Iceland’s Hatari gained much attention for their stunt during the Eurovision Song Contest final on Saturday night when they briefly held up Palestine flag scarves in front of the television cameras.
They won ecstatic praise on social media, but this should not obscure the reality: that Hatari crossed the picket line called for by Palestinian civil society.
In fact, what they did was an act of anti-solidarity that ultimately harms Palestinian efforts to end Israel’s increasingly violent and brazen regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.
The point is not difficult: if a trade union calls a strike and some workers decide to cross the picket line, but to flash union badges at the strikers as an “act of solidarity,” everyone would understand that the strike-breakers are still scabs.
Their use of union symbols to cover their betrayal would rightly be seen as rubbing salt into the wound and earn the scorn of striking workers.
The point of a collective action like a strike or a boycott is to raise the cost to the oppressor of violating the rights of the oppressed, so that the oppressor is forced to stop their oppression.
Scabbing undermines the principle and effectiveness of collective action – whether it is a strike by workers against an abusive employer, or a boycott called by a people fighting for their very existence.
Giving a pass to scabs sends a message to others that it is okay to cross the picket line, that scabs can have their cake and eat it by accepting the benefits of collusion with the abuser and yet still be praised while they harm the collective.
Moreover, when the BDS movement – for boycott, divestment and sanctions – is under unprecedented attack by Israel and its European and American allies who smear it as anti-Semitic, it is more important than ever to defend this form of solidarity.
That BDS is a nonviolent, universalist and anti-racist movement has not stopped some western politicans from slandering it.
Asked to boycott
Yet it appears that a brief visual of a Palestinian flag generates such strong emotions in some people that the ability to think clearly about these acts and their consequences evaporates.
So let’s be clear about what happened.
In April, PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, asked Hatari not to go.
“Palestinians are calling on all Eurovision contestants to withdraw from the contest in apartheid Tel Aviv,” PACBI stated.
“This includes Iceland’s entrant Hatari, in particular, who are on the record supporting Palestinian rights.”
“Artists who insist on crossing the Palestinian boycott picket line, playing Tel Aviv in defiance of our calls, cannot offset the harm they do to our human rights struggle by ‘balancing’ their complicit act with some project with Palestinians,” PACBI added.
“Palestinian civil society overwhelmingly rejects this fig-leafing, having learnt from the fight against apartheid in South Africa.”
In addition, there had been extensive behind-the-scenes discussions with Hatari.
The group visited the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, where band member Matthias Haraldsson described the situation as “apartheid.”
Despite this, Hatari went on to do precisely what Palestinians had asked them not to do: they crossed the picket line and tried to offset it with the fig-leafing gesture of waving flags.
PACBI’s response to Hatari’s action was in line with the position it had communicated to the band before the contest:
Yet many perhaps well-meaning people, including Palestinians such as activist Issa Amro in Hebron, reacted with appreciation:
Other reactions were perhaps more cynical: the London office of the Palestinian Authority claimed that Hatari’s “display of solidarity with Palestine showed that Israel’s conflict management policy (i.e. the Palestinians can stay under occupation and life will go on) is a total failure.”
This is ironic given how the Palestinian Authority did next to nothing to oppose Eurovision in Tel Aviv and actively collaborates with Israeli occupation forces to suppress protest and resistance, and thereby sustain the occupation, under the rubric of “security coordination.”
Mustafa Barghouti, a West Bank politician who once ran for president of the Palestinian Authority, took to the airwaves in Iceland to praise Hatari, claming that their flag-waving had “touched the hearts of all Palestinians.”
Barghouti said that although “our position in principle” is that bands should have boycotted Eurovision, he had been in touch with Hatari to thank them for what they did.
Barghouti too wants to have it both ways, claiming that the boycott is a matter of principle, but praising those who violate the principle. What kind of principle is that?
His justification was that had Hatari chosen not to cross the picket line, some other group would have represented Iceland and the Palestinian flag would then not have appeared on stage.
I heard this argument repeatedly on social media, and it amounts to nonsense even when we put aside the essential principle of not crossing a picket line called for by an oppressed group.
Aside from any momentary emotional boost, what good does a brief flash of a Palestinian flag do?
Given the depth of international complicity in Israel’s horrendous violations and habitual massacres of Palestinians, we ought to be far past the point where we should be getting excited by such symbolism.
After all, the flag of the “State of Palestine” has been flying at the United Nations for years, yet that has done absolutely nothing to turn the UN into a more effective organization at holding Israel accountable. Indeed UN complicity with Israel’s crimes has only deepened.
Had Hatari decided to pull out on Eurovision night, or even the day before, there is no way that an alternative act could have been brought in given the amount of rehearsals and logistics involved.
And even if a scab act were brought in, Hatari’s withdrawal would have dominated headlines and put pressure on others – especially Madonna – to reconsider their performances. It would have boosted the BDS movement into the stratosphere.
The Palestinian boycott call and protests around Eurovision got a huge amount of press coverage and support, and Hatari’s withdrawal would have made it an even bigger story.
Hatari could have dealt a huge blow to Israel’s effort to present Eurovision as “non-political” and fun, even as Israel and its European Union allies were shamelessly exploiting the contest to advance their pro-Israel agendas.
Instead, both Hatari and Madonna settled for ineffectual acts that did more to cover up their own complicity than advance any real consciousness or action to change Palestinian reality.
Madonna – in an unauthorized move – had two of her dancers put their arms around each other, one with a Palestinian flag, the other with an Israeli flag, on their backs.
It’s hard to imagine a more shallow or harmful message that equates oppressor and oppressed.
Real solidarity means listening to what Palestinians are asking for – yet many prefer to lecture and instruct Palestinians rather than to listen.
In this case, solidarity would have meant boycotting Eurovision, which is really not asking for much. But it was more than Hatari could offer. So be it, but let’s not make them heroes.
More important let’s not send the message to other artists that complicity with Palestinian oppression is a minor matter quickly forgotten and forgiven. Or that it’s just fine to violate the boycott as long as you wave a Palestinian flag.
If Palestinians continue to accept empty gestures and cheap symbolism from alleged allies they will remain under Israeli oppression forever. They must demand and expect real solidarity and that’s what BDS is about.
We’re not just trying to feel good, we’re trying to actually end apartheid. During the South African struggle, not everyone respected the cultural boycott.
But those who chose to profit from apartheid are rightly remembered today with disdain.
It’s a cliché – repeated on Eurovision night by Madonna – that music “brings people together.” In the case of Eurovision, music was used as a cover for oppression and apartheid.
But that doesn’t mean she is wrong. Music, dance and celebration play an important role in any liberation struggle and in building solidarity.
A real example of that was the sold-out alternative “You’re a Vision” concert held in support of Palestine in Ireland. It was one of many such events around Europe.
That’s what solidarity sounds like.