It’s been big news: Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor – the singer more popularly known as Lorde – canceled a planned concert in Israel because of flak she had been receiving from fans. Reaction has been mixed. On the one hand, the Forward ran an op-ed entitled “Thank You, Lorde, For Standing Up For Palestinian Human Rights.” (It should be noted that the op-ed was written by the Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.) On the other hand, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post calling the singer a bigot. Before I opine, a brief history lesson:
When I was a kid (I won’t name the decade but suffice it to say that disco was up and coming), many people in the Jewish community refused to buy Pepsi products. This was because, at the time, Pepsi would not sell in Israel as a consequence of the Arab League Boycott. Fair enough.
Now fast-forward to the early 2000s. Starbucks opened in Israel and closed up shop within a year. Some people in the community called for a boycott of Starbucks, viewing their withdrawal as anti-Semitic, or at the very least partisan. In this case, however, the facts did not warrant such a response. Starbucks went to Israel in good faith and left because they were losing their shirts. Israelis didn’t want or need what Starbucks was selling. Under such circumstances, Starbucks has no moral obligation to remain.
Do you see the difference between the Starbucks situation and Pepsi in the 1970s? (Dang! I let it slip.) Great. So now let’s contrast Lorde with, say, Roger Waters.
Roger Waters is a bass player and singer, a co-founder of the classic rock band Pink Floyd. Waters is also an anti-Israel activist (not just pro-Palestinian but actively anti-Israel). He has compared the treatment of Palestinians to that of Jews in 1930’s Germany — a comparison that would be laughable if it weren’t so offensive! At his concerts, Rogers has displayed a pig-shaped balloon embellished with Jewish symbols, including the Jewish star. He repeats familiar conspiracy theories, such as attributing US policies to the “Israeli propaganda machine” and “the Jewish lobby.” Rogers urges other musicians not to play in Israel. Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center has called Waters an “open hater of Jews” and an op-ed in the Vatican newspaper has criticized Rogers for “unrestrained anti-Semitism.” Rogers supports — and actively promotes — BDS. If you want to boycott Rogers back, that seems a perfectly reasonable course of action.
Let’s compare that with Lorde’s situation. First off, I think it’s noteworthy that she scheduled a concert in Israel in the first place. But after doing so, she became the subject of a campaign whose entire purpose was to get her to cancel. Think about this scenario: here’s a 21-year-old girl from New Zealand, who doesn’t have a dog in the Middle East conflict, under intense pressure not to play in Israel. From a strictly-objective business standpoint, it was probably a wise move to cancel. She was in a lose-lose situation and she no doubt made the call that would cause the least damage. Does she have a moral obligation to play in Israel if she deems that doing so is going to hurt her in the big picture? I don’t think so. Even her cancellation announcement was far from politically charged: “i’ve received an overwhelming number of messages and letters and have had a lot of discussions with people holding many views, and i think the right decision at this time is to cancel the show” (sic). This is not exactly a scathing condemnation of Israeli policies.
Now, none of this is to say that one can’t be offended by Lorde’s cancellation or that one can’t boycott her music. That is certainly one’s prerogative if one feels that course of action is called for. I think, however, that’s it’s important to differentiate between an “open hater of Jews” who has demonstrated “unrestrained anti-Semitism” and a young artist who was willing to play in Israel but caved under intense pressure. So far as I can see, there’s no reason to think that Lorde is an enemy of Israel, let alone an anti-Semite.
It should be noted that part of the response to Lorde’s cancellation has been to call her a hypocrite for playing in Russia, a country that is not exactly lauded as a bastion of human rights. To this I have two observations: (1) Lorde never claimed to be canceling her Israel concert as a great humanitarian gesture. Quite the opposite, “i think the right decision at this time is to cancel the show” is a rather lukewarm statement; and (2) Lorde was not the subject of a massive campaign pressuring her not to play in Russia. So far as I can tell, pretty much nobody even cared about it until after she canceled her show in Israel, and then only to accuse her of hypocrisy and not so much because of the thing itself.
Lorde is not a player in this conflict; she’s a pawn. The other side has made a move to their advantage but that doesn’t mean the game is over. Roger Waters may be fully invested in his anti-Israel activism but I think the possibility still exists that we might be able to enlighten Lorde with, you know, the actual facts. If we do, she may then be able to enlighten her fan base. But we’ll never have the opportunity to find out if we respond to this incident by burning our bridges.