Roger Waters has written an open letter to British pop-star Robbie Williams, pleading with him not to play Tel Aviv on May 2nd. The ex-Pink Floyd front man told Mr Williams that his decision to play the gig “gives succor to Netanyahu and his regime, and endorses their exceptionalist and deadly racist policies” and “would be giving [his] tacit support to the deaths of over 500 Palestinian children last summer in Gaza”.
Mr Waters impassioned call for Robbie Williams to respect the picket line drawn by Palestinian civil society is the latest moment in a campaign initiated by ‘The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’ (PACBI) and supported by BDS group London Palestine Action (LPA).
The campaign has drawn attention to Israel’s use of Mr. Williams as part of its ongoing attempt to rebrand itself. Concerned about ‘negative perceptions’ of the country – a reality of killings, land theft and a regime that discriminates so completely it constitutes apartheid – the Israeli state has made a concerted effort to exploit the appearance of foreign artists to promote a false image of Israel as a fun, vibrant, liberal democracy. The policy even has a name, ‘Brand Israel’.
Right now an advert for Mr. Williams’s Tel Aviv gig appears on Israel’s tourist information Facebook page, sitting under a sanitised image of a group of happy and vibrant Israeli youth, with a paradisiacal backdrop of blue skies and ocean. This imagery is the antithesis of the daily reality of oppression and violence faced by Palestinians under Israeli control.
Robbie Williams is definitely not the first pop star to break the cultural boycott of Israel. But this time there are a few important twists. First of all, it turns out that the singer is also one of UNICEF’s goodwill ambassadors, and currently the face of the ‘Children in Danger’ campaign, aiming ‘to protect children from violence, disease, hunger, and the chaos of war and disaster’.
Lots of people, Roger Waters included, have seen the contradiction here. As a result of an LPA organized Twitter and Facebook storm, both UNICEF UK and Robbie Williams’s Twitter and Facebook accounts have been inundated with messages arguing that it is incompatible and unacceptable for the singer to promote the abuser and also support the abused. He shouldn’t play Israel, and if he does, he shouldn’t be a UNICEF ambassador. Further to this, over 6000 people (and counting) have signed a petition calling on Robbie Williams not to play in Tel Aviv. He is yet to issue a response.
So, silence from the Williams camp. But, how about UNICEF? They simply state that the singer is performing in Israel ‘in a personal capacity’, and any concerns over ‘his schedule’ should be addressed to his management. It seems in having celebrity ambassadors like Robbie Williams, UNICEF understands the power and responsibility of being a public figure, but apparently seems to have conveniently forgotten it for the time being. Surely UNICEF must think that what Robbie Williams does matters, otherwise why bother having him as an ambassador at all?
If that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that Tim Clark, vice president of UNICEF UK, is also Robbie Williams’s manager. It appears that a UNICEF UK top brass is profiting from the singer’s normalisation of Israeli crimes against Palestinians, whilst at the same time being in a position of power that will allow him to shield the star from increasing public pressure, and also potentially influence UNICEF UK’s decision making on the issue. This is a clear conflict of interest. There is also an apparent dishonesty on display here on the part of UNICEF. The organisation has palmed off concerned members of the public, telling them to address Mr. Williams’s management on the issue, but knowing full well that UNICEF UK’s management and his own are almost one and the same thing. UNICEF UK even offered to hand the petition on to the singer’s management itself, fully aware that this conflict of interest existed, and failing to disclose it.
LPA calls on Robbie Williams to make a choice in the very near future: either he stands up for all children, including Palestinian children, or he stands down as UNICEF ambassador. He can support UNICEF, or he can support an Israeli regime that abuses children’s rights systematically, but not both. If he goes ahead and plays Tel Aviv, UNICEF should do the right thing and relieve him of his ambassadorship.
The author would like to thank Yael Kahn and Nick Baker for their useful input on this article.