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The Shondes Defend Pro-BDS Stance

Talking to lead singer Louisa Solomon about the band’s canceled DC JCC gig

David Meir Grossman
April 07, 2014
Louisa Solomon. (The Shondes)
Louisa Solomon. (The Shondes)

The Shondes thought they had their 2014 headlines all wrapped up. They had spent the early part of the year as the opening act for punk rock’s hottest ticket, Against Me!, and were going back to headlining smaller venues as they prepped for their next album. But then the Washington DC Jewish Community Center decided to pull the group from the lineup for its Jewish music festival this June—because of lead singer Louisa Solomon’s support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

First and foremost, that means the Festival is losing one hell of a voice. Solomon’s holler is distinctive, celebratory, and demands the listener’s complete attention. The Shondes’ latest album, The Garden, is a many-splendored thing, with song on subjects varying from self-reliance to Alan Moore’s comic masterpiece Watchmen. The band formed in 2004 during the midst of both a Eastern European music revival and the Republican National Convention in New York City and chose the Yiddish word for scandal as their name, so perhaps it was inevitable they’d be stirring up trouble. Solomon spoke to Tablet over the phone about the situation; what follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

So, to recap, what happened here?

I got contacted by by the DC JCC back in the fall about headlining the festival. We went through contract negotiations for a few months and everything was fully executed, contracts on hand. Last week, the people who had booked the festival, my contacts with the JCC throughout the process, told me we needed have a phone call. I mistakenly assumed that it was something about logistics.

How long have you been involved in activism relating to Israel?

Since back in college. Eli (Ed.: Elijah Oberman, the Shondes violinist) and I went to The New School together. It was a transformative period in both of our lives. We went to a lot of political meetings together around 9/11, and the Islamophobic, racist backlash in New York City following 9/11. We were both involved in activism against detentions and deportations that were affecting the Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities more broadly after 9/11. Working on that stuff will also involve Palestine work, partly, I think, because there’s this huge overlap in terms of what anti-Arab racism looks like in New York, and what it looked like in the Jewish communities, because of how anti-Arab racism plays into the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s a dovetailing of things happening at that time. We’ve been involved in one way or another since then, which was around the time of the Second Intifada.

Since the band formed in 2006, we haven’t had as much time for that kind of activism. A lot of it has happened through the band’s shows, and trying to do events with Hillels has brought forth opportunities to talk about the issue with Zionists.

I was listening to it last night, and I couldn’t find one political lyric in The Garden.

Exactly! I mean, in the personal-is-political way, you can read all kinds of things into it, but there’s nothing that borders on a treatise or a classic political punk song that’s very explicit.

You’ve said at shows that you see yourself and The Shondes outside the traditional definitions of punk. Looking at other bands, contemporaries, do you see any other bands raising political commentary?

Yeah, there are a ton of other bands bringing up political commentary in one way or another.

Coming up in the music scene, I listened to riot grrl primarily, which was explicitly political at all times. The older I got, the less explicit the lyrics, but we’re pretty rightly embraced by activist communities—Jewish, LGBT, feminist and otherwise. And I think there’s a reason for that, because people engaged in political struggles tend to need anthems to bolster them. A lot of our songs are more generally involved with hope and survival. We don’t have issue songs, as much as bands like Fugazi or Bikini Kill.

And you’re pro the BDS movement?

Yeah, absolutely.

Benjamin Netanyahu has said that anyone who advocates BDS should be treated like an anti-Semite. How effective do you see BDS being, and how effective can it be in the future?

I think it’s been extremely effective, and the response to this cancellation is evidence of that. There are conservative, right-wing politicians who want to treat the boycott as you just described: anti-Semitic, or inherently being about punishing. If you’re on Twitter, you see people calling me a kapo and stuff. Totally bizarre to me! As I’ve been quoted saying, boycott is long-standing political tactic, it’s an undeniably legitimate choice for political organizers to take.

Judith Butler has commented really extensively on this, and she sums it up much more articulately than I ever could. But the idea is: It’s just a political tactic, it’s been chosen. I’d support a boycott of the United States for the right reasons as well, as I think a lot of progressive Americans would. There’s always been an effort by right-wing Jewish institutions and right-wing Jewish politicians to treat Israel differently, and I don’t find that to be acceptable.

How is the tour going?

We’ve been touring with Against Me!, and we’re actually taking a little breather to get the new album going, which is very exciting, and going really well. We’re going to play shows in June, the Brooklyn Museum on June 7th, and obviously we’re doing a show at The Black Cat in Washington with Jewish Voice for Peace on June 2nd.

I imagine touring with Against Me!—whose latest album, Transgender Dsyphoria Blues deals with leader singer’s Laura Jane Grace revealing herself to be a trans woman—brings the ‘personal-is-political’ thing to a whole new level.

Yeah, it was a really heartening experience. I was pleasantly surprised. Against Me!’s fans completely embraced Laura Jane Grace, they were the most loving and enthusiastic fans that we’ve ever played for with another band. Obviously our fans are as well, but it’s a whole other ballgame playing these huge venues that were sold out. If you give people the opportunity to surprise you, they often do. Tons of Jews who don’t support BDS support The Shondes or Judith Butler.

David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.