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Contentions

Pet Shop Boys vs. Alice Walker

There’s a popular saying in Israel that if you really want to know what’s going on, you should talk to the taxi drivers. That’s the Israeli version of a worldwide truth: Ordinary people sometimes have a better grasp of reality than intellectuals. A classic example of this truth played out in Western cultural milieus this week, when representatives of both highbrow and lowbrow culture coincidentally weighed in on the Israel issue.

On the highbrow end, we had American literary lion Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. She has just published a new book, and as Jonathan Tobin detailed here yesterday, it is so vile that even the Anti-Defamation League was moved to denounce its “vitriolic and hateful rhetoric” as blatantly anti-Semitic. As Jonathan noted, Walker also has a long history of anti-Israel activism: Last year, she famously refused to let The Color Purple be translated into Hebrew, to protest what she termed Israel’s “apartheid.”

Across the ocean, over in BDS Central (aka Great Britain), we had the lowbrow riposte, when boycott, divestment and sanctions activists tried to persuade the electronic pop duo Pet Shop Boys to cancel their planned appearance in Israel this weekend. That the group, considered “the most successful duo in UK music history,” rejected the activists’ demand isn’t in itself anything extraordinary: For all the publicity BDS activists receive whenever they do manage to get some performer to cancel an Israel gig, the vast majority of artists refuse.

What was extraordinary, however, was the reason the duo gave. Usually, performers offer some perfectly valid but neutral explanation, such as that boycotts are antithetical to art, or that boycotts impede efforts for peace. But Pet Shop Boys’ vocalist, Neil Tennant, chose instead to challenge the “apartheid” canard head-on. In a statement posted on the group’s website, he wrote:

I don’t agree with this comparison of Israel to apartheid-era South Africa. It’s a caricature. Israel has (in my opinion) some crude and cruel policies based on defence; it also has universal suffrage and equality of rights for all its citizens both Jewish and Arab. In apartheid-era South Africa, artists could only play to segregated audiences; in Israel anyone who buys a ticket can attend a concert.

I might quibble with the “crude and cruel,” but other than that, you couldn’t find a clearer and more succinct explanation of the essential difference between democratic Israel and apartheid-era South Africa.

As George Orwell once wrote of a previous intellectual fad, “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Unfortunately, the “Israeli apartheid” canard appears set to become yet another example of this truth: It is increasingly becoming the bon ton among the global intelligentsia.

That makes it all the more important for the “ordinary man” to speak out against it. And Pet Shop Boys has just provided a welcome example of how to do so.



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