What Will Johnny Rotten Do in Israel?

Activists who oppose Israel’s treatment of Palestinians have criticized musician John Lydon for his decision to perform in Israel.  Lydon, who achieved fame as the Sex Pistols’ frontman under the name Johnny Rotten, said that “You cannot separate yourself from your audience because of political powers that be.”

The Israeli state and those who support it engage in systematic oppression and deprivation that is rightly called apartheid.  Their attack on the Gaza relief flotilla shows that like any state, they will not hesitate to murder people when they think it will benefit them.

Although pickets and boycotts that are made in the pursuit of freedom and do not infringe on anyone’s liberty should not be condemned, that doesn’t mean that they must be endorsed.

A cultural boycott punishes the people of Israel, depriving those who don’t control the government. Missing a concert is in no way comparable to the degradation and violence faced by Palestinians, but the perceived slight can make the situation more polarized and conducive to authoritarian gain. It isolates Israelis from the rest of the world while linking them with the government that rules over them instead of emphasizing the antagonistic interests between rulers and ruled.

Of course, not every oppressive action toward Palestinians is undertaken as official state policy. Bogus claims to Palestinian land are upheld by Uzi-toting settlers. But acting as if every Israeli should be held accountable for the actions of the dominant tyrants in their society is not a way forward.

John Lydon does not appear to be promoting the nation-state of Israel, lobbying on its government’s behalf, or speaking in favor of its government, so he does not appear to be in the wrong.

Those who refuse to perform in Israel might as well refuse to perform in the United States. Not only is the US the global hegemonic power responsible for all kinds of travesties, including the frequent murder of Iraqis and anyone in the crosshairs of drones, but it is also the military superpower whose leaders support Israel because of political elites finding a common interest and because of popular prejudice against Muslims. But one could instead work with Americans to encourage the total destruction of the system in the long term and efforts to mitigate the damage done by authority in the short term.

It would be better for Lydon to use his fame to promote sedition from the stage — whether or not he will do so is unknown. When power reaches so far into every aspect of life, then every act is political and might as well be made as liberating as possible. The attention of being on stage and in global media can be used to make a real statement, and words spur actions.

The character of Lydon’s actions depends on whether his priority is money making or idea making.

Disrupting the operation of Israeli-based corporations is different from canceling a concert or speech inside territory claimed by the Israeli government. For example, refusing to unload ships run by Israeli-based shipping companies could indirectly harm those who depend on them for jobs, but these workers could join the strike against the oppression of Palestinians. With economic boycotts, big companies lose money and workers must make the choice to strike in solidarity or find new work. But with cultural boycotts the exchange of ideas is discouraged. And ideas are what build freedom.

Not having rock concerts might make a nation-state look bad, but a widespread refusal to contribute to the economic might of the nation-state would give it much more cause for concern. And winning concessions from politicians depends on making them desperate enough to bargain away their power.

All states must go. If cultural activity can be used to destroy borders and armies then it is up to those involved to make it work.

It might be hard for a celebrity to smuggle himself into the Palestinian territories to perform, but it would certainly make a statement if it could be accomplished.

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