On Israel, Springsteen’s guitarist outriffs Ken Livingstone
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On Israel, Springsteen’s guitarist outriffs Ken Livingstone

Op-ed: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Labour's ex-London mayor would have you believe it's all Israel's fault. But as Steven Van Zandt insists on Twitter, it's complicated

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Composite photo of musician Stevie Van Zandt and former London mayor Ken Livingstone (Kevin Winter/Getty Images via JTA/Wikimedia Commons, goodadvice.com, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Composite photo of musician Stevie Van Zandt and former London mayor Ken Livingstone (Kevin Winter/Getty Images via JTA/Wikimedia Commons, goodadvice.com, CC BY-SA 4.0)

As someone who has loved Bruce Springsteen’s music for most of my life, whose soul is lifted by the passion and ambition in his songs, who has played his second, third and fourth albums more than any others and inflicted them upon my long-suffering children… and as a Zionist, I have always wondered what Bruce makes, if anything, of Israel. And I still do wonder.

But I got up this morning intending to write an angry, bitter piece about Ken Livingstone’s ongoing success in harming Israel. And now I can write an angry, bitter piece about Ken Livingstone’s ongoing success in harming Israel, with an upbeat ending.

I wrote last week, in “Ken Livingstone, using Hitler to demonize Israel,” that what the ex-London mayor has been trying to achieve by asserting, obscenely, that Hitler was a Zionist, is to push all right-thinking people who consider the Nazis the epitome of evil toward a similar conclusion about Zionists. In short, Livingstone wants as many people as he can reach to equate Zionism with Nazism, and thus to intensify hatred for Israel, weakening it and isolating it.

I’ve not been in the least surprised to watch Livingstone refuse to withdraw or apologize for his incendiary falsehoods. He knows full well that the notion of Hitler supporting a thriving sovereign home for the Jewish nation in its ancient homeland is beyond ridiculous. He knows that to champion such a claim is beneath contempt. He also knows that for him to keep doing so is destructive to the credibility of the Labour Party he purports to care for, and an insult to many of that party’s distinguished leaders through the decades. But for Livingstone, consumed by loathing for Israel, the ends justify any and all means.

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (C) leaves after giving a speech at a May Day rally in London on May 1, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS)
Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (C) leaves after giving a speech at a May Day rally in London on May 1, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS)

And Livingstone is making progress. Yes, Labour is tearing itself apart as its anti-Semites are belatedly exposed, and its Hezbollah- and Hamas-empathizing radical leader Jeremy Corbyn is torn and discomfited. But Livingstone’s perversion of history is helping to enshrine precisely the new UK conventional wisdom he seeks — a simplistic, boilerplate mantra now being repeated relentlessly by UK commentators that runs, roughly, as follows: “Of course, many of us completely oppose Israel’s policies in Palestine, and are horrified by Israel’s killing and mistreatment of the Palestinians, but what Livingstone and others like him are guilty of is crossing the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.”

Let me stress: Criticism of Israel is indeed legitimate. It is necessary. Our nation is not beyond reproach. Our government’s policies can be deeply flawed, most certainly including as regards the Palestinians. Personally, I am deeply disturbed by some of the choices our leaders make. I’m worried about our future. I also see levels of corruption in Israel that I had not previously encountered.

Livingstone’s perversion of history is helping to enshrine precisely the new UK conventional wisdom he seeks — a simplistic, boilerplate mantra that blames Israel, and only Israel, for the Israel-Palestinian conflict

But that’s not the point here. Where Livingstone and his ilk are gaining ground is in the creation of an increasingly axiomatic narrative which, while expressing commendably outraged opposition to anti-Semitism, holds Israel to be obviously and thoroughly and non-nuancedly wrong and guilty and solely to blame for the enduring conflict with the Palestinians. When the truth, it needs repeating, is that the conflict is far more complicated. The fact is that Israel, which wants to retain both its democracy and its Jewish character, has every interest in separating from the Palestinians. An honest narrative should reflect that, had Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 ushered in an era of tranquility there, it would likely have subsequently withdrawn from much of the West Bank. An honest narrative would acknowledge that Hamas and Hezbollah are out to destroy Israel, not achieve a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and that decades of terrorism — often indulged and/or supported by the Palestinian leadership — have eaten away at Israelis’ readiness to compromise, especially in a region and an era of instability and rising Islamic extremism. Again, not all right is on Israel’s side. It can reasonably be argued that the expansion of settlements in areas Israel does not envisage retaining under any permanent accord is counterproductive, and discredits Palestinian moderates. It can be argued that Israel is becoming more hard-line and uncompromising. Amid the current Palestinian terror upsurge, there have certainly been incidents when the response of security personnel to assailants has necessitated investigation. Israel is grappling with multiplying cases of Jewish terrorism.

Like I said, it’s complicated. But not in Ken Livingstone’s book. And that false simplicity, that, “Of course Israel is to blame for the Palestinian problem,” is gaining ground.

Against apartheid; against BDS

So why did I start this piece in the Promised Land of Bruce Springsteen? Because as I sat down to write, and scanned first across our website, I came across this article: “Springsteen guitarist slams ‘obnoxious idiots’ who back BDS.”

Steven Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen onstage in London in 2013 (YouTube screenshot)
Steven Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen onstage in London in 2013 (YouTube screenshot)

Bruce’s beloved long-time guitarist, it turns out, has been defending Israel in the Twittersphere. Little Steven. Miami Steve. Silvio from “The Sopranos.” Giovanni “Johnny” Henriksen from “Lilyhammer,” if you prefer your TV dramas Scandinavian.

More pertinently: Steven Van Zandt, the founder of Artists United Against Apartheid, the force behind anti-apartheid protest song Sun City.

Sun City single cover, 1985
Sun City single cover, 1985

What began as a Twitter row over Springsteen’s recent cancellation of a show in North Carolina lurched into an argument over Israel, in the course of which Van Zandt attacked “discrimination of any kind,” stressed his patriotism, and then, when challenged on the issue of the ostensible “rogue” state of Israel, slapped back with “You and the other Israel boycotters are politically ignorant obnoxious idiots. Israel is one of our two friends in the Middle East.” He told Israel critics to “get educated.” And then, when it was put to him that “Israel totally meets apartheid definition under under itl law” (sic), came back, bless him, with, “Trust me I am at least as aware of most of the injustices around the world as you are. One solution does not fit all,” and “The problems there have existed for a thousand years and you want the solution in 140 characters?” and, best of all, “I understand how it might appear that way but your analysis is incorrect. It’s a lot more complicated than SA.”

Steven Van Zandt (Frantogian / Wikipedia)
Steven Van Zandt (Frantogian / Wikipedia)

“Complicated.” Little Steven, I could kiss you. Yes, it is complicated. Complicated. Complicated. Complicated. If it were simple, we would have solved it. If we could have done so on our own, we would have solved it. Most of us don’t want to rule the Palestinians. We don’t want to send our kids to the army, to risk their lives in conflict with the death cult Islamists. But our country is nine miles wide at its narrowest point. This region, with Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic State and that terrifying regime in Iran, is hostile and ruthless. We are strong in our imperfect, gutsy little democracy, we’re defiant, we’re hanging in there. But meeting the challenges we face is complicated.

Please remember that, those of you tempted to fall into the Livingstone trap, those of you tempted to nod and add that caveat, as you properly condemn anti-Semitism, “Of course Israel’s totally wrong in its treatment of the Palestinians…”

***

At the end of all that, I still don’t know what Bruce Springsteen thinks of Israel. I don’t know if he’ll be playing here this summer — as some rumors have it, as rumors have it most summers.

Born to Run album gatefold cover
Born to Run album gatefold cover

I do know that his “Born to Run” album cover — that iconic image of Springsteen and Clarence Clemons — is the most glorious riposte to racism, that the composition of his band — Catholic, Jewish, Italian-Swedish, African-American et al — is an uncalculated embrace and celebration of musical excellence and diversity.

And I now know that his proud, patriotic, no-nonsense, anti-racist, anti-apartheid guitarist, sometime producer, sidekick and soulmate, recognizes that our conflict is complicated. So thank you, Steven Van Zandt for doing your little bit, as the song goes, to “Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted.”

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