Here’s why Big Thief was wrong to cancel a gig in Israel
By: Winston Marshall
The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement has claimed another scalp in its ceaseless attempt at a cultural siege of the Israeli state. But its latest choice of victim betrays the poison lurking in its shallow water. New York indie-rock four-piece Big Thief, whose bassist Max Oleartchik is an Israeli citizen, announced on 4 June that it would play two charity shows in Tel Aviv. All profits from the gigs were for “NGOs that provide medical and humanitarian aid to Palestinian children, including joint efforts between Palestinians and Israelis working together for a better future”.
On 9 June, Big Thief cancelled the gigs. BDS had got to them. No doubt a great deal of thought had gone into how the band could possibly play Israel in the first place. Thought and deliberation, I imagine, over many months and possibly years. The band had even played in Israel before, in 2017, in what must have been a meaningful homecoming for the bassist. On this occasion, a commendable resolution had been found. A show where money would pass from the pockets of music-loving Israelis to aid for struggling Palestinians.
It seemed, for a second, that these talented young musicians may also have a deft hand for conflict resolution. Gig-goers would be actively participating in the act of loving their neighbour. Big Thief were simply the middle man. A promising approach to music in the Promised Land.
But Big Thief’s big ideas brought big trouble. For all the thought and deliberation that preceded the announcement on 4 June, a whole lot more thinking seemed to have happened in the five days that followed. The band said as much in the ensuing regressive, mucky statement. They had been “in constant dialogue with friends, family, BDS supporters and allies, Palestinians, and Israeli citizens who are committed to fight for justice for Palestinians”. They confessed to “limitations to our perspectives based on our various layers of privilege” (intersectionalist dreck so risible I shall leave it to someone with more patience than me to dissect), then went on to explain that their original intent to play “stemmed from a simple belief that music can heal”.
This was surely the most staggering statement made by any musicians in the long history of nonsense statements uttered by musicians. (And as a musician myself, I confess to contributing more than my fair share to the cannon).The implication here is that music can not in fact heal.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing more cringeworthy than hippie-dippie rainbow-rhythms peace-and-love rock n’ rollers harping on that “music can heal”. It must rank high in the clichés regurgitated by every new generation of well-meaning young artists thrust in front of journalists as they do their worldwide press junkets. But music not healing? What a thing to declare and what an astounding discovery, made in five short days. It is a conclusion so shocking as to make The Sex Pistols seem as controversial as an empty yogurt pot. Sorry, poor Palestinians, no help or money for you, it would be against your interests. Silly you for thinking that music could heal.
Therein lies the truth about BDS. For it is BDS and not Big Thief who are the villains in this tale. They are not interested in healing. They are not interested in conflict-resolution. It’s clear enough on their website: “The BDS movement does not advocate for a particular solution to the conflict and does not call for either a ‘one state solution’ or a ‘two state solution’.”
More alarming still is their statement of intent. It cites “ending [Israel’s] occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands”, which is a coded denial of Israel’s right to exist.
If there was ever any doubt about the group’s priorities, in successfully dissuading Big Thief from performing a fundraiser for Palestinians, surely now we can all see them for the ruthless malevolent actors they are.
BDS organisers are so blinded by their political ambitions that they lose their sense of humanity. I’m familiar with how BDS works. Some years ago, a friend and musical collaborator, Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, was due to perform in Jerusalem. Baaba is a Muslim, I might add. Within days of his announcing the show, a BDS activist managed to call me on my (personal) phone, urging me to dissuade Baaba from doing the show. He told me that he would happily do it himself, if I preferred, I just had to put him in touch with Baaba. Suffice to say Baaba, unlike others, apparently still believes that music does have the power to heal. The shows went ahead.
Baaba is not the only musician to show pluck in the face of the BDS bullying. Australian singer Nick Cave, a lone, lambent light on so many issues, performed there in 2017. In so doing, he said he took “a principled stand against anyone who tries to censor and silence musicians”, adding: “So really, you could say, in a way, that the BDS made me play Israel.” But most suffer the same BDS intimidation tactics as Big Thief. It is a compelling (if formulaic) play in three parts. Act One: Artist announces show, often acknowledging Palestinian plight and usually offering support. Act Two: Social Media storms, BDS activists swarm. Act Three: show gets cancelled. Lana Del Rey in 2018. Lorde in 2017. Gorillaz in 2010…
But I won’t turn this into a listicle. BDS enjoyed a peculiar victory earlier this year, when Irish novelist Sally Rooney refused to have an Israeli publishing house print her latest book in Hebrew. BDS have a stranglehold that turns tight around the neck of the creative industries. Musicians For Palestine, launched in 2021, is an anti-Israel collective with over 600 members. A total of 1,524 signed the Artists’ Pledge for Palestine, vowing to boycott Israel, also in 2021. Artists For Palestine UK, a group advocating the cultural boycott of the Jewish state, enjoys the support of Brian Eno, Roger Waters, Ken Loach and over 1,500 others. Spare a thought for budding bassist Oleartchik. It seems his bandmates in Big Thief have put him in rather an awkward position. By their new self-imposed standards, musical and philanthropic endeavours in Israel are seemingly unacceptable.
And if they are strictly abiding by BDS guidelines, all “companies and industries” there are not to be touched. I don’t envy his predicament. His career opportunities have suddenly become significantly limited. Nor do I envy the conversations he’ll have to have with family and friends in Israel.
I’ve been to Israel and Palestine a couple of times. I once DJed a festival in Bethlehem, Palestine, to a few hundred locals (I felt no pushback from Israelis, I note), and some Israelis who crossed the border. I know well that the troubles there are of a complexity and age both deep and endless.
But I also believe (and on this occasion I don’t mind sounding cheesy) that music heals. I suspect that BDS will continue to penetrate the arts. Above all, I know that the real losers from this latest BDS victory are the ever-suffering Palestinians.
Winston Marshall, the former lead guitarist of Mumford & Sons, is a musician and writer. He hosts the Spectator’s Marshall Matters podcast
Photo credit: By Stefan Schäfer, Lich – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62976334