Wonder Woman, Radiohead, and BDS by Mark LeVine
Gal Gadot and Thom Yorke Show Why BDS is Important – Because Palestinians Simply Don’t Exist in Their Worlds by Mark LeVine
It’s sadly fitting that controversies over two well-known entertainment figures and their relationship to Israel should occur just as the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the conquest and occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem has arrived.
Israeli actress Gal Gadot, newly risen to worldwide celebrity thanks to the massive opening of her film Wonder Woman, along with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, both offer fresh evidence as to just how hard it is to get culture producers in the West to recognize the humanity of Palestinians, never mind take any responsibility for how artists should address the ongoing Israeli Occupation and the mountain of human rights violations, war crimes and even crimes against humanity that continue to accrue on a weekly basis because of it.
Can Wonder Women Support Occupation?
In case you haven’t been following the entertainment news or don’t have young female children you’re supposed to be empowering through popcorn cinema, Gal Gadot is an Israeli model and actress who, after appearing in several big budget films including the Fast and Furious franchise has now leapt to superstardom with the massive premier of her first Wonder Woman film. According to the film’s director Patty Jenkins, now being celebrated as the first woman to direct a Hollywood comic book blockbuster, Wonder Woman is a “new kind of action hero;” the “feminist hero we’ve been waiting for” whose representation in the film is an “attack on patriarchy.” Gadot, as the cover of Glamour declared, Gal Gadot Is Wonder Woman,” and so it’s hard to know to which one—the actress or the character—the New York Times was referring when it explained how the film will impact young girls’ self-esteem,“If Wonder Woman can do it, she can too.”
The media has been duly repeating this argument, with the Daily Beast’s Melissa Leon declaring that “this Diana Prince is so good, and so inspiring, that she—and her superhuman director Patty Jenkins—make you want to be better, too.” Moreover, the Jewish media has gone absolutely nuts over her, both in Israel and the Diaspora, conflating her identities as a Jew and an Israeli to see each reinforcing the other in her portrayal of Wonder Woman and in so doing being good for Jews.
Excuse my confusion, but as the father of a 12-year old young woman, I’d have thought her heroines should be Serena Williams or Carli Lloyd, Katherine Johnson or Judith Butler, JK Rowling or Malala, her pediatrician or the mailwoman. You know, real-life women who’ve demonstrated incredible intelligence, talent, drive and/or ethical grounding in their lives and work.
But let’s accept for the moment that fictional characters, including and perhaps even especially comic book heroes, can serve as role models for our children. Let’s further assume that going to see Wonder Woman, besides keeping DC Comics from yet another, potentially fatal cinema humiliation and making its stars and production company filthy rich, can in theory inspire young girls to be more “bad-ass” and succeed to greater heights in their lives than they otherwise would be. Why does the fact she’s played by an Israeli actress mean the film should be boycotted, as some have called for, from pro-Palestinian activists to Lebanese groups (in fact, the film seems to have opened in Lebanon without incident)? Is it just because star Gal Gadot is an Israeli and thus a reflection of some inherent anti-Jewish prejudice among those calling for the boycott?
Let me say here that the fact that Gadot clearly has a politics that are at odds with the character she’s portraying does not in itself disqualify her from playing that character. No one begrudged well-known liberal Meryl Streep playing conservative icon Margaret Thatcher. I would pay to see Jon Voigt play just about anything even though I abhor his extreme right wing politics on many issues.
But Gal Gadot is not simply an actress who happens to be Israeli. Nor is it merely that she’s an Israeli actress who served, like most young Israelis, her compulsory military service. Rather, it’s that Gadot has continuously brought up her time in the IDF and her role as a “combat trainer” and her support for IDF operations that are recognized universally to have involved large-scale war crimes and that she is identifying her own personal back story with the back story of Wonder Woman that is the problem. Imagine if Captain America star Chris Evans was in fact a rightwing racist with a record of training cops who routinely attacked and even killed African Americans. Would people be justified in not wanting to see him portray Captain America? (In fact, true to his character, Evans is highly critical of President Trump.)
Brand Israel Versus Reality of Israel—for Women and Palestinians
The reality is that the producers and Gadot herself have intentionally morphed Gadot’s backstory with that of the character she’s playing. She is depicted as very much a “wonder woman” herself—a beautiful young, modern, strong Israeli women who excelled in her combat training to the point of training Israeli soldiers, and who since then has repeatedly used her time as a soldier as the foundation of the training she went through to become Wonder Woman. This is not a case of political (over)sensitive film goers projecting or confusing the character with the actor; it’s Gadot projecting and deliberately tying her personal experiences to the character in order to create the impression that she is uniquely qualified to bring that character to life. We can see evidence of this in various interviews (inter alia, here, here, here and here) leading up to the film’s release in which she explicitly uses the term “role model” and talks about her experiences in the IDF and Wonder Woman without any separation.
In this situation, young girls—or anyone for that matter who identifies Gadot with the values espoused by her character, Wonder Woman—are quite naturally going to look at her statements and the conflict in which she is clearly taking sides and assume that she, and through her Israel, represent the ideals of Wonder Woman. This automatically means that the other side, Palestinians, must represent the very opposite of these ideals; and by extension, Palestinian women must represent the opposite of the “badassery” either as passive subjects of humiliation from their Arab/Muslim culture or as supporters of irrational hatred of Jews and Israelis.
Gadot’s, the filmmakers and the DC publicity campaign’s deliberate conflation of her with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman will inevitably lead viewers, especially those who are young and/or poorly informed about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, to conflate the virtues of the actor with the actions of a government that is in complete opposition to those virtues—a process that has been happening in American cinema vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever since Paul Newman played Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus almost a decade before the Six Day War.
Indeed, Gadot is a prime example of Brand Israel, which is one of the most important elements of the propaganda war on Palestinians. The former IDF pin-up girl is using herself and being used by Israel as the perfect propaganda piece to project the image of Israel as a modern, enlightened, democratic society where women enjoy complete equality with men and are free to excel in whatever they dream (in fact, she said precisely this in a Hebrew language article on Ynet published to coincide with International Women’s Day).
Never mind that this image of Israeli women, which returns to the pre-1948 era Zionist propaganda, is belied by the reality of an extremely macho society where one in three women is a victim of sexual assault—with harassment in her beloved IDF rising in recent years, and secular and particularly Orthodox Jewish women suffer significant gender oppression. Needless to say, the realities of women’s lives in Israel is no different than that of women in most every other country. But based on my Hebrew as well as English internet searches, it seems Gadot has rarely if ever spoken out about these issues. How would Wonder Woman feel about that?
As former B’Tselem head Jessie Montell argued back in 1991, every Israeli grows up thinking hers is a “country of sexual equality,” which is defined as such first and foremost through women and men “fighting alongside each other.” And this trope is intimately tied to another one, that the conflict is not the fault of enlightened and modern Israel, but rather of backwards and chauvinistic Palestinians. Of course, pointing out that Israel does not live up to the mythology surrounding women’s equality does not signify anything other than Israel is no different than most countries, and in fact better than many when it comes to the treatment of its female citizens.
Needed—A Real Lasso of Truth
The reason for pointing this gap between Gadot’s (self-) narrative and reality is because it is repeated in an even more extreme form in her discussions of the Israeli military. Specifically, in her many public discussions of the IDF, including her clear tweeting of support for the 2014 war on Gaza, Gadot has never, as far as I have been able to find in English or Hebrew, said a word about Palestinians suffering, about the ills of the Occupation, about the fact that those soldiers she brags about training routinely commit war crimes and otherwise oppress, harm, and even kill Palestinians whose occupation has just turned 50.
For Gal Gadot, it appears that Palestine and Palestinians simply don’t exist, or at least are not worth mentioning in any meaningful way. (I would appreciate being shown otherwise here if people have found any articles or interviews with her talking in any meaningful way about the Occupation, about the excesses of the IDF, or otherwise demonstrating some kind of critical distance from the IDF and Israeli policies.) Instead, she tweeted her “love” for the IDF during the Gaza war as a thousand Palestinian civilians were being killed. If we’re being honest, we might conclude that if Wonder Woman met Gal Gadot, she’d lasso her and bring her to the Paradise Island Court of Justice to face trial as an accomplice to terrible crimes. At the very least, her Lasso of Truth would force Gadot to own up to her own complicity in the Israeli machinery of war and occupation.
Ultimately, iIf Gadot is in fact a “feminist hero,” she’s a hero for women and girls “who can ignore certain atrocities which don’t directly affect them. Your children are safe, their bodies aren’t being policed by soldiers, their schools haven’t been bombed, the hospitals they lay in don’t have bullet holes in the walls, their water supplies haven’t been cut, their electricity isn’t regularly shut off by another government.” This is not the hero I want my daughter or son to emulate.
Radiohead and BDS: When Ignorance and Privilege Collide
Which brings us to Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s recent response to the calls on the band not to cross the boycott line and play Israel also at the moment it’s marking 50 years of occupation. Radiohead refused to do so, but until a few days ago, no one from the band had spoken about their decision publicly. Then Yorke did an interview with Rolling Stone, which has since gone viral, in which he not only attacked the BDS movement, but directly went after Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, perhaps the most famous artist to support BDS.
Yorke began the interview by admitting that the criticism directed at the band for choosing to cross the BDS picket line “has been extremely upsetting.” Crucially, however, he blames the controversy not on the nature of the conflict, but rather on the fact that pro-BDS artists like Roger Waters and other BDS supporters have engaged in a “black and white” kind of dialog that leaves no room for disagreement. Indeed, Yorke continues with the air of a man personally insulted by the criticism the band has faced: “It’s deeply distressing that they choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw shit at us in public. It’s deeply disrespectful to assume that we’re either being misinformed or that we’re so retarded we can’t make these decisions ourselves. I thought it was patronizing in the extreme. It’s offensive and I just can’t understand why going to play a rock show or going to lecture at a university [is a problem to them].”
Us and Them
Although he likely doesn’t realize it, Yorke’s argument in fact proves precisely the point of the BDS movement. He “just can’t understand” why going to a rock show or lecture is problematic because, it seems, he hasn’t taken the time actually to engage and think about the issue.
How can we assume that? Because only a couple of days after Yorke’s public attack on BDS supporters Roger Waters responded with his own public response to Yorke, also in Rolling Stone, where he laid bare this fact. As he wrote, “On February 12th, hoping to start a dialogue, I sent an email expressing my concern about Radiohead crossing the BDS picket line to perform in Israel. A few hours later, Thom replied. He was angry. He had misinterpreted my attempt to start a conversation as a threat. So I tried again.
“’Hey Thom, I’m sorry. My letter wasn’t meant to be confrontational. I was reaching out to see if we could have the conversation that you talk about in your reply. Can we? Love, R.’
“I didn’t hear back. So silence prevailed for three weeks until March 4th when I sent a long heartfelt entreaty to Thom asking him again to talk. In Thom’s interview with Andy Greene of Rolling Stone, in referring to Ken Loach and me, he says, ‘It’s deeply distressing that they choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw shit at us in public.’ That is not true, Thom. I have made every effort to engage with you personally, and would still like to have the conversation. ‘Not to talk is not an option.’”
I believe there are valid reasons people can oppose BDS, and specifically the academic boycott. However, Yorke’s are not among them, precisely because they are in fact woefully inaccurate in their depiction of what the academic boycott involves.
To wit, Yorke explains that “the university thing is more of a head fuck for me. It’s like, really? You can’t go talk to other people who want to learn stuff in another country? Really? The one place where you need to be free to express everything you possibly can. You want to tell these people you can’t do that? And you think that’s gonna help?”
In reality, Yorke’s description of the academic boycott is precisely what BDS does not call for. As the homepage of the BDS website explicitly declares: “To end this complicity in Israel’s violations of international law, Palestinian civil society has called for an academic boycott of complicit Israeli academic institutions [emphasis added]. Refusing to normalize oppression, many academic associations, student governments and unions as well as thousands of international academics now support the academic boycott of Israel.”
The website goes on to detail the innumerable routine and systematic violations not just of the right to education of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians (which is itself a clear violation of international law), but of the broader structural violence and oppression at the heart of the occupation, and in which Israeli universities have long been intimately complicit at the institutional level, even as individual Israeli scholars have long been among the most vocal opponents of the occupation and allies of Palestinians fighting it.
It is not hard to find this information. It’s the first thing, more or less, that comes up if you search for “BDS” or “academic boycott” on most search engines. Someone as intelligent and educated as Yorke shouldn’t have too much trouble in finding out this information. If he still wants to oppose BDS, fine; there’s much to be debated about the wisdom, efficacy and even ethics of this or any other protest or resistance tactic. But at least argue over what it actually calls for, rather than uncritically buying into the Israeli propaganda machine’s false straw man.
Perhaps worse than Yorke’s ignorance of both BDS and the realities of the Occupation is his assumption that he and his bandmates actually know more than the average activist who in their view is irrationally pushing for the stifling of dialog. He argues:
“The person who knows most about these things is [Radiohead guitarist] Jonny [Greenwood]. He has both Palestinian and Israeli friends and a wife who’s an Arab Jew. All these people to stand there at a distance throwing stuff at us, waving flags, saying, ‘You don’t know anything about it!” Imagine how offensive that is for Jonny. And imagine how upsetting that it’s been to have this out there. Just to assume that we know nothing about this. Just to throw the word ‘apartheid’ around and think that’s enough. It’s fucking weird. It’s such an extraordinary waste of energy. Energy that could be used in a more positive way.”
Let’s put aside the fact that Greenwood’s wife is not just an “Arab Jew” but in fact a Jewish Israeli, which presumably Yorke understands is not necessarily the same thing. The fact that one is married to an Israeli and actually has “Palestinian and Israeli friends” is, alas, not a guarantor of having a genuine understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just like being married to an American or Russian does not guarantee any unique wisdom about the inner workings of these societies. Indeed, as Gideon Levy just argued in Haaretz, the majority ofIsraelis have no desire to know anything about the Occupation, and even fewer have stepped inside the Occupied Territories unless they’re settlers or soldiers. It is a pity if Jonny Greenwood, his wife, Yorke or anyone else might be offended by people challenging their knowledge of the Occupation. But it’s quite likely that they don’t know as much as they think they do.
Indeed, if we return to the actual substance of the BDS call, it does not tell artists not to visit or in any way engage with Israel or Israelis. What it does do is ask them not to profit from and help normalize a fifty year-long brutal occupation by playing there in a political and propaganda environment in which doing is always and expertly used to help normalize if not ignore it. I’m not sure why it’s too much to ask well known, purportedly progressive artists not to enable Occupation, but Yorke doesn’t seem inclined to tell us why he thinks it is.
What’s really striking about Yorke’s statement, and Gadot’s statements and interviews as well, is that for both of them Palestinians don’t exist as actors in this drama. They are not part of the equation and don’t have to be engaged on any level, never mind being accorded the same rights and respect they certainly demand for themselves and their families and friends. And it is this erasure of Palestinians, which has been at the core of Zionism, sadly, for over 100 years, that is the greatest tragedy here, and which Yorke and Gadot and all artists have a moral, never mind aesthetic, responsibility to challenge qua artists (otherwise, what kind of artists can they be?).
In this regard, Roger Waters response to Yorke provides the best words for all of us to consider as the six days of the 50th anniversary proceed around us. Whether you’re an activist, a Pink Floyd or Radiohead fan, or just a human being who cares about the world, they are worth considering in full.
“The BDS picket line exists to shine a light on the predicament of the occupied people of Palestine, both in Palestine and those displaced abroad, and to promote equal civil rights for all the people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea no matter what their nationality, race or religion. All human life is sacred, every child is our child, exceptionalism is always our enemy. There is no Us or Them, only Us.”
Waters ends his letter by declaring “Restiamo umani.” Stay human. A phrase indelibly identified with the Italian peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni, an amazing man and champion of the people of Gaza—especially its youth—brutally murdered not by Israel but rather by Palestinian militants. I hope Thom Yorke, Gal Gadot and all their fans will take a few minutes to learn about Vik’s life and work, or that of Rachel Corrie, Juliano Mer-Khamis, or the large and growing number of Israeli artists, scholars, and activists who are risking everything to work in solidarity with Palestinians to build a truly just, peaceful and democratic future for both peoples. They are the heroes and heroines our children should be striving to emulate, and Gadot and Yorke as well.
Mark LeVine is professor of history at UC Irvine and Tikkun’s longest serving Editorial Board member. He is presently completing a collaboratively written history of the Occupation to be published by the University of California Press. @culturejamming.