Oh, Eno! The Folly of Boycotts
JNS.org – The battle over the cultural boycott of Israel involving two of the most seminal rock musicians of the last half-century continued in earnest last week. In one corner was Nick Cave — the former vocalist of the Birthday Party and presently the frontman of the Bad Seeds. In the other, Brian Eno — a founding member of Roxy Music, whose extraordinary talents as a producer can be heard on records by David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, and Coldplay, among others.
Cave played two concerts in Tel Aviv in 2017, much to the chagrin of Eno and the handful of other musical artists who believe that quarantining Israeli audiences and shunning Israeli musicians will help bring about the “liberation” of Palestine. At the time, Cave made a resounding case about why the boycott of Israel was morally wrong, probably antisemitic, and of no tangible benefit to the Palestinians themselves (for whom Cave has raised money in the past out of sympathy for their plight.) And like the myriad other rock and pop musicians who have defied the boycott and played in Israel — like John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon, Morrissey, Justin Bieber, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga — Cave has never expressed regret, only pride, at having performed there.
Eno, by contrast, was one of the first serious, recognizable musical artists to endorse BDS, a position he has since maintained with an obsessive dogmatism that is utterly at odds with his approach to music. This observation was noted by Cave, who reopened the boycott debate by making public — in response to a fan’s request for clarification — a private email that he sent to Eno about Israel.
“Brian Eno, beyond any other musician, taught my friends and me how to make music,” Cave wrote in a footnote to that email. “The records he made remain some of the most important and essential recordings I have ever heard. So, if there seems to be a thread of anguish that runs through this letter, this is indeed the case. I am writing to my hero.”
I am not a musician, of course, but I think I know how Cave feels. I am a music lover, and during those years when I was devouring as much contemporary music as I could find — blues from the Mississippi Delta, roots and reggae from Jamaica, space-age electronic music from Germany, punk, and new wave from England and the United States — Brian Eno occupied a very special place in my vinyl collection. What I loved about Eno’s music (and still do) was his ability to overlay additional, otherworldly sonic dimensions onto music that otherwise would have sounded rather ordinary.
Eno also wrote some great rock ’n’ roll songs — “Third Uncle,” “Kings Lead Hat” — in the years after his departure from Roxy Music. He produced two of David Bowie’s greatest albums — “Low” and “Heroes” — as well as U2’s classic, “The Joshua Tree.” But he was equally confident and creative when turning his hand to classical music, as evidenced by his ethereally lovely rendition of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. And then there was Eno’s own, singular creation, known as “ambient music” — compositions with little discernible melody that blended pre-recorded natural sounds with electronic drones, encouraging the listener to hear music as part of their overall sensory experience of the world, rather than as a song with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Why would such a cutting-edge artist, who never really spoke about politics, become such an enthusiastic supporter of BDS? This, in my view, is the question that Nick Cave is really asking of Eno, because it is, frankly, maddening to see an artist who transformed the way we listen to music adopting — in his capacity as an artist — a censorious and damning approach towards an entire nation. Perhaps the most insidious example of this behavior came in September 2016, when Eno refused permission to Israel’s Batsheva dance company to use his piece “Neroli” for one of its performances, writing to the troupe’s artistic director, “though in one way I’m flattered that you chose my music for your work, I’m afraid it creates a serious conflict for me.”
That “conflict” was, in fact, a petty objection to the Israeli embassy’s partial sponsorship of Batsheva’s performance. “Your dance company might not be able to formally distance itself from the Israeli government but I can and will,” continued Eno. “I don’t want my music to be licensed for any event sponsored by the Israeli embassy.” In other words, Eno was saying “not in my name” — a slogan that makes its adoptees feel noble and courageous, but looks to most other people like gratuitous narcissism.
Still, the question remains: Why? In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Eno drew an analogy between how a society develops and how music is made. “If you think of the classical picture of how things were organized in an orchestra — where you have the composer, conductor, leader of the orchestra, section principals, section sub principals, rank and file — the flow of information is always downwards,” said Eno. “The guy at the bottom doesn’t get to talk to that guy at the top. Almost none of us now would think that hierarchic model of social organisation, the pyramid, is a good way to arrange things.”
Eno, then, prefers the horizontal to the vertical — the act of debating and collaborating, rather than simply receiving instructions from a man wielding a baton. Elsewhere in the same interview, he described his own role as helping “people communicate with each other in one way or another.” All well and good, but utterly incompatible with support for the BDS movement!
BDS, after all, is a pyramid, with its anti-Zionist, eliminationist id program set by a handful of ideologues who then transmit talking points and other instructions to the activist base. Rather than encouraging people to communicate with each other, the BDS movement bullies musicians and artists into treating Israelis as the only human beings in the world who should be denied the opportunity to hear a piece of music, read a particular book or view a specific painting. And of all people, Brian Eno — an artist who has delighted in smashing conventions through experimentation — has turned into a cultural policeman, ready to fire off an insulting missive to any fellow musician who dares to contemplate contact with Israelis.
Eno’s position — and I take no pleasure in saying this — is eerily reminiscent of the antisemitic German composer Richard Wagner’s comment that music produced by Jews is sterile because “the Jew has stood outside the pale of any such community, stood solitarily with his Jehovah in a splintered, soilless stock, to which all self-sprung evolution must stay denied, just as even the peculiar Hebraic language of that stock has been preserved for him merely as a thing defunct.” Today’s boycott advocates perceive Israel in much the same way; the illegitimate state of an anachronistic nation whose chief priority is to maintain itself aloof and apart from the other peoples of the world, while punishing the indigenous Arab inhabitants of the land they “occupy.”
Eno is not the only great artist to have crossed swords with the “Jews” as a collective. That long list includes Chopin, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and many other poets, painters and musicians whose output leaves you contemplating how such profound beauty and insight can co-exist with the crude, paranoid fantasies of the antisemite. Eno, doubtless, would angrily deny that antisemitism has anything to do with his loathing of Israel, which is the standard response of the boycott movement. Yet from someone with his intellect, we are entitled to expect much more.
So, Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, if you happen to read this, please know that any explanation you provide on this point will be read, considered and argued over avidly, especially by those of us who love your music. We may decry your views, but we’re not going to boycott you.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.