Pet Shop Boys Israel tonic

Those of us who have struggled over the years to argue against a cultural boycott of Israel have been put to shame this week by a 1980s pop-synth duo better known for their commentary on nightlife and consumer culture than their analysis of global geopolitics.

In a statement about the band’s decision to play a gig in Tel Aviv, Pet Shop Boys singer Neil Tennant gave a crisp response to the anti-Israel movement. He described comparisons of Israel to apartheid-era South Africa as a “caricature”.

Mr Tennant went on to explain that Israel has universal suffrage and equality of rights for all its citizens. “In apartheid-era South Africa,” he added. “artists could only play to segregated audiences; in Israel anyone who buys a ticket can attend a concert.”

It’s quite possible to take issue with this view of Israel: it not so obvious how a Pet Shop Boys fan in Gaza would get to the gig, even if he or she had the money for a ticket.

But the Pet Shop Boys position is refreshingly clear and unambiguous. Israel can be “crude and cruel” but it is not the same as South Africa.

It is easy to understand the propaganda value of making the apartheid comparison. But it has always struck me as an insult to the specific historic sufferings of both peoples to equate the present situation of the Palestinians to that of black South Africans prior to 1994.

The tiresome comparisons will continue, but it is always worth reminding people that Israel is, for all its flaws, not an apartheid state, the Israelis are not Jewish Nazis and, nor is it useful to liken the IRA to Hamas, or the Bogside in 1970s Belfast to the West Bank today.

It is unusual for pop musicians to demonstrate such clarity of thought, but then Neil Tennant was a journalist in a former life, even if he wrote for Smash Hits rather than Foreign Policy.

His words are admirably measured and unprovocative. When the Pet Shop Boys emerged in the 1980s some felt they were too understated to be pop stars. Not for them the posturing of the more obviously political bands. In this context, Mr Tennant’s approach is a tonic.

I am reminded of the veteran American punk Jello Biafra, former singer with the Dead Kennedys, who recently visited Israel with the intention of playing a gig in defiance of the boycott movement, only to cancel at the last minute when his left-wing credentials looked like they might be tarnished by his stance.

Boycott Israel if you must. Refuse to eat its produce if you believe it will make a difference. Campaign for musicians not to play in Tel Aviv if you think their presence contributes to the suffering of the Palestinian people. But spare us the ahistorical comparisons. At least take issue with Israel for its crudeness and cruelty. At least be honest and take issue with Israel for being Israel.

Last updated: 10:45am, June 21 2013