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Indie band with Israeli bassist cancels Tel Aviv shows after BDS pressure

Grammy-nominated group Big Thief pulls out of Barby gigs despite group member Max Oleartchik — son of Kaveret’s Alon Oleartchik — hailing from and living in the Jewish state

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Big Thief (from left to right): Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, Adrianne Lenker and James Krivchenia. (Alexa Viscius)
Big Thief (from left to right): Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, Adrianne Lenker and James Krivchenia. (Alexa Viscius)

A US-based indie rock band has canceled its upcoming shows in Tel Aviv after facing a wave of pressure from the boycott movement.

Big Thief, a four-member rock group which has been nominated for three Grammy Awards, was originally slated to perform at the Barby in Tel Aviv on July 6 and 7. But on Thursday, the band — one of whose members was born in Israel — and the venue announced that the shows were being canceled.

“Since announcing these shows in Israel we have been in constant dialogue with friends, family, BDS supporters and allies, Palestinians, and Israeli citizens who are committed to the fight for justice for Palestinians,” the band wrote in a message posted to social media. “It has been the only thing on our minds and in our hearts.”

The group’s bass player, Max Oleartchik — son of famed Israeli musician Alon Oleartchik — was born in Israel, and the group played in Tel Aviv in 2017. They had been slated to return in 2020, but were forced to cancel due to the COVID pandemic.

“Our intent in wanting to play the shows in Tel Aviv, where Max was born, raised, and currently lives, stemmed from a simple belief that music can heal,” the group wrote on Thursday. “We now recognize that the shows we had booked do not honor that sentiment. We are sorry to those we hurt with the recklessness and naivete of our original statement on playing in Israel and we hope those who were planning to attend the shows understand our choice to cancel them.”

Max’s father Alon, a founding member of the legendary Israeli rock group Kaveret, said Thursday that Big Thief faced a wave of pressure and threats to cancel their shows in Tel Aviv.

Bass player Alon Oleartchik of the Israeli rock band Kaveret, on May 2, 2013. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

“They received thousands of threats… the reaction they received for [announcing] a performance in Israel was awful and terrible,” Alon Oleartchik told the Kan public broadcaster. “They were crushed by it.” He said his son, Max “was also crushed by this, he really wanted it to happen.”

In its own statement, the Barby harshly criticized the group for its decision — and noted that the band was the one to initiate the booking of Tel Aviv shows.

“We didn’t call them or ask them and there was no producer who reached out to them to book this show,” the venue wrote. “The request to perform in Israel came from them after a COVID-induced cancellation in 2020.”

The venue claimed that “intimidation boycotts on Instagram” and “paid protesters outside a hall in Europe” caused the band to cancel. In a scathing post, the Barby accused the group of hypocrisy and called them “a bunch of pitiful musicians without a backbone who are afraid of their own shadow.”

“You will become just another band that comes and goes from the world like everyone else,” the Barby’s owners wrote in an unsigned post. “I wish you all the misfortune in the world, just as you did to your fan base in Israel.”

Illustrative: Musician Ziggy Marley, son of late reggae legend Bob Marley, in concert at the Barby club in Tel Aviv, on July 31, 2018. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

The Barby began selling tickets to the two shows — one of which had already sold out — on May 24, but the band only publicly announced its intention to appear in Israel a week ago. In a post on social media last Friday announcing the gigs, the band already offered up a defense of the shows.

“Over the last seven years we’ve traveled constantly around 3 of our members’ home country, the United States,” the group wrote. “It is important for us to go where we have family to share space and play for them. It is foundational. It is in that spirit that we made our decision to play in Israel.”

That announcement was met with largely a negative reaction online, with a wave of comments on Instagram and Facebook calling on them to cancel and expressing anger.

The band wrote at the time that it does not “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.” It also vowed to donate profits from the shows “to NGOs that provide medical and humanitarian aid to Palestinian children, including joint efforts between Palestinians and Israelis working together for a better future.”

On Thursday, however, the group sought to revise its statement.

“When we spoke of loving ‘beyond disagreement’ and not knowing ‘where the moral high ground lies,’ that was in specific reference to playing shows in Israel during a time when BDS is calling for a cultural boycott,” they wrote. “This was not in reference to the Israeli occupation and the displacement of Palestinians.”

Ari Ingel, director of Creative Community For Peace, an anti-BDS activist group, said that “all Big Thief has done is created greater animosity and caused more divisiveness” by giving into a movement “that openly rejects coexistence and seeks the destruction of Israel.”

The BDS movement has for years called on international artists not to appear in Israel, with limited success. Musicians like Lorde and Lana Del Rey made headlines for canceling shows in Israel in recent years, but Tel Aviv remains a destination for many international artists, and was even home to the 2019 Eurovision contest — including a performance by Madonna — after Israel won the competition a year earlier.

International acts have begun trickling in as COVID restrictions ease. Maroon 5 appeared in Israel last month, One Republic is slated to return this fall and rapper 50 Cent is scheduled to appear in July. Famed tenor Andrea Bocelli performed in Tel Aviv on Wednesday evening to an audience that included film director Quentin Tarantino and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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