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Autonomy in the U.K.

eye on the news

Autonomy in the U.K.

Bucking liberal opinion, some British rockers embrace Brexit—and reject anti-Israel boycotts. November 21, 2017
The Social Order

Nick Cave, the brooding Australian poet and original Goth rocker, performed in Tel Aviv this week in what he described as active opposition to the campaign to boycott Israel. Calls to join the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel annoyed Cave, who saw it as a crusade to “censor and silence musicians.” Not signing the boycott wasn’t enough, he decided; he wanted to play an Israeli venue, to spite the boycott’s self-righteous, politically correct organizers. “So really,” explained Cave, “you could say in a way that the BDS made me play Israel.” 

The same week that Cave thumbed his nose at prominent anti-Israel campaigners Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd) and avant-garde producer Brian Eno (of Roxy Music), famed misanthropic emo-rock idol Morrissey told a German journalist that he “loves” Tel Aviv. Calling the boycott “absurd and narrow-minded,” Morrissey added that “being politically correct is incorrect. . . . It means forbidding freedom of speech. That’s how the BDS movement sounds to me.” The last track, "Israel," on Morrissey’s new album, is an anthem to identity and difference in the face of hatred. “In other climes they bitch and whine/Just because you’re not like them/Israel, Israel” croons Morrissey. “The sky is dark for many others/They want it dark for you as well/Israel, Israel,” he sings, skewering the hypocrisy of BDS campaigners who focus on every Israeli fault while ignoring the Middle East’s massive human rights abuses.

In his interview with Der Spiegel, Morrissey made other controversial comments, dismissing the current Hollywood sex scandals as hysteria borne of morning-after regret. He also praised Brexit as an expression of national identity and condemned multiculturalism as a confused failure. “I want Germany to be German. I want France to be French. If you try to make everything multicultural, you wind up with no culture in the end.”

Though it might seem as if Morrissey is just being provocative, his rebuff of BDS meshes with his pro-Brexit advocacy for regional European identities. Both these tendencies are congruent with the oppositional roots of rock ‘n’ roll, and punk rock in particular—especially in England. John Lydon—known formerly as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols—sneered at BDS and its bien-pensant supporters a few years ago, remarking, “if Elvis-fucking-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he’s suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians, then good on him.” Lydon continued, “I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how they’re treated.”

Lydon’s dismissal of Palestinian concerns sounds callous, but his refusal to hold Israel to a human rights standard while giving its neighbors a pass is in fact a morally intelligent position. Compare Lydon’s remarks with how Roger Waters flew balloons of pigs with Stars of David on them at his concerts in Belgium, and the empty morality of BDS becomes evident. Unsurprisingly, with his working-class roots, Lydon is also pro-Brexit—as are Roger Daltrey of The Who and Ringo Starr. Kinks’ frontman Ray Davies, whose lyrics were always shot through with Little England nostalgia, said that Brexit “is bigger than the Berlin Wall, like regrowth and replacement after a war. . . . It’s an imploding culture.”  

English rock ‘n’ roll was always a forthrightly working-class phenomenon, and its adherents have never been apologetic about their origins. In a notorious 1976 performance, an apparently drunk Eric Clapton harangued an audience about Enoch Powell and demanded that foreigners get out of Britain. Clapton’s outburst was an extreme example of the tendency, but the roots of English rock were not genteel.  

The rock-inspired punk ethos has always been two-fingers-up to established authority, and especially to party lines that demand adherence to a set of orthodoxies. British musicians’ anti-BDS sentiments don’t necessarily suggest that they favor Israeli settlement policy or that they urge a hard line against Hamas, but rather an appreciation for the predicament of a small country, with much of the world against it, soldiering on anyway—and up yours if you don’t like it. And in a supposedly post-national era, Israel’s definition of itself as the Jewish State might also hold appeal for these aging rockers, who remember a prouder, more happily British Britain.

As Ringo Starr put it, commenting on Brexit: “I think it’s a great move, you know, to be in control of your country is a good move.”​

Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images

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