Whose freedom does Radiohead support?

Palestinians demand Radiohead respect the international picket line. (PACBI)

Artists and activists continue to push back against Radiohead, two days before the band goes ahead with a gig in Tel Aviv.

On Monday, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mike Leigh condemned Radiohead’s intransigence toward Palestinians.

“As the lights go out in Gaza and Palestinian cancer patients die because they are denied travel permits by Israel, while a Palestinian poet in Israel lives under house arrest for a poem she wrote on Facebook, while a young circus performer from the West Bank languishes in administrative detention without charge or trial – Thom Yorke speaks loftily about ‘crossing borders’ and ‘freedom of expression,’” Leigh said, adding, “One has to ask, freedom for whom exactly?”

Leigh noted that the Israeli venue Radiohead will play at is built over the ruins of Jarisha, an ethnically cleansed Palestinian village.

For months, Palestinian civil society has called on the iconic UK band to cancel their performance and respect their demand for a boycott.

Radiohead’s frontman, Thom Yorke, has repeatedly scoffed at the Palestinian picket line and disparaged the international solidarity effort.

Last week, filmmaker Ken Loach warned Radiohead that if it goes ahead with the show, its members “may never live it down.”

In response to Loach’s appeal, Yorke tweeted last week that “music, art and academia is about crossing borders, not building them.”

“We know borders very well, Radiohead,” dozens of Palestinian students and scholars in the UK and Palestine reply in a letter published by The Guardian on Monday.

They add: “the only people creating borders in Palestine are Israel and its allies. Millions of us are imprisoned behind walls and barriers, and if we want to cross we have to beg our occupiers for permission, which is often denied to us.”

“Every day, Palestinians in Gaza are dying because they cannot leave the outdoor prison that Israel has created and access life-saving medical care. Every day, Palestinians are stopped at checkpoints, harassed, turned away and sometimes even shot,” the students write.

The students accuse Radiohead of the “betrayal of all social justice movements that seek international solidarity when confronted with decades of violent racism, oppression and continued erasure.”

Radiohead will be performing for an audience mostly comprised of Israelis who have served in the occupying army which has slaughtered thousands of Palestinians in Gaza over the last eight years, the students assert.

“Radiohead’s excuses echo the ones used by artists in the 1980s who took money and crossed the anti-apartheid boycott picket line to perform for whites in South Africa,” they add.

Another letter signed by Palestinian artists implores the band to stand “on the right side of history.”

“Simply stating you do not endorse [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu does not change that the Israeli government will use, and is already using, your performance and status for specific political ends, that is: diverting from its crimes against Palestinians,” the artists write.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) stated that Yorke “continues to stubbornly ignore the voice of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians who have called on artists to refrain from entertaining apartheid.”

Dialogue tried “for decades”

Yorke’s intention to break the Palestinian picket line has won the endorsement of right-wing Israeli media, along with that of Michael Stipe of the US-based band REM, who, like Radiohead’s Yorke, has previously championed social justice causes.

Stipe posted an image to Instagram over the weekend stating: “I stand with Radiohead and their decision to perform. Let’s hope a dialogue continues, helping to bring the occupation to an end and lead to a peaceful solution.”

PACBI responded to Stipe that “dialogue” has “literally been going on for decades, and it has done nothing to bring us any closer to securing our freedom, justice or human rights.”

Waters: Don’t cross picket line

On Saturday, PACBI hosted a live video discussion between Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, who has been an outspoken critic of Radiohead’s plan to break the boycott, and Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Waters criticized artists and performers who believe they are above Palestinian civil society’s demands for boycott.

“I think that artists who say that they can somehow improve the situation by going and playing in Israel and having conversations with Israeli artists [are wrong],” Waters said.

“We should observe the picket line,” he said.

“Anybody who’s tempted to do that, like our friends in Radiohead, if only they would actually educate themselves,” Waters added. “I know Thom Yorke’s been whining about how he feels insulted that people are suggesting that he doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Speaking directly to Yorke, Waters said: “Well, Thom, you shouldn’t feel insulted, because if you did know what was going on, you would have a conversation with Ken Loach … or with me.”

Waters said that he and other well-known artists, including Loach and musician Brian Eno, had “begged” Yorke to have a conversation with them about the matter, but had been ignored.

Waters added: “When you’ve finished your trip to Israel, because you probably still will go, write me a letter and tell me how much good you did and how much change you managed to effect by chatting with musicians.”

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Yorke has written many songs, and his lyrics are sometimes quoted as expressing an ethos of personal and social liberation. But his words to a section of the crowd at a recent Glasgow concert may be the ones that come to define the enduring message of his band- "some f*****g people... some f*****g people... some f*****g people." I don't suppose that as he performs to a well-heeled, whooping crowd assembled on the ruins of a Palestinian village he'll be shaking his head in disgust and mouthing those sentiments.

Some f*****g people.

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).