Joe Strummer was a singer of conscience.
He displayed solidarity with firefighters who went on strike to demand better conditions. He raised awareness about US policy towards Central America by naming an album Sandinista! after Nicaragua’s socialists. He expressed outrage when US soldiers wrote “Rock the Casbah” – a hit by his band The Clash – on missiles launched against Iraq in 1991.
Strummer died suddenly in December 2002. That was before the 2004 Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of Israel was formally issued, so we do not know exactly how Strummer would have responded to it.
Nonetheless, it is reasonable to surmise that Strummer would have respected the boycott. He was not the kind of guy to spurn a plea from an oppressed people.
The same cannot be said for a charity set up in his memory.
The Joe Strummer Foundation recently announced that it was providing financial assistance to a Jerusalem visit by Dan Blackwell from the 4bar Collective. The foundation stated it was “thrilled” to be funding a documentary about the October trip as it would involve “a collaboration between Hebrew and Arabic musicians in Israel.”
Asked why it was backing the project, the foundation replied by email that “our support of 4bar Collective is not a political act” but “about using music as a platform for positive change.” The foundation claimed, too, that its work aims to “alleviate poverty, particularly of young people” and was “underpinned by Joe’s ethos and sense of what is right.”
“We’re against ignorance”
Refusing to heed Palestinian calls cannot be considered in keeping with Strummer’s ethos. He once said of The Clash: “we’re anti-racist, we’re anti-fascist and we’re pro-creative. We’re against ignorance.”
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has correctly characterized Dan Blackwell’s visit to Jerusalem “as an entirely political act, regardless of its intentions” as it would “art-wash Israel’s crimes.”
Predictably, the Israeli media exploited the propaganda potential of Blackwell’s tour. The Jerusalem Post reported that he aimed to “show Israel in a different light than the negative one it’s usually pegged with in the usual stories focusing on strife.”
In a Facebook post – subsequently deleted – Blackwell stated that he was determined to go ahead with his October tour.
“I will not be bullied by your group,” he wrote – addressing the BDS movement. “This tour will go ahead.” He did not cite any examples of bullying.
“Rage and grief”
Blackwell invited various Palestinian musicians to play with him in Jerusalem. The rapper MC Gaza (real name: Ibrahim Ghunaim) was one of those who turned down the request.
“It took me less than a minute to reply,” MC Gaza told me. “The moment I saw his proposal to ‘collaborate with Israeli and Palestinian musicians’ to promote ‘peace,’ I was overwhelmed by rage and grief. I lost several friends during the Great March of Return.”
Blackwell’s project normalizes injustice. Normalization involves encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to work together, without addressing the power imbalance between the two.
Blackwell was not asking Palestinians and Israelis to co-resist. He was asking them to co-exist in a way that doesn’t challenge the oppression of Palestinians.
As MC Gaza has illustrated, Palestinian and Israeli musicians do not enjoy the same opportunities. “It sounds like he [Blackwell] did not have a basic understanding of the Palestinians’ plight,” MC Gaza said. “I’d love to perform a concert to my Palestinian community in Jerusalem, West Bank or what is now Israel but this is simply a dream under current realities. We’re denied free movement and constantly targeted.”
Shortly before he died, Joe Strummer helped write a song titled “46664” after the number assigned to Nelson Mandela by his jailers. One line in the song reads: “when your hands are manacled, it’s your spirit that gets raw.”
By calling for a boycott of Israel, Palestinians are insisting they will not rest until all the manacles are removed from their hands. It is a shame that the Joe Strummer Foundation is not listening to that call.
Additional reporting by David Cronin.