Building the BDS movement: Punks Against Apartheid say “It’s bigger than Jello Biafra”

Following on the heels of punk rock icon Jello Biafra’s last-minute — however reluctant — decision to respect the Palestinian-led call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) recently, one of the main organizing groups that pressured Biafra and his band to cancel their Tel Aviv show on 2 July say they’ve just begun their work with the global BDS movement. 

Biafra’s open letter explaining his decision to cancel the Tel Aviv gig condescendingly accused Punks Against Apartheid (PAA) of singling him out in their campaign, and claimed not to recognize most of the signatories to a public petition from the punk and Palestine solidarity communities.

In response, PAA stated on 5 July that “As heartening as it was to read the first couple paragraphs of his recent announcement, our hearts sank to see–once again–a host of misrepresentations of the nature of our group, a profound lack of understanding of the basic tenets of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement more generally, and flat-out insults against the Palestinian people as a whole.”

PAA continued:

We would like to make it clear that our group did in fact find its inspiration, and its catalyst for launching, in the announcement of Jello’s Tel Aviv gig. Indeed, while there have been countless performances and cultural BDS campaigns launched against musicians performing in Israel in the past–which each of us have participated in to a greater or lesser extent–something about the audacity of this gig, coming from someone we all so revered for his radical politics, triggered a response in us. In the words of our e-mail to Jello, his then-planned gig in Tel Aviv “made us all realize how important it is to us that punk music always stand in solidarity with the oppressed and never with the oppressor.” And so PAA was born. None of this can be denied.

Yet, we find it strange that Jello, in his response, takes this to be a smoking gun: He writes that “Whoever started now admits it was aimed solely at one person – me.” Jello was never meant to be the only focus of Punks Against Apartheid. It is the first of many projects and campaigns we hope to be involved with. Canceling Jello’s gig was only our initial launching pad and rallying cry. We fully intend to develop PAA into a network of musicians, artists, communities, and voices coming together in the spirit of cultural exchange and solidarity against oppression.

In his letter, as The Electronic Intifada reported, Biafra claimed that Palestinians in Ramallah wouldn’t “be interested” his type of music anyway, a statement which reeked of racism and stereotypical assumptions that Biafra claims to rally against in his music and political activism. PAA responded:

This is flat-out wrong, and skates dangerously close to the kind of anti-Arab, Islamophobic stereotypes that we’re constantly fed by what Jello refers to as “McNews.” Anyone who does any basic research on Palestinian youth culture will see how vibrant and diverse it is. We find it rather shocking that Jello hasn’t bothered to examine these facts. He is, in essence, dismissing an entire region as culturally backward, primitive, unworthy of patronage. It’s not a new phenomenon; in fact, it’s part of a long and shameful history of Orientalism.

We hope that during Jello’s trip to see things for himself he really has the opportunity to see what things are like for Palestinians on a daily basis. We implore him to go refugee camps such as Jenin or Dheisheh and to villages such as Bi’lin where Palestinians lead a non-violent democratic popular struggle against the apartheid wall that separates farmers from their farmland. At its best, punk has always been about amplifying voices like these–marginalized, repressed and otherwise ignored by the mainstream. It’s extremely disappointing to see Jello ignore those exact same voices that have always been so crucial in renewing punk’s vitality.

We think of Aida M, vocalist in Lebanese punk band DETOX, when she said in her signature of our petition “We in Lebanon never had a punk band play here, and it makes us fight harder for our beliefs, and find our own meaning of what punk is…What you big punk bands don’t know is that your music means more to us in times of war and chaos, than it does in the West.” We received hundreds and hundreds of similar e-mails from groups from around the world during our campaign to get Jello to cancel. The incredible diversity of people who contacted us laid bare the myth that punk “is”, once and for all, a white, male phenomenon: no, it has a much farther reach than that; it’s a question of where and how you look. It’s a question: if you come with the intention of hearing other voices, or only your own.

Jello’s claim that he “didn’t recognise” many names on the petition should have been a sign that there is a world of punk beyond the one he is used to being a part of–one that is contradictory, complex, and multilayered–instead, he saw it as evidence that these people weren’t “real” fans and that they probably weren’t punks anyway.

Finally, PAA stated that the movement to integrate punk rock musicians, fans and allies to Palestinian solidarity activism is growing — and that it’s bigger than Jello Biafra seems to think.

… as we see it, our role is not to “create” a network of alternative voices in punk. Rather, it is to link together the vibrant, already-existing subcultures of political punk to more effectively work together, to stand clearly and definitively stand against apartheid and ethnic cleansing, and to work towards multiracial justice, both in our own communities and for those we stand in solidarity with.




The man's a hypocritical prat. End of story; end of respect; for him.

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).