In 1979 Chris de Burgh chose to tour Apartheid South Africa, in violation of the boycott call from the African National Congress. In justification, he pleaded that “I’m not singing for the government… I hope to make a difference…”
It is arguable that by ignoring the boycott call from the democratic opposition to South Africa’s anti-democratic regime de Burgh was indeed “singing for the government”, and that, far from “making a difference”, he was in fact helping to reinforce the status quo more than a decade before the release of Nelson Mandela from Robben Island.
In 1984 “12 Dunnes [Stores] workers went on strike [in Dublin] for two and a half years for the right not to handle goods from Apartheid South Africa. The strikers were feted by Bishop Desmond Tutu and international human rights groups. Nelson Mandela said that their stand helped keep him going during his imprisonment.”
Almost exactly thirty years after this, Chris de Burgh announced that he would perform in Tel Aviv on 29th March 2014, ignoring the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of the Israeli state. The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign learned only two weeks before the event of de Burgh’s plan to cross the picket line, upon which the usual procedures were followed. A letter was posted via his website, followed by a telephone call to his management – or, more precisely, to an anonymous answering-machine in London. Neither approach having received a reply, the letter was made public. A Facebook page was set up and supporters of Palestinian rights posted pleas on de Burgh’s own Facebook page.
At this point, things turned nasty. It would appear that defenders of the Israeli state set particular store by de Burgh’s imminent visit, perhaps bearing in mind his 1979 performance in the other Apartheid state that was Israel’s most intimate ally. Veterans of internet campaigning reported that they had never encountered such an outpouring of Zionist propaganda as flooded de Burgh’s page, replete with the usual venomous and mendacious defamation of anyone with a track record of support for Palestinian rights. Abuse ranged from “hater” and “old fart” to “anti-Semite” and “Nazi”; in my own case, hoary canards about my visits to Hong Kong and Iran and my supposedly having “intimidated a cancer victim” (the latter rebutted here) were dredged up and recycled shamelessly.
An objective observer, perhaps from Mars or Venus, might compare the polite attempts to persuade de Burgh not to break the boycott to the incoherent and often obscene vitriol emanating from the other side, and draw obvious conclusions about the rights and wrongs of the case. De Burgh’s response was different. On 24th March he requested that “someone out there who has "The Storyman" CD could go to the booklet that comes with the CD, entitled "Stories," look up track 4,"My Father's Eyes," and post the whole thing, starting with "Palestine 2000...” When numerous fans obliged, he wrote: “Thank you....for those with differing opinions to read...there are always two sides to every story.”
The song in question comes from 2006 and has the lyric “…I have seen it in my father’s eyes,/…I have heard it in my father’s voice,/ It’s been a hard life, a hard fight, and all of the things that he wanted/Are in his hand, but silver would not betray what’s written in the sand, /And a wall will not keep his people from the Promised Land.”
This might be read in a relatively progressive light: nothing could keep the Jews from the Promised Land, and no walls will keep the Palestinians from it. The message is reinforced by being repeated in Arabic by the Egyptian singer Hani Hussein.
However, the sections of the YouTube video featuring Hussein conspicuously fail to show the actual wall, illegal under international law, that Israel is building within the occupied Palestinian territories. This is the very same Apartheid Wall that will have made it impossible for de Burgh’s West Bank fans to attend the concert in Tel Aviv which, as a consequence, took place before an audience every bit as segregated as if it had happened in Apartheid South Africa or in the US southern states during the Jim Crow years.
If de Burgh were actually stating that Israel is “the Promised Land” for the Palestinians who were violently expelled from it in 1948 (and their descendants), then surely it would have been consistent of him to show respect for those same Palestinians by staying away from Tel Aviv in answer to their boycott call. In performing this song during his gig there, de Burgh may have felt that he was making a contribution towards “showing both sides”. In reality he was demonstrating the ethical and political bankruptcy of his entire stance.
Also on March 24th he wrote (and tweeted) “All your opinions have been noted, thanks for your input” and “‘I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Evelyn Beatrice Hall, author.” (Actually, Hall’s paraphrase of Voltaire.)
De Burgh, or whoever administers his Facebook site (the responsibility is still his), proceeded to delete most of the Facebook messages urging him to abide by BDS, while leaving in place those urging him to perform. These included many posts explicitly defaming specific BDS advocates, who were prevented from defending themselves by the simple expedient of being blocked. Only after complaints directly to Facebook was it was possible to have some of these posts removed. Nonetheless, Chris de Burgh’s site was transformed into a compendium of propaganda for the Israeli state, and of uncontested vilification of those who oppose its colonial and apartheid policies.
This procedure was entirely unprecedented; it remains to be seen whether it will provide a template for other artistes determined on crossing the Palestinian picket line in order to collect the astronomical fees offered by Israeli promoters, but incapable of thinking up a plausible excuse for doing so. The fact that de Burgh had recourse to the cliché that “there are always two sides to every story” (thus “balancing” oppressor and oppressed), while simultaneously ensuring that only one side saw the light of day, displayed a breath-taking level of hypocrisy.