Why Radiohead Frontman Thom Yorke's Newest Fans Include the Israeli Govt and Far-Right Demagogues

News & Politics

The famed rock band Radiohead has found a slew of fans on the far right after forcefully coming out in opposition to Palestinian human rights activists. Among the influential English music group’s new admirers are some of the most notorious demagogues in U.S. and Israeli politics, including Glenn Beck, Fox News and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing administration.

This is an ironic development, given the band’s history of speaking out for liberal causes and its strong opposition to the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush.

Radiohead has been hyperbolically sold as the "Beatles of the 21st century.” But unlike the Beatles’ John Lennon, who was a committed revolutionary socialist and anti-imperialist, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has allied with the pro-colonial right wing.

The band played in Israel on July 19 to international outrage. The show came after months of campaigning by Palestinian human rights activists, who called on Radiohead to honor the international boycott of Israel on behalf of the Palestinians systematically murdered, colonized and oppressed by the Israeli government.

The cultural boycott is a key element of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), a global campaign to pressure the Israeli government to stop violating international law and respect fundamental Palestinian human rights.

Yorke responded to Palestine advocates dismissively. At a concert in Glasgow, Scotland, the lead singer flipped off BDS activists and shouted “Some f**king people!” Yorke’s outburst came right after he criticized the boycott campaign in an interview with Rolling Stone. (The singer's tantrum was first recorded by Rachael Bett, a Scottish Palestine solidarity activist, and publicized on Twitter by AlterNet senior editor Max Blumenthal).

In a stormy tirade, Yorke railed at his critics, claiming they were “creat[ing] divisive energy.” And “if you create division,” the singer continued, “what do you get? You get f**king Theresa May. You get [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, you get f**king Trump. That's divisive.”

Israel’s global propaganda centerpiece

Since Yorke gave peace activists the finger, he has become a poster boy for Netanyahu’s government and an assortment of far-right extremists.

Far-right media personalities and websites from Breitbart and Glenn Beck to Fox News and Legal Insurrection applauded the singer for rejecting calls to honor the Palestinian boycott campaign.

The group Artists for Palestine UK compiled a vast array of tweets from the Israeli government, numerous Israeli embassies, top Israeli officials and leading Israel lobby groups. These glowing endorsements exemplify how Radiohead’s performance was used for global propaganda and public relations.

Excited about having the talented bunch of @radiohead here again this evening, with tens of thousands of eager fans. Welcome back! https://t.co/3yLGZS7OlF

— Israel ישר×�ל (@Israel) July 19, 2017

.@thomyorke of @radiohead defends their decision to play in #Israel: "Music, art & academia is about crossing borders not building them" https://t.co/CPbwBOLWY6

— Israel in New York (@IsraelinNewYork) July 12, 2017

.@EsotericCD : Don't Tell @radiohead It Can't Tour in #Israelhttps://t.co/Rom49c0NYWpic.twitter.com/7qIRLUBicI

— Fox Nation (@foxnation) July 19, 2017

Symbolically, Israel’s ambassador to South Africa rejoiced.

Good article even if it broadly understates failure of hypocritical Israel-haters. Welcome @radiohead & @thomyorke! https://t.co/6kwiv59TgF

— Arthur Lenk (@ArthurLenk) July 17, 2017

The BDS cultural boycott is modeled after the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa, which was honored by many renowned musicians. Several South African anti-apartheid leaders, including Desmond Tutu, are vocal supporters of BDS and have compared the oppression they experienced to Israeli apartheid.

Many of the right-wing government officials, groups and public figures who praised Thom Yorke and Radiohead also vehemently attacked Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, a prominent activist for Palestinian human rights, and portrayed Yorke as a role model for other artists.

Waters criticized the Radiohead lead singer, noting he, fellow musician Brian Eno and filmmaker Ken Loach all contacted Yorke multiple times, “begging [him] to have a conversation.” Waters said Yorke “ignored us all.”

In response to Radiohead’s show, Palestinian human rights activists created a spoof of Radiohead’s hit “Creep,” spinning out satirical lyrics:

“When we got the call / Saw dollars in my eyes / We're supporting apartheid / But the pay's really high

I float like white phosphorous / Over Beit Hanoun skies

I wish I was ethical / We're so very unethical

But I’m a creep / I'm playing Israel/What the hell am I doing here? / I don't belong here

I don't care if it hurts / I want to have control/I want a perfect paycheck / On Bibi's payroll

I don't even notice / No Palestinians around

We're selling out to war / Whatever makes Bibi happy / Whatever he wants

We're here for apartheid / Palestine's occupied.”

Political, when it’s convenient

Though Radiohead is not an especially political band, it has been firmly on the side of the Democratic Party’s liberal base.

Radiohead’s landmark 2003 album Hail to the Thief was a harsh condemnation of the George W. Bush years. The record’s title was a direct reference to a popular chant by anti-Bush activists protesting the theft of the 2000 presidential election.

More than a decade later, Thom Yorke has rhetorically condemned the administrations of Donald Trump and his staunchly conservative counterpart Theresa May in the U.K. But now Radiohead appears to have found a niche on the right.

Leaders of Palestinian civil society organizations and labor unions called for BDS in 2005. It has since grown into an international movement that is rapidly gaining momentum.

In response, the U.S. and Israeli governments have harshly cracked down on the movement. Israel created an entire ministry devoted to countering it, and U.S. politicians have been desperately trying to make it illegal. At least 43 U.S. senators have even co-sponsored draconian legislation that would make boycotting Israel a felony and would imprison Palestinian human rights advocates who support BDS for up to 20 years.

The ACLU has come out forcefully against this legislation, which it notes “would be antithetical to free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment” and “would punish individuals for no reason other than their political beliefs.”

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