Should Radiohead perform in Israel?

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Radiohead – one of the most successful rock bands – has come under increasing criticism from a range of artists, including Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, and Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio, for their decision to break a Palestinian-led boycott of Israel and perform in Israel this week. In turn, a number of artists and political voices, including R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, J.K. Rowling and Noam Chomsky, have come out arguing against the cultural ban.

These arguments have grown more and more fiery. Waters says that Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is “whining.” Yorke says that the opposition’s message is “offensive” and “patrionizing” and that “It’s deeply distressing that they choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw sh– at us in public. It’s deeply disrespectful to assume that we’re either being misinformed or that we’re so retarded we can’t make these decisions ourselves.”

So, should Radiohead play?

Truthfully, I find that the least interesting part of the whole conversation.

What I find most interesting is that all indications are that Radiohead and their opponents are equally concerned about the Israeli government’s policies on Palestine. Yorke has explicitly stated his disapproval of the Israeli government.

The argument isn’t about the morality of the current situation in Palestine or anyone’s indifference to it, but rather what tactics are most likely to bring about change. Waters and others believe that a cultural ban will put increasing pressure and attention on the situation. Radiohead believe they will do more good by going to Israel and creating dialogue, rather than promoting diviseness.

I don’t know what’s right. Or perhaps closer to the truth, I think it’s fair to say that reasonable people could easily have differing opinions on the most effective tactics in this situation. It could be that a cultural ban will be part of a series of events that create enough pressure on Israeli institutions to cause real change. It might also be that bringing more and more new ideas to Israel (in the form of art, musicians, lecturers, etc.) will result in real political change that creates a policy shift from within.

I don’t know.

What I find most upsetting about the situation is that people with largely shared values and likely shared visions for the future find themselves hurling insults and complaints at one another. Each side seems to insist they have the “right” answer, that the other is morally short-sighted and naive, likely with disingenuous motivations.

What’s most annoying is that the tension created by famous rock musicians having differing opinions is actually tremendously helpful for change in Palestine. It generates a slew of media on the topic directed at young people around the world. It raises awareness on an incredibly important, divisive issue. Through Radiohead’s choice to perform – and Waters and others’ choice to forcefully question that decision – we now have generated more discussion and energy on the topic. I know I’m thinking about the topic more than I have in years.

What a shame that instead of using this as an opportunity to actually discuss the respective merits of competing tactics, to prod at people’s reasoning and logic (rather than their motivations), to truly create a more dynamic and thoughtful understanding of the situation for all, instead we devolve into personal attacks. These personal attacks put the musicians’ feelings at the center of the conversation. And they push concerns about Palestine further and further to the periphery.

Change will never come from definitive, unquestioned answers. Change will never come from pigheaded, self-righteous certainty. Change will ebb out of increasingly insightful, piercing questions that allow us to chip away to the messy, complex truth.

Radiohead should make their case for why they believe playing in Israel is a moral act. I’d go as far to say as they have a duty to justify themselves in such a morally contentious issue. And Rogers and company similarly explain their reasoning, why they so fervently believe a boycott is the best and only path to change.

Let’s let the ideas do battle with one another. Let’s let the tension between reasonable, differing perspectives be an answer. Let’s be open to whether that tension can generate a third, better path forward that none of us could have foreseen.


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