Efforts to get Radiohead to cancel their July 19 gig in Tel Aviv have now taken on a bitterly personal dimension. On April 27, over 45 artists, including Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, issued an open letter urging Radiohead to cancel their Tel Aviv gig. Yorke’s response, conveyed in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, was unequivocal. “There are people I admire [who have been critical of the concert], like [English film director] Ken Loach, who I would never dream of telling where to work or what to do or think,” Yorke said. “The kind of dialogue that they want to engage in is one that’s black or white. I have a problem with that.” Yorke added that it’s “really upsetting that artists I respect think we are not capable of making a moral decision ourselves after all these years.”
Yorke also chides activists for “throw[ing] the word ‘apartheid’ around and think[ing] that’s enough,” links the alleged “divisive energy” of the BDS movement to the election of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, and calls the academic boycott of the country a “head fuck.” Yorke also said that Waters’ efforts to publicly shame the band into canceling the show has strained his friendship with Nigel Godrich, the longtime Radiohead producer who is also working on Waters’ latest solo record. “Imagine how this has affected me and Nigel’s relationship,” Yorke said. “Thanks, Roger. I mean, we’re best mates for life, but it’s like, fuck me, really?”
Waters has responded to Yorke, and offered to talk. In a statement to Rolling Stone published today, Waters claimed that the open letter that all but accused Radiohead of bolstering an “apartheid” regime was simply an invitation for further dialogue. “He had misinterpreted my attempt to start a conversation as a threat,” Waters wrote.
This chain of events is all too typical: Even English rock stars aren’t immune from the emotional venom of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Yorke also takes a novel approach in his statements to Rolling Stone. He makes no attempt to defend Israel’s policies in the West Bank or argue for the country’s existence. Instead of getting baited into the zillionth predictable and inherently unwinnable argument about the Jewish state’s actions or character, Yorke questions why anyone would presume his band incapable of making moral or artistic decisions for themselves.
Part of me wants to say nothing, because anything I say cooks up a fire from embers. But at the same time, if you want me to be honest, yeah, it’s really upsetting that artists I respect think we are not capable of making a moral decision ourselves after all these years. They talk down to us, and I just find it mind-boggling that they think they have the right to do that. It’s extraordinary.
Yorke isn’t the only musician to bristle at what he sees as the BDS movement’s demands for uniformity and assumptions of bad faith. John Lydon, the frontman of Public Image Limited and the Sex Pistols, defended his decision to play in Israel in similar terms. “If I can get 6,000 Jews and Arabs in Tel Aviv to sing ‘Allah,’ surely I’ve done more for world peace than any bunch of assholes running up and down a street waving placards,” Lydon told the AV Club in 2012, recalling one of the songs he played in Israel. “After all these years, why don’t I ever end up with the benefit of the doubt?”
It’s natural that Yorke and company would be especially offended at suggestions that their only defensible choice is to submit to an organized pressure campaign. Radiohead’s career is marked with abrupt and wonderfully confounding shifts in artistic vision, and their discography is the work of a band that doesn’t particularly care what its fans or critics think. It’s possible to see Yorke’s response to Waters as one expression of the group’s own radical sense of independence and artistic freedom.
There are a few other reasons why it was never all that likely Radiohead would cancel the show in the first place. Guitar player Jonny Greenwood is married to an Arab Jew, and both Greenwood and Godrich collaborated on a 2015 album with Israeli musician Shye Ben Tzur. The band also just seems to really enjoy playing in Israel: In 1993, Yorke called the crowd at Tel Aviv’s Roxanne club “definitely the best audience we’ve ever had.” You can listen to most of that performance here.
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.