Simon Johnson in the Jewish Telegraph: 1st December 2017

The Battle For Cultural Freedom

As a teenager in Bury in the 1980’s, it was almost obligatory to be a fan of The Smiths. From the moment that the first thrilling chords of “What Difference does it make” rolled across the school common room, I was a fan.  And if you were a fan of The Smiths, then you came to know well the idiosyncrasies and utterances of their lead singer, Morrissey.

Through his equally successful solo career after The Smiths, Morrissey has luxuriated in his idiosyncratic attitudes and contrary comments. Those of us who are fans are well used to these and take them with a grain of salt, as evidence of Morrissey’s individual world view.  In the last two weeks, though, his contrariness in relation to Israel has exposed him to the wrath of the “Boycotteers”- three ageing entertainers- Roger Waters, Brian Eno and Ken Loach- of whom, more later.

Morrissey, in recent years, has become a fan of Israel. He has played there a number of times and was shown enthusiastically performing whilst draped in an Israeli flag. It clearly had an impact on his creativity as two tracks on his new solo album are inspired by his experiences- They are called “Israel” and “The girl from Tel Aviv who would not kneel”. He has taken on the Boycotteers in the public arena, and stuck to his guns in playing in Israel.

He is not the only one. In recent weeks and months, there has been a stream of artists thumbing their noses at the Boycotteers and playing in Israel.

When I returned from Israel on business earlier this month, I discovered, whilst at Baggage Reclaim, that I had returned on the same flight as Boy George and Culture Club, who had just played an hugely successful gig in Israel. In the last couple of weeks, Nick Cave performed in Israel, and earlier in the summer, Radiohead played a series of dates.

There are, of course, many artists who play in Israel. I have drawn attention to these four artists since their decision to play in Israel stirred the ancient slumbering forms of The Boycotteers- Messrs Waters, Eno and Loach- whose wrath has been incurred. They have engaged in public attacks on the artists, and are beginning to realise that their world view, expounding cultural boycotts of Israel, is not necessarily shared by Artists in the generation below them.

You see, the Boycotteers do not like Artists to play in Israel. They advocate a cultural boycott of Israel and display churlish indignation when an artist does not heed their tiresome and predictable calls for a boycott.

Messrs Waters, Eno and Loach are stuck fighting the ideological battles of the 1970’s. Their concern for the plight of the Palestinian people has prompted them to reach into the radical’s box of tricks from the 1970’s. They have a misty eyed recollection of their battles against Apartheid in South Africa. And because, in their particular view of the world, Israel displays similar behaviour, then the old tactics of boycotts and isolation, can be dusted off and applied to Israel.

They use the Left’s favoured euphemistic sophistry, and describe this as a question of human rights. They think that boycotting and isolating the Israeli people is the only way to make the Israeli Government change their policies.

The problem for the Boycotteers, though, is that the next generation of artists do not see things through the same foggy and cracked lenses. There is a growing generation of artists who believe that culture can be used to build bridges, rather than create division.

So, the Boycotteers lash out publicly at any Artist who dares to disagree with them. Nick Cave is the latest to have felt the public wrath of Roger Waters. But Culture Club got the same. And, in the summer, Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead, also hit back at a public rebuke from the Boycotteers. These recent exchanges have set out clearly the difference of perspective of those who see Boycotts as a means of effecting change and those who reject boycotts as only sowing division.

Morrissey, Nick Cave, Culture Club and Radiohead know that to play in a country does not signify agreement with the Government of that country. Artists have tremendous power. Any of these artists could use the freedom of speech which Israel affords to level bitter criticism at the Government if they wanted. This is their right. I recall one of my favourite bands, REM, being so upset at the direction of US Government policy, that they wrote the song “Bad Day” and proceeded to play it around the US, the world and on prime time TV.

Increasing numbers of artists know that boycotts create division and do nothing to promote peace or coexistence. They realise that Israel is a thriving commercial market, with knowledgeable, passionate fans, and they increasingly want to play there. What they also realise is that playing in Israel actively affords them the right to put across their political views if they choose to do so. They also realise that boycotting a country is a blunt, tired instrument that does nothing to put across their political view.

The Boycotteers hate that they can not just snap their fingers and have younger artists meekly do what they say and boycott Israel. It is instructive to read their increasingly desperate “open letters” to artists such as Nick Cave. Their arguments are repetitive and one can sense their anger rising as they write with incredulity that an artist should not simply do what these “great” men say.

In fact, their efforts have been counterproductive. Nick Cave said that he was playing in Israel because of BDS. What a way of putting a metaphorical two fingers up at the Boycotteers.

 

The tide is turning. Waters, Eno and Loach are on the wrong side of this debate now. The superb work of groups like Culture for Coexistence and Creative Communities for Peace is helping to cement the message that boycotts create division and it is only through cultural engagement that peace and cooexistence can be fostered.

Meanwhile, Morrissey is being abused on social media for his inclusion of songs about Israel on his album. My advice is, to have a listen to “Every Day is like Sunday”, and then get on social media and support him. Oh, and why not buy his album? It is not often that Israel and Tel Aviv are part of the titles of songs!