Big Thief defends plans to play in apartheid Tel Aviv

Woman plays the guitar and sings on a microphone

Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief performing at a festival in Cincinnati, Ohio on 29 April 2018. (Rebecca Sowell / Flickr)

Indie rock band Big Thief is set to cross the international picket line by playing in Israel next month.

The critically acclaimed Brooklyn-based group announced two shows in its band member’s hometown Tel Aviv on 6 and 7 July.

Palestinians are calling on the musicians “to cancel their complicit concerts in apartheid Tel Aviv.”

Big Thief said its “motivations and intentions” for going to Israel are to play where one of its band members, bassist Max Oleartchik, has family.

“We are well aware of the cultural aspect of the BDS movement and the desperate reality of the Palestinian people,” the group added, referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.

It made no mention of who or what had caused the “desperate reality” Palestinians live in.

“In terms of where we fit into the boycott, we don’t claim to know where the moral high ground lies and we want to remain open to other people’s perspectives and to love beyond disagreement,” Big Thief said.

Venue celebrates occupation soldiers

The planned Tel Aviv venue, called Barby, has openly celebrated Israeli soldiers who participate in the killing of Palestinians.

Barby “proudly handed out free T-shirts with the venue’s logo and the words ‘f**k you, we’re from Israel’” to soldiers who took part in Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, PACBI – the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel – noted.

During that 51-day assault, Israel killed an average of 11 Palestinian children per day.

Barby said it wanted to “pamper our soldiers in the south” at the height of the Israeli bombing campaign. “The dear IDF soldiers are the pride of us all,” the venue added.

Big Thief says it doesn’t know where the moral high ground lies, but “do they expect to find answers playing in a club that openly celebrates the massacres of children?” PACBI asked.

Israeli restrictions mean Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip would not be able to attend the concert and share in this “love beyond disagreement.”

But Big Thief conceded, “We understand the inherently political nature of playing there as well as the implications.”

And PACBI agreed “on one count”: A concert in Israel is indeed “inherently political.”

Pro-Israel groups like Creative Community for Peace constantly try to obscure the political nature of such an act by claiming that art lies outside politics.

Palestinian rights campaigners have long argued that performing in Israel is like playing in Sun City at the height of apartheid in South Africa, defying the boycott called for by the majority Black population.

Many international artists were lured to perform in the South African resort, but by the 1980s anyone who did so would be severely ostracized, especially after Artists United Against Apartheid created its famous music video with the refrain “I ain’t gonna play Sun City.”

Now, in full awareness of the plight of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid, Big Thief will consciously cross the international picket line established by Palestinians 17 years ago.

At the same time they offer well-worn excuses and cliches for being scabs:

“Our intention is not to diminish the values of those who support the boycott or to turn a blind eye to those suffering,” the group claims. “We are striving to be in the spirit of learning.”

Artists turning their backs on the Palestinian BDS call often claim they are motivated by “love,” “learning,” “dialogue” or a fuzzy notion that music somehow magically transcends all boundaries.

Israel consciously uses such artists – and their feigned or genuine naiveté – to whitewash its image while at the same time it destroys Palestinian cultural institutions. In 2018, for example, the Israeli army deliberately destroyed the Said al-Mishal cultural center in Gaza, one of the few major venues in the besieged territory, in an act of collective punishment and revenge.

Solidarity, not charity

Big Thief said that profits from its shows in Tel Aviv will be donated to organizations “that provide medical and humanitarian aid to Palestinian children.”

But PACBI has previously said that such “balancing” gestures “contribute to the false perception of symmetry between the colonial oppressor and the colonized.”

What Palestinians are asking for is not crumbs of charity, but solidarity.

Big Thief did not name any organizations that would receive the money, but said they would include groups that facilitate “joint efforts between Palestinians and Israelis working together for a better future.”

This sounds like more feel-good talk about peace, love and dialogue that does nothing to challenge oppression and normalizes relations between oppressor and oppressed.

No surprise

Big Thief’s decision comes as no surprise.

The group played at the same Tel Aviv venue in 2017. It planned to do so again in March 2020 when it issued almost the same statement published this week. That show was canceled due to the pandemic.

One line the group did not re-use from the original statement is: “We are not going to Israel intending to make a political statement.”

Now the musicians at least acknowledge that going is “inherently political” and is in itself a statement regardless of intentions.

In 2020, the band said it did not seek to “take sides or convince anyone of our righteousness.”

It did not repeat this line either – perhaps implicitly accepting that such an effort at persuasion is futile.

The 2020 statement also quotes band member Max Oleartchik claiming that while growing up in Israel he had “been dreaming all my life of living in a reality of peace and coexistence with my neighboring brothers and sisters.”

Oleartchik was born and raised in Tel Aviv and even played in the Israeli army band, following in the footsteps of his Polish-born Israeli musician father Alon Oleartchik.


Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.