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  • Annika Oyung Larson

Big Thief, Israel & The Ethics of Live Performances

Updated: Jun 19, 2022

Picture via The New Yorker

Whether or not to hold concerts in Israel has been a longstanding ethical dilemma for musicians to consider. The Israel-Palestine conflict is a complex and profoundly entrenched issue involving Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian land. The dispute has been brought to nationwide attention, especially in the past few years, with attacks on Palestinian people by the Israeli government becoming more and more frequent. In 2005, the Palestinian-led political campaign BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) was formed to fight to end the Israeli occupation using various tactics. One of these tactics is strongly encouraging musical artists to boycott performances in Israel and petitioning those with plans to perform not to go through with their shows. The reasoning behind this approach is that the Israeli government has long used musical acts that perform in Israel to distract from and legitimize their behavior. When artists perform in Israel, it contributes to the sentiment that life is continuing as usual and nothing is wrong with how the country operates.

Artists like Lorde, Lana Del Rey, Elvis Costello, Gorillaz, Princess Nokia, and many other artists have canceled their performances located in or affiliated with Israel after backlash from BDS and other supporters of the Palestinian freedom movement. Lorde's high-profile cancellation of her concert sparked debate amongst members of both sides of the conflict. In a statement releasing the announcement, she wrote, "I pride myself on being an informed young citizen… but I'm not proud to admit I didn't make the right call on this one" regarding scheduling a Tel Aviv show in the first place.

However, other artists like Nick Cave, Justin Timberlake, and Radiohead have gone against BDS's requests and gone ahead with shows anyway. In 2017 after Radiohead announced their controversial decision to schedule a concert in Tel Aviv, frontman Thom Yorke vehemently defended his position in a Rolling Stone interview, proclaiming that "There's an awful lot of people who don't agree with the BDS movement, including us. I don't agree with the cultural ban at all, along with J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky and a long list of others." Though being on the same side of a debate as a TERF is not the most convincing argument, other musicians spoke out in opposition and defense of Radiohead's decision.

On June 3, Brooklyn-based Indie-Rock band Big Thief posted a black and white photo of the band with a caption announcing 2 shows in Tel Aviv, an act that explicitly goes against BDS's wishes. However, the announcement also offers a defense and rationalization of their decision. The reason given for why they are doing the shows is that Big Thief's Bassist Max Oleartchik is from Tel Aviv, and they have performed and visited the hometowns of all three other members, all of which were located in the United States. The post emphasizes the importance of spending time in the members' hometowns, which allows them to get "closer as a band." "Radiohead similarly used members of the band's personal connections to Israel to justify their visit, as Thom Yorke also cited Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood's ties to his "Palestinian and Israeli friends and a wife who's an Arab Jew."

In recent years, Big Thief has grown hugely in popularity, with fans of the group and its lead singer Adrienne Lenker sharing their music on new platforms like TikTok. Unbeknownst to many new fans, Big Thief scheduled a show in Israel in 2020, which they also received backlash for. However, they were ultimately unable to perform that show due to the pandemic. They now have over 150k Instagram followers to whom they announced their decision to schedule a performance in Israel once again. The post had over 5,000 comments, most of which are fans expressing their disappointment over the band's decision. Commenters fervently poked holes in the group's statement, inquiring why the band could have just visited Oleartchik's family or performed for them privately rather than doing a full-scale concert in direct violation of the BDS movement.

The announcement of the Israel shows was shocking, as Big Thief's fan base is consolidated in liberal younger people who are familiar with the Israel-Palestine conflict and understand that performing in Israel is generally considered unethical for artists to do. In their caption, Big Thief purports to "understand the inherently political nature of playing there as well as the implications." In the closing line of the caption, Big Thief declares that they are donating any profits from the shows to NGOs that provide medical and humanitarian aid to Palestinian children, including joint efforts between Palestinians and Israelis working together for a better future. However, many commenters argued that donating the money does not make up for the blatant disregard for BDS.

Then, on June 9, Big Thief posted an update to their Instagram account in the form of a 3-slide text post explaining that they had decided to cancel both Tel Aviv shows and apologizing to fans who had opposed the decision. The post further explained some of the ambiguous language used in their original post. The statement acknowledges that "aspects of our previous post were written unclearly and in avoidance of the magnitude and importance of this conversation." They also claimed to "recognize there are limitations in our perspectives based on our various layers of privilege." Acknowledging their privilege and expressing remorse over their initial lapse in judgment over the shows proved to be sufficient to appease upset fans. The band's Instagram apology has almost 10,000 comments from fans approving of their decision and stands at nearly 30,000 likes, their most liked post ever.

Read Full Big Thief Instagram Caption:

We are excited to announce two shows in Max’s hometown, Tel Aviv, Israel @barby.tlv on July 6th and 7th.

Accompanying this announcement, we would again like to clarify our motivations and intentions for playing in Tel Aviv, Israel, with as much transparency as possible.

Over the last seven years we’ve traveled constantly around 3 of our members' home country, the United States, meeting each other's families and childhood friends and sharing in the joys and sorrows of a complicated, beautiful and tumultuous home. We have grown so close. It is important for us to share our homes, families and friends with each other in order to gain a deeper understanding of one another and the people and places that have made us who we are. It is important for us to go where we have family to share space and play for them. It is foundational. It is in that spirit that we made our decision to play in Israel.

We are well aware of the cultural aspect of the BDS movement and the desperate reality of the Palestinian people. In terms of where we fit into the boycott, we don't claim to know where the moral high ground lies and we want to remain open to other people's perspectives and to love beyond disagreement. We understand the inherently political nature of playing there as well as the implications. Our intention is not to diminish the values of those who support the boycott or to turn a blind eye to those suffering. We are striving to be in the spirit of learning.

With this in heart, the show's profits will be donated to NGOs that provide medical and humanitarian aid to Palestinian children, including joint efforts between Palestinians and Israelis working together for a better future.

With love,

Big Thief.

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