Apartheid is no place for punk

June 21, 2011

The confirmation from legendary punk musician Jello Biafra that he would be playing a show in Israel came as an angry shock to many of his fans and supporters.

The former singer for the Dead Kennedys and well known activist announced recently that, despite having been urged to do otherwise by several groups in the Palestine solidarity movement, he and his band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine, will be performing in Tel Aviv on July 2. This comes in blatant defiance of the 2005 call for an artistic boycott put forth by over 170 Palestinian civil society groups.

In response, an ad-hoc grouping of global punk fans came together to launch Punks Against Apartheid, whose first action was to launch a petition and statement urging Biafra to abide by the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and cancel the Tel Aviv gig. In a few days, the petition gathered over 1,000 signatures, from Berkeley to London, and Beirut to South Korea. Below, we reprint Punks Against Apartheid's open letter to Biafra.

Don't Play Tel Aviv! Apartheid is Not Punk Rock!

Dear Jello,

We are fans of yours, people who have been influenced and inspired by your work. There's no doubt that over the past 30 years, while so much of American culture has been inundated by cookie-cutter corporate pop, your words and music stood apart in calling out hypocrisy, corruption and oppression. Without that kind of commitment, it's safe to say that honest, unflinching, politically charged music wouldn't look quite the way it does today.

This is why we must strongly urge you to reconsider your decision for you and the Guantanamo School of Medicine to play your show in Tel Aviv on July 2. Sure, you may be sick of hearing it by now. Even a quick glance at your Facebook page will reveal tons of uproar around it.

Yet understand, it's because your work has meant just that much to so many people who care about your political input. If you play that show it will definitely leave a sick smirch right in the center of your work. It will send a message that when it's really hard to do the right thing, solidarity can be thrown out the window. You've never been one to back down during those times, and there's no reason to start now.

Jello Biafra
Jello Biafra (Jay Lee)

Over the past couple weeks, you've engaged with many voices in the Palestine solidarity movement, in particular the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. Without belaboring their arguments, it is worth admitting that your correspondence, while certainly reflecting the kind of humility and fair-mindedness you've always brought to your activism, is also inaccurate at many points, and we feel the need to correct these inaccuracies as fellow punks and activists.

Your assertion, for example, that "both the Israeli left and the Palestinian left are divided" in their support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is, at best, an over-generalization.

The Boycott Divestment Sanctions National Committee is supported by all major labor union federations in Palestine, the Global Palestine Right of Return Coalition, the General Union of Palestinian Women, the Union of Palestinian Farmers, disability groups, religious organizations, refugee groups and more. Recently, the major political parties in Palestine enthusiastically supported the formation of the Palestinian Trade Union Coalition for BDS (PTUC-BDS).

What you can do

Sign the petition calling on Jello Biafra to abide by the artistic boycott of Israel and cancel his show.

Nor is it so marginal even among the Israeli left--and its support is growing. In fact, so recognized is the threat that BDS poses to Israel's machinations that "de-legitimization"--that is, the diplomatic and economic isolation of Israel--has now become a common topic in mainstream Israeli politics and media.

YOU'VE EMPHASIZED the "fact-finding" end of your trip, and the announcement of a film crew documenting your trip seems to reflect this emphasis. By all means, go and see for yourself. Pink Floyd's Roger Waters was in a similar position, but made the decision to educate himself prior to performing in Tel Aviv; he has since joined the BDS movement in support of cultural boycott.

If money is an issue (plane tickets to the Middle East aren't cheap!), then consider reaching out to raise it. For every Israeli organization willing to foot the bill for you to play, there are plenty of Palestinian groups who will gladly help you witness that reality firsthand. If a Kickstarter account can be started up to fund a film about your trip to Israel, you can most certainly start one up for a fact-finding mission.

You say in your follow-up letter that you "don't see how the Netanyahu government could manipulate this event for their own purposes. What right-wing regime in their right mind would want to namedrop me? I am not exactly known for keep my mouth shut onstage, especially about human rights violations."

Sure, you ain't Justin Bieber. But the very fact that you will be speaking out from the stage in the first place will give the Israeli press the opportunity to crow about Israel's "tolerance" in the midst of an "intolerant" Arab world. Given the dust that has been kicked up around this whole fiasco, it can be all but guaranteed that this is bound to happen.

That can already be seen in a small way on JBGSM's Facebook page, which has been all but hijacked by chauvinistic comments--ranging from claims that Israel is "open to everyone" right on down to the worst kind of gutter anti-Arab racism. And that's just a handful of kooks on Facebook--imagine what the Israeli media, with its close relationship to Western "McNews," can accomplish!

Each musician who breaks the call for BDS further normalizes the abhorrent injustices of colonization, occupation and apartheid that are being perpetuated against Palestinians. As members of the global punk community, this is something we can't allow our music and efforts to be a part of–punk must stand on the side of liberation and freedom.

Regimes that use the white man's burden as their cornerstone are always eager to twist criticism around into smug self-satisfaction. Perhaps the government won't get a financial boon out of the performance, yet it will still be a propaganda victory. In Haaretz, Nissim Ben-Sheetrit of Israel's Foreign Ministry stated: "We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between propaganda and culture." How does this stand with your statement from a 1997 interview that "Culture can help initiate better politics, while politics can be used to suppress culture–they go hand in hand."

If you break the boycott, you will be an active collaborator with the politics which suppresses Palestinian culture and uses culture to propagandize and cover up Israel's crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Then there's the propaganda benefit to Israeli businesses–also a target of BDS.

YOUR SUPPORT of Peace Now is of concern. You may not be aware that Peace Now is complicit with the Israeli regime.

As revealed in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth (8/11/10), "activists" from Peace Now requested to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to ask "if the Foreign Ministry could cooperate with Leftist circles in its hasbara [public information] efforts in Israel and abroad--in a bid to present Israel as a pluralist country that allows for a variety of opinion. During the meeting the organization delegates suggested to Ayalon a number of possibilities for including the Left in hasbara efforts, including sending Peace Now delegates to lecture abroad on behalf of the Foreign Ministry." Peace Now does not represent the "left" in any meaningful sense of the word--it is a willing tool for whitewashing Israel's crimes of apartheid and Occupation.

As the Israeli state is preparing another onslaught against the next flotilla to Gaza, which is meant to breach Israel's illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip, your voice is needed on the side of the oppressed. A stance of neutrality and equivocation will mean you have chosen the side of the oppressor. You run the risk of breaking this international picket line right when its strength is needed the most.

In six years, the BDS movement has managed to win the support of countless artists and musicians, and it's still young. You, Jello, are in a unique place to either weaken or strengthen this movement. This is just as important as the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against apartheid South Africa--a picket line you respected and endorsed.

Now, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa are supporting the call for BDS against Israel. Desmond Tutu said: "If apartheid ended, so can the occupation, but the moral force and international pressure will have to be just as determined. The current divestment effort is the first, though certainly not the only, necessary move in that direction."

We know you don't take this decision lightly, Jello. You have never been one to shrug off the crimes committed by the world's powerful governments against ordinary people. This is about a lot more than the crimes of Netanyahu or the occupation; it's about what can put an end to them once and for all. At this crucial turning point for Palestine, now more than ever, it's about solidarity.

Punks Against Apartheid

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