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The Dead Kennedys Versus BDS

Criticizing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel isn't enough; Jello Biafra should play Tel Aviv.

by
Ben Cohen

Bio

July 1, 2011 - 12:03 am

In 2009, about one month after the end of the IDF’s military operation against Hamas, I wrote and produced a short film for online viewing, titled Vilified: Telling Lies About Israel. Within a day of being uploaded, the film had registered an audience of thousands. Over the following week, the viewer numbers continued to climb impressively.

And then the film got pulled by YouTube.

I’d dearly like to report this as a case of political censorship, but the sad truth is that copyright violation was the reason. At the beginning of the film, over a sequence that detailed the gruesome loss of life in those conflicts routinely ignored because Gaza hogs the media limelight, we used the opening bars of a song called “Holiday in Cambodia,” by the Dead Kennedys. With its sinister flashes of echoing guitar set against an ominous, cascading riff, the music was perfect, and certainly helped our film on its viral odyssey. Only we didn’t clear the rights — mea culpa — and that silly error meant that all those views were obliterated at the touch of a button.

At the time, I did wonder if an anti-Zionist sensibility had played a role in the complaint to YouTube from the Dead Kennedys’ publishers. Hence, I took a great deal of pleasure when I learned, this week, that none other than Jello Biafra, the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, had become the latest member of the club of performing artists whose decision to play in Israel attracted the venom of the BDS lobby, whose initials stand for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. But does that mean I was wrong about him entirely?

Biafra and his band, which rejoices in the name Guantanamo School of Medicine, had been due to play at Tel Aviv’s Barby club on July 2. The news of this engagement left the BDS movement aghast and angry. Biafra is not Justin Bieber, after all; given his status as a demi-god in the anarcholeftist universe of punk rock’s West Coast incarnation, the Tel Aviv concert represented a wounding betrayal. “We implore you to cancel your ‘Holiday in Tel Aviv!’” begged a petition sponsored by a group called Punks Against Apartheid, in an allusion to the Dead Kennedy’s Cambodian ditty.

After a bitter back and forth between Biafra and his detractors, the singer finally relented. There would be no concert in Tel Aviv, he told his followers, although he would still visit “Israel and Palestine to check things out myself.” At the same time, he did not hide his contempt for the BDS movement:

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine are not going through with the July 2 date in Tel Aviv. This does not mean I or anyone else in the band are endorsing or joining lockstep with the boycott of all things Israel. … I know far more about this issue than some people think I do, and I am not a poodle for Hasbara, Peace Now, BDS or anyone else. … Calling anyone speaking up for Palestinian rights a “terrorist” is dumb. So are the blanket condemnations of everyone who happens to be Israeli that seem to be coming from the “drive all the Jews into the sea” crowd. … I can’t back anyone whose real goal or fantasy is a country ethnically cleansed of Jews or anyone else.

If you read Biafra’s statement in its entirety, you will notice that its utter confusion is what makes it fascinating. On the one hand, Biafra repeats the standard formulae of the extreme left. On the other, he grasps a critical reality that eludes most of the apparently informed commentators on the Middle East: Israel’s enemies include a sizeable chunk of folk who want the country and its people to meet a violent demise. Remember, this isn’t ZOA speaking, but a snarling punk whose song “Moral Majority” ended with the observation, “God must be dead/If you’re alive.”

Still, there are words and there are deeds, and Biafra’s decision to cancel the Tel Aviv concert is what matters. Already, his about-turn has been seized upon by BDS activists as a victory.

Biafra’s wobbling in the face of the BDS onslaught neatly captures the slippery nature of punk rock’s political interventions. On the surface as with the root causes of anarchy itself, the genre seems uncomplicatedly leftist. Examined more closely, the narratives — there’s that word again! — are more complex.

The Sex Pistols came across as boneheaded nihilists (“Don’t know what I want/But I know how to get it,” they spat, in their legendary “Anarchy in the UK.”) The Clash seemed virtually schizophrenic: they paid homage to the terrorist chic of armed European leftists like the Red Brigades (“I wanna get a jacket/Just like yours,” they sang in “Tommy Gun”), yet their celebrated 1978 documentary, Rude Boy, included a delightful scene in which their drunken roadie, Ray Gange, tussled with a long-haired devotee of Britain’s Socialist Workers Party, who’d refused to let his beloved employers play an encore at an anti-fascist music festival. Insofar as The Clash clearly didn’t want to belong to a club that would have them as members, this was the Marxism of Groucho, not Karl.

What was true of these punk originators was also true of Biafra and the Dead Kennedys. Indeed, “Holiday in Cambodia” was a sublimely witty takedown of privileged American liberals (“Bragging that you know/how the ni**ers feel cold/And the slums got so much soul,” the song taunts a liberal college student.) It was a parody directed at precisely the type of dunderheadedness, exemplified by “Punks Against Apartheid,” that posits a moral parallel between Israel’s policies in the disputed territories and the hellish slaughter of Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

Nonetheless, for all his lyrical bombast, Biafra — by reneging on his pledge to play that citadel of “apartheid,” Tel Aviv — has now revealed a surprising wimpishness. Is this a consequence of the “stress” he described in his statement? From the man who revised the words of “I Fought the Law,” so that they end with “And I won”? Surely not!

In determining what to do — as distinct from what to say — Biafra would have been well-advised to consult the emperor of punk, John Lydon, or Johnny Rotten, as he was known during hs days as the Sex Pistols’ front man. Almost a year ago, Lydon found himself in exactly the same position as Biafra does now.

Like Biafra, he gave his BDS critics short shrift. “Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how [the Palestinians] are treated,” he admonished them.

Unlike Biafra, Lydon honored his Tel Aviv appointment. An honorable precedent, then, for Biafra — the artist who insisted, in his joyfully unambiguous track, “Nazi Punks, F–k Off!,” that “punk means thinking for yourself” — to reverse his reversal, and do the same.

Ben Cohen is a writer and media consultant based in New York City. He writes a column for The Huffington Post and regularly contributes opinion pieces and blogs at The Jerusalem Post, Harry's Place, Tablet, Congress Blog and many other online and print publications. His scholarly work includes the monograph "The Ideological Foundations of the Boycott Campaign Against Israel," published by the American Jewish Committee, as well as analytical papers for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. He has also appeared as a commentator for a range of broadcasters.
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