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In Praise of Thom Yorke’s Israel Policy

The Radiohead frontman flips off pro-Palestinian protestors, defends diversity, honesty, and rock n’ roll

Liel Leibovitz
July 10, 2017
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

Last weekend, as Radiohead was playing a concert in Glasgow, Thom Yorke, the band’s frontman, spotted a gaggle of fans waving Palestinian flags. They were there to protest the band’s decision to perform in Tel Aviv later this summer, and they were hardly the first ones giving the band guff: singer Roger Waters, filmmaker Ken Loach, and a phalanx of other centurions of censorship have been pressing Yorke and his mates to call the whole Israeli thing off. Fed up, Yorke turned to the flag twirlers, and in words that do not bare repeating in a wholesome publication like ours, told them precisely what he thought of them and their opinions. And just in case they didn’t hear or weren’t fluent in English, he raised his middle finger in that charming universal gesture of contempt.

Rock on. You hardly have to be an impassion Zionist to hail Yorke’s rejection of the left’s cultural commisars. By telling the pals of Palestine to go love themselves, the rocker was reaffirming two fundamental principles, without which we are all, regardless of our convictions, the poorer.

The first has to do with diversity. In an interview last month with Rolling Stone, Yorke lashed out at his critics, saying he “would never dream” of telling them “where to work or what to do or think. The kind of dialogue that they want to engage in is one that’s black or white. I have a problem with that… 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.”

Increasingly, and especially when it comes to the Jewish State, there’s little or no tolerance for nuance among those who laughably call themselves progressive. Johnny Greenwood, Radiohead’s guitarist, is married to an Israeli woman. He and the rest of the band visited Israel a number of times, and are intimately familiar with its culture and its conditions. None of that matters to their inquisitors, who are not interested in dialogues but in auto-de-fés. To reduce a complex subject to a choice between either and or—Loach, for example, has haughtily stated that Yorke must decide if he’s standing with the oppressors or the oppressed—is to practice the kind of thinking that makes for very bad politics and even worse art.

Which leads me to the second principle Yorke is so capably defending: rock n’ roll. The vocabulary of rock is, and has always been about, candor. A good rock song is one in which the artist honestly expresses his or her truth, and by opening up the heart connects with others. To establish a party line and force others to follow it is rock n’ roll’s antithesis, which is why not only Yorke but so many other artists—Paul McCartney, John Bon Jovi, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga, to name but a few—have ignored similar pleas to boycott Tel Aviv. The same, sadly, isn’t true in other art forms that are less dependent on popular support and emotional honesty: in theater, for example, a discipline that, with few glaring exceptions, depends much more on grants and residencies and other forms of affirmation by small committees comprised of the few and the unelected, groupthink is de rigueur. This is why a campaign to pressure Lincoln Center into canceling a play by that notorious Israeli right wing zealot, David Grossman, can attract a long list of celebrated signatories. The playwright, whose livelihood and sense of self-worth depends on the applause of his small circle of colleagues, is eager to join the herd. The rock star, whose audiences are much larger and whose insecurities are much smaller, find any attempt at a boycott maddening.

This, perhaps, is why Yorke was not only dismissive of his protesting fans but also enraged. To come to his show and wave a flag in an attempt to influence his actions is a severe violation of the terms of his art. When you buy a ticket to a play these days, you’re often there to congratulate yourself on being a politically conscious creature and to engage with a piece of dramaturgy that cares more about waving its ideological banners than it does about those old chestnuts, truth and beauty. But when you buy a ticket to a rock show, you’re there to be moved, to feel lust and pain and loneliness and hope and heartbreak and joy and, if you’re lucky, a bit of transcendence. That’s what Yorke was defending last weekend in Scotland, and we’re blessed to have him on our side.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.