Punks Against Apartheid would like to take the time to sincerely thank Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine for canceling their show in Tel Aviv on July 2nd. Moral dilemmas such as these are never taken lightly, and Jello’s words over the past few weeks have shown just how seriously he’s taken this one. No decision here would have been easy; nonetheless we believe that he and the band have made the right one and have honored a call for solidarity by doing so. We also hope that what he sees on his travels to Israel and Palestine as an individual will confirm this.
With this in mind, it’s also important that we respond to the myriad accusations and assumptions that Jello has made as he came to his decision. As heartening as it was to read the first couple paragraphs of his recent announcement, our hearts sank to see–once again–a host of misrepresentations of the nature of our group, a profound lack of understanding of the basic tenets of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement more generally, and flat-out insults against the Palestinian people as a whole.
We would like to make it clear that our group did in fact find its inspiration, and its catalyst for launching, in the announcement of Jello’s Tel Aviv gig. Indeed, while there have been countless performances and cultural BDS campaigns launched against musicians performing in Israel in the past–which each of us have participated in to a greater or lesser extent–something about the audacity of this gig, coming from someone we all so revered for his radical politics, triggered a response in us. In the words of our e-mail to Jello, his then-planned gig in Tel Aviv “made us all realize how important it is to us that punk music always stand in solidarity with the oppressed and never with the oppressor.” And so PAA was born. None of this can be denied.
Yet, we find it strange that Jello, in his response, takes this to be a smoking gun: He writes that “Whoever started punksagainstapartheid.com now admits it was aimed solely at one person – me.” Jello was never meant to be the only focus of Punks Against Apartheid. It is the first of many projects and campaigns we hope to be involved with. Canceling Jello’s gig was only our initial launching pad and rallying cry. We fully intend to develop PAA into a network of musicians, artists, communities, and voices coming together in the spirit of cultural exchange and solidarity against oppression.
To us, the longing for deeper solidarity between punk and Palestine is quite evident. At its core, punk has always been a rebel subculture. Even as it struggled with its own contradictions (lily white, predominantly straight male) it’s sought to break down boundaries. For every idiot that showed up seig-heiling at a Sham 69 show, for every bonehead out there trying to make punk a “whites only” movement, there have been people like Jello ready to say “Nazi punks fuck off!” There have been Joe Strummer, Poly Styrene and Rock Against Racism. There’s been MDC and Bad Brains hosting gigs against South African apartheid. There are countless throngs of punks who have marched against war and empire. And there’s today’s queercore, riot grrl, Taqwacore and Afro-punk movements. This is the tradition we stand in, and, we would assume that so does Jello.
But Jello’s entire approach to this exchange has shown some grave misconceptions about the BDS movement and Palestinians in general. Nowhere is this more true, though, than when he wrote the following statement: “[H]ow much are we really doing for Palestinian rights if people don’t seem interested in our kind of music at all?” This is flat-out wrong, and skates dangerously close to the kind of anti-Arab, Islamophobic stereotypes that we’re constantly fed by what Jello refers to as “McNews.” Anyone who does any basic research on Palestinian youth culture will see how vibrant and diverse it is. We find it rather shocking that Jello hasn’t bothered to examine these facts. He is, in essence, dismissing an entire region as culturally backward, primitive, unworthy of patronage. It’s not a new phenomenon; in fact, it’s part of a long and shameful history of Orientalism.
We hope that during Jello’s trip to see things for himself he really has the opportunity to see what things are like for Palestinians on a daily basis. We implore him to go refugee camps such as Jenin or Dheisheh and to villages such as Bi’lin where Palestinians lead a non-violent democratic popular struggle against the apartheid wall that separates farmers from their farmland. At its best, punk has always been about amplifying voices like these–marginalized, repressed and otherwise ignored by the mainstream. It’s extremely disappointing to see Jello ignore those exact same voices that have always been so crucial in renewing punk’s vitality.
We think of Aida M, vocalist in Lebanese punk band DETOX, when she said in her signature of our petition “We in Lebanon never had a punk band play here, and it makes us fight harder for our beliefs, and find our own meaning of what punk is…What you big punk bands don’t know is that your music means more to us in times of war and chaos, than it does in the West.” We received hundreds and hundreds of similar e-mails from groups from around the world during our campaign to get Jello to cancel. The incredible diversity of people who contacted us laid bare the myth that punk “is”, once and for all, a white, male phenomenon: no, it has a much farther reach than that; it’s a question of where and how you look. It’s a question: if you come with the intention of hearing other voices, or only your own.
Jello’s claim that he “didn’t recognise” many names on the petition should have been a sign that there is a world of punk beyond the one he is used to being a part of–one that is contradictory, complex, and multilayered–instead, he saw it as evidence that these people weren’t “real” fans and that they probably weren’t punks anyway.
So, as we see it, our role is not to “create” a network of alternative voices in punk. Rather, it is to link together the vibrant, already-existing subcultures of political punk to more effectively work together, to stand clearly and definitively stand against apartheid and ethnic cleansing, and to work towards multiracial justice, both in our own communities and for those we stand in solidarity with. It is to create an infrastructure based around certain core principles and points of unity so that it becomes less tenable for someone of Jello’s reknown to claim that he “didn’t know any better”. It is to recuperate a legacy of punk as a truly radical movement, on the cutting-edge of the complacency and everyday racism of the societies we live in.
We want as many voices as possible on our side, including Jello Biafra’s. And by “our side” we mean a lot more than PAA. We’re only one small part of a worldwide movement for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. We don’t want anyone towing our line or being a “poodle”; we want you to be convinced, which is why we made the appeal in the first place. We know that facts back up our arguments, which is why we make them in the first place; not because we want to pick on one lone musician.
As such, PAA will not be folding now that Jello has canceled. We fully intend to continue our mission in building links between Palestine solidarity and the global punk community. We hope that you will join us in that mission. And we just want to say that “there’s always room for Jello” in our movement if he wants to join and help build this into something beautiful, something that will clearly put punk rock on the side of human rights and equality for all people – right where it belongs.