Jello Biafra's 'Ultimate Third Rail': Why the Outspoken SF Punk Rocker Abandoned Plans to Play in Israel
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine
Last summer, SF punk rocker, notorious political rabble-rouser, and former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra was booked to perform in Israel, along with his band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine, in support of their new Enhanced Methods of Questioning EP. But their plans raised quite a controversy: The cantankerous singer's legacy of injecting politics into every aspect of his music and public persona led to the Israeli appearances becoming the center of an intense debate, in which many advocated that Biafra stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people by respecting the cultural boycott against Israel, and others vied for the opposite with seething conviction.
Eventually, the Tel Aviv show was cancelled, and Biafra travelled to Israel by himself, to "sniff things out." He recently published an extensive account of his travels, which offer thoughtful political analysis as well as his personal story. We recently spoke with Biafra about his time in Israel and his thoughts on the experience.
What was your initial reasoning for cancelling the shows booked in Israel?
There were a lot of them. We had been going back and forth within the band and in our own minds about whether playing there was the right thing to do or not, and I was also thinking maybe if we went in there, said how we feel, and played this kind of music, it might do some good. But the boycott pressure became too fierce, and I was caught in the middle.
They were making some wild accusations that had no basis in reality; like that I was somehow personally a supporter of apartheid. The term "Zionazi" even got thrown around, more than once. I thought I had made it pretty clear that I was more down with the cause against the occupation and for the freedom of the Palestinian people, but they weren't buying it. There was strong feeling on the part of the boycott organizers that the only way to show solidarity is not to play in Israel at all. Some people in the band were very torn up about this. I eventually concluded that I dragged them a little too far towards the edge of a cliff that they didn't really want to be on, and I was swinging back and forth as well.
The extremes of both sides came out of the woodwork and eventually sort of took over our Facebook page, reducing it down to about half a dozen people arguing with each other. In some cases they were even hurling ethnic and racial slurs. I'm used to stepping on third rails, but in some ways this was the ultimate third rail, and I was in over my head. So I thought that the best thing to do was to pull out of that particular show, but use the ticket I already had to go into Israel and sniff things out for myself.
What's been the reaction to your article so far?
I haven't looked at it in a while. I'm not plugged in at all to the digital age. It has its advantages and disadvantages, but one of the disadvantages is that it becomes like some small town vigilante gossip police, or worse yet, the kind of backbiting you expect in high school. Some people who spend too much time worrying about what people think of them on the net can really get caught up in things like that, and I chose to step back.
Some people are writing in saying they are impressed, and some people have written in saying "Well, if you went to Israel you should've talked to my friend instead of these other sellouts." You get a lot of that. Anybody familiar with the bickering that goes on in the underground punk zine Maximumrocknroll can visualize this on a much wider global scale with a heavier political issue. I don't blame anyone for having really strong feelings about this, so many people have been violated or had somebody in their family killed.
Your article says that most of the Israelis you met did not share the far-right extremism of the Israeli government. But do you think that the artists and musicians you mingled with really represent the sentiments of the greater Israeli people?
I was only there a few days, so I'm no expert. Obviously Netanyahu and his thugs somehow keep finding ways to get voted into power. One strong point made by the other side is that even the liberal or supposed left-wing parties are still not all that cool on this issue. It seems like the general sentiment on both sides is that enough is enough, and they just want some peace. Of course, they have wildly different points of view on how to go about that. Some people on both sides are saying this isn't about peace, it's about justice. I have a feeling that not everyone is going to get justice at the end of the day -- how often does that even happen over here?
Part of your stated goal in making the trip was to gain a better perspective with which to educate the American people. Do you think that the depth of the experience gave you enough insight for that?
I would say it gave me enough insight to offer what I can. If I'd been there longer or lived in what is now called Israel or now called the West Bank or Gaza or whatever, I might have a different or deeper point of view, or more hatred or dogma. I tried to make it clear from the piece that I was only there a few days, and these are my gut feelings about what I saw. People shouldn't take me as some kind of self-minted expert to represent Obama at the next Middle East peace talk.