as well as in the war of words with Israeli hasbarists.
“I can tell you what Mark Regev [Israel’s ambassador to the UK] is going to say about any situation,” he told The Independent. “He is going to say: ‘What would you do if your children were being slaughtered by terrorists? Do we not have a right to defend ourselves?’ And that is the mantra.”
Of course a different way of looking at it is, ‘what would you do if the city or town you live in were blockaded or hemmed in by walls? What if your children were subjected to extrajudicial executions or periodic missile attacks or even ground incursions? Would you not be tempted on occasion to fight back?’
Israel’s settlements are illegal under international law. In the course of carrying out its settlement enterprise, it inflicts enormous levels of violence on a civilian population–and then turns around and cries “foul” when the victims of that violence take up a knife or some other weapon with which to fight back.
The obvious starting point for a resolution to this conflict is for Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank, and cease its blockade of Gaza. Since the Zionist state is unwilling to do this on its own, and since nations have proven themselves unwilling to pressure it into compliance with international law, that leaves the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement as the best hope for achieving peace.
I know it’s daunting. I know it’s risky. But artists with a conscience need to take a deep breath, swallow–and begin to speak out. In the absence of artistic expression, what we are left with is a suffocating stillness in which the only sound that can be heard is that of hasbara.