Thoughts on Lorde and BDS

I was contacted by Radio New Zealand this morning, who asked if I had any thoughts about Lorde’s recent decision to cancel her concert in Tel-Aviv, in support of BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions).  This is what I told them.

It’s complicated. A lot more complicated than most people can take in or are willing to contemplate.

Whenever you talk about Israel and Palestine, there seems to be one volume level – shouting. Things almost inevitably turn to shit and people who used to like each other end up hating each other.

At the core, one of the main contributors to the problem is that there are two peoples with legitimate claims to the same small piece of land – Israel or Palestine – with two entirely separate narratives. Each believes they are the tangata whenua, and each believes that the other stole their land. I wrote about this in 2006 for the first issue of the Aotearoa Ethnic Journal.

The problem is exacerbated by a lack of willingness to constructively engage on both sides. There are small groups of people on each side who want to engage and overcome these difficulties, but they are drowned out by the aggrieved vast majority on each side. They are in a vicious cycle of aggrievement.

Politicians on both sides show no interest in taking the risks necessary to make peace. Neither side can trust the other, and to be fair, neither side has done much to earn the trust of the other. What politician ever gained political support by saying, “Let’s take a risk that we’ll be annihilated so that we can make peace”?

No, the political tides and forces are such that there are great incentives to continue the status quo, and very few to seek positive change.

Each side has dug a big hole, and they keep digging.

My big worry, and the question I ask people, is: “What’s the end game?”

In my experience, people in that part of the world have a very short planning horizon. When you don’t know whether you’ll wake up tomorrow and be called to war, or have your house blown up, or get randomly shot or run over, you’re much more worried about what’s going to happen today, in the next hour, than you are about what will happen next year or for the next generation.

The Israeli government seems satisfied with the status quo, keeping the Palestinians contained in Gaza and the West Bank. Everyone knows that this is not only morally unjustifiable, but it is also a ticking time bomb. But it enables survival for today. They’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.

Palestinians are naturally angry that they are living under occupation and lack basic freedoms enjoyed by the rest of the world. Their leadership has failed over the last 50 years to make much progress toward self-determination.

But what is the end game? The Jews aren’t going to up-sticks and leave. Where would they go? We’ve been wandering, stateless for the best part of the last 2000 years before 1948. The ancestors of many present-day Israelis were kicked out of their countries, both in Europe and the middle east.

Obviously the Palestinians aren’t going to leave either, and the occupation can’t continue on forever.

So what is the end game? It can only be brought about by negotiation. Neither side seems ready to make the painful sacrifices that will be required to bring about a negotiated settlement.

This context is important. The important thing is for people to talk.

On to Lorde.

Personally, I’m not a fan of BDS – boycott, divestment, and sanctions. But I’m not a fan of the Israeli government, and I’m not a fan of the Palestinian leadership either.

The problem with BDS is that it is a strategy of disengagement, at a time when people should be positively engaging.

BDS makes it easy to shout at one another without listening to one another.

How many people making righteous statements about the situation in the middle east have ever been to Israel and Palestine, and engaged with real people on the ground? My guess is that not a lot have. I have, and I can tell you that there is a lot of nuance that is completely drowned out by the shouting.

If Lorde is going to boycott Israel, should she also consider boycotting New Zealand, where our tangata whenua have been systematically stripped of their land and resources by a long series of governments over the last couple of centuries? Settlements here run to an average of 2% of the true value of what was taken away. Shouldn’t Lorde concentrate more on her own settler issues before worrying about others? Did her people have any claim to tangatawhenuatanga?

She has no problem with playing in Russia, despite their systematic abuse of people within their own borders and their indirect and direct killing of people worldwide.

Or the USA. Nuff said.

So while it’s a news story, Lorde’s withdrawal from her tour will likely cause both sides to become more entrenched, and to shout all the louder at each other. But it will keep both her and the subject in the headlines.

My question is: what can we do to get people to engage with each other? That’s why I’m on the Abrahamic Council of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. To be clear, I don’t speak for the Council. We don’t agree on everything. But we get together regularly, and talk.

So let’s keep talking.

If Lorde is really interested in this issue, she should go to Israel and Palestine, and talk to people on both sides of the issue. Then she can make statements and act in a way that isn’t only influenced by the shouting.

I’d give that advice to anyone – if you’re concerned about this issue, go and learn about it first hand, in country. Talk to lots of people from both sides. And do what you can to work toward a negotiated settlement, because the alternative is really awful, for one side, the other, or both.

But keep talking.


  1. Well written post. Most thoughtfully articulated proactive perspective. Thx for that.
    All the best to you & whanau in the coming year of chet/yud – “To life, to life, L’achiam”

  2. A really great analysis. It has changed my views about BDS (ref the anger about Nick Cave playing in Tel Aviv). Thank you for helping me see Lorde’s decision from a new perspective

  3. Thank you for writing this. A good analysis. And a good suggestion that Lorde go to Israel and Palestine to talk to the local people. Perhaps you could pass on the same advice to Liel Leibovitz from Tablet Magazine, to visit New Zealand and talk to the locals before passing judgement on the situation here.

  4. Why does Israel have a right to nuclear weapons? Didn’t the Zionist Netanyahu threaten to bomb NZ for disagreeing with him. Sheesh. Get real. Israel is a bully.

  5. Hey Cheryl I never said or implied that Israel (or anyone else) had a right to nuclear weapons; I did say that I’m not a fan of the Israeli government. I don’t think using labels like “bully” is helpful, and just adds to the shouting.

    If you’re based in Wellington and want to get together kanohi ki te kanohi and talk about it sometime over a cup of coffee, drop me a line.

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