Thom Yorke Breaks Silence on Israel Controversy

"It's really upsetting that artists I respect think we are not capable of making a moral decision ourselves after all these years," says Radiohead singer

Thom Yorke breaks his silence over the controversy surrounding Radiohead's upcoming show in Israel. Credit: Sophia Kembowski/ZUMA

It's well over a month until Radiohead wrap up their 2017 A Moon Shaped Pool Tour at Park Hayarkon in Tel Aviv, Israel on July 19th, but it's already shaping up to be the most controversial show of their career. They've performed in Israel eight times  most recently in the summer of 2000  but this is the first time they've visited the country since the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement began in 2005.

The movement calls for a complete cultural boycott of Israel until Palestinians are granted the "right of return" and Israel's West Bank barrier is dismantled. It has caused everyone from Elvis Costello to Devendra Banhart to Gorillaz to cancel planned concerts in the country, though many others have ignored it. 

On April 23rd, over 50 prominent figures, including Roger Waters, Desmond Tutu, Thurston Moore and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, signed a petition urging Radiohead to cancel the show. 

"In asking you not to perform in Israel, Palestinians have appealed to you to take one small step to help pressure Israel to end its violation of basic rights and international law," they wrote. "Surely if making a stand against the politics of division, of discrimination and of hate means anything at all, it means standing against it everywhere – and that has to include what happens to Palestinians every day. Otherwise the rest is, to use your words, 'mere rhetoric.'"

"There are people I admire … who I would never dream of telling where to work or what to do or think."

The issue has flared up at recent Radiohead concerts, including their show at the Greek Theater Berkeley where a large banner was held up chastising them for playing the "apartheid" state of Israel. The situation puts Nigel Godrich in an particularly awkward position, as the longtime Radiohead producer also produced the latest album for Waters, the loudest and most passionate voice of the BDS movement.

Through all this, the group has remained quiet. But when we spoke to Yorke for our new cover story about the making of OK Computer, we gave him the opportunity to respond. Here are his complete comments.

I'll be totally honest with you: this has been extremely upsetting. 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.

There are people I admire [who have been critical of the concert] like [English film director] Ken Loach, who I would never dream of telling where to work or what to do or think. The kind of dialogue that they want to engage in is one that's black or white. I have a problem with that. 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].

"It’s deeply distressing that they choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw shit at us in public."

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?

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.

This is the first time I've said anything about it. Part of me wants to say nothing because anything I say cooks up a fire from embers. But at the same time, if you want me to be honest, yeah, it's really upsetting that artists I respect think we are not capable of making a moral decision ourselves after all these years. They talk down to us and I just find it mind-boggling that they think they have the right to do that. It's extraordinary.

"It's such an extraordinary waste of energy. Energy that could be used in a more positive way."

Imagine how this has affected me and Nigel’s relationship. Thanks, Roger. I mean, we're best mates for life, but it’s like, fuck me, really?

[Godrich responds: "I don't believe in cultural boycotts. I don't think they're positive, ever. And actually, I think that it's true to say that the people you'd be denying [the music] are the people who would agree with you and don't necessarily agree with their government. So it's not a good idea. Thom and Roger are two peas in a pod, really, in certain respects. They just have a disagreement about this, but they've never even met. I think Thom feels very protective of Jonny, which I completely get. But I'm not in the middle of Thom and Roger. Fucking hell, I wouldn't like to be in the middle of those two. No.]

All of this creates divisive energy. You're not bringing people together. You're not encouraging dialogue or a sense of understanding. Now if you're talking about trying to make things progress in any society, if you create division, what do you get? You get fucking Theresa May. You get [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, you get fucking Trump. That's divisive.

As told to Andy Greene

Thom Yorke and his Radiohead bandmates look back at how incessant touring, and a creeping sense of alienation, inspired 'OK Computer.' Watch here.