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Radiohead defends Israel gig after criticism from director Ken Loach

Lead singer Thom Yorke slams boycott call, says band doesn’t endorse Trump but still plays in US

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Thom Yorke performs with Radiohead at Philips Arena, Atlanta,  April 1, 2017. (Robb Cohen/Invision/AP)
Thom Yorke performs with Radiohead at Philips Arena, Atlanta, April 1, 2017. (Robb Cohen/Invision/AP)

Radiohead lead vocalist Thom Yorke defended his band’s decison to play in Israel as an issue of freedom of expression after getting into a Twitter argument with British filmmaker Ken Loach.

The argument started when Loach tweeted on Tuesday that “Radiohead need to decide if they stand with the oppressed or the oppressor. The choice is simple.”

But Yorke defended his stance, saying, “Playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government. We’ve played in Israel for over 20 years through a succession of governments, some more liberal than others. As we have in America.”

“We don’t endorse Netanyahu any more than Trump, but we still play in America,” Yorke said. “Music, art and academia is about crossing borders not building them, about open minds not closed ones, about shared humanity, dialogue and freedom of expression. I hope that makes it clear Ken.”

Loach was the latest in a series of artists — among them former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters — who have tried to pressure the British band to cancel its July 19 concert and a planned university lecture.

Last week, Yorke gave pro-Palestinian protesters the finger and swore at them during a concert in Glasgow, Scotland.

In an opinion piece published by the British newspaper the Independent on Tuesday, Loach wrote, “Whether in apartheid South Africa in the past or apartheid Israel in the present, when an oppressed community asks renowned international artists not to lend their names to their oppressors’ attempts to whitewash their human rights violations, it is our moral obligation to heed their appeals. It should be about them and their human rights, not about us and our sense of pride.”

He charged that the band had not responded to several offers to meet that he and Palestinian artists had made over the past three weeks.

“This is deeply disappointing,” Loach went on.

“I don’t know who is advising Radiohead, but their stubborn refusal to engage with the many critics of their ill-advised concert in Tel Aviv suggests to me that they only want to hear one side – the one that supports apartheid.”

Last month, Yorke spoke to Rolling Stone magazine about the “extremely upsetting” efforts by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and various artists to dissuade the band from performing in Israel.

Film director Ken Loach speaks at a rally for workers' rights in London (CC BY 2.0 Bryce Edwards via Wikimedia Commons)
Film director Ken Loach speaks at a rally for workers’ rights in London (CC BY 2.0 Bryce Edwards via Wikimedia Commons)

“The kind of dialogue that they want to engage in is one that’s black or white. I have a problem with that,” Yorke said. “It’s deeply disrespectful to assume that we’re either being misinformed or that we’re so retarded we can’t make these decisions ourselves. I thought it was patronizing in the extreme. It’s offensive and I just can’t understand why going to play a rock show or going to lecture at a university (concerns them).”

Yorke noted that Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood was particularly hurt by the hatred the band had been subjected to over the upcoming concert.

“He has both Palestinian and Israeli fans and a wife who’s an Arab-Jew,” Yorke said. “All these people to stand there at a distance throwing stuff at us, waving flags, saying, ‘You don’t know anything about it!’ Imagine how offensive that is for Jonny. And imagine how upsetting that it’s been to have this out there. Just to assume that we know nothing about this. Just to throw the word ‘apartheid’ around and think that’s enough. It’s fucking weird. It’s such an extraordinary waste of energy. Energy that could be used in a more positive way.”

Jonny Greenwood’s wife Sharona Katan was born in Israel. She described herself on Twitter as an Arab Jew who is proud to have Arab roots as she traces ancestry to Iraq and Egypt.

Those who signed a letter asking Radiohead not to appear in Israel include novelists Alice Walker and Hari Kunzru, Thurston Moore of US alternative rock pioneers Sonic Youth and Nick Seymour of Australian rockers Crowded House. Retired bishop and Nobel Prize-winning anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu also signed the letter.

American Pop star, Britney Spears performs in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 3, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
American Pop star, Britney Spears performs in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 3, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The cultural boycott campaign against Israel has had mixed success. Stevie Wonder backed out of a Friends of the IDF benefit concert in Los Angeles, and Lauryn Hill scrapped an Israel show, but numerous major names have performed in Israel in recent years, among them Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Santana, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Bon Jovi and Britney Spears. The iconic US rock band Guns N’ Roses is due to perform on July 15.

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