Lorde may become the David Lange of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestine. When she wandered unwittingly into the conflict over the occupation of Palestine, she knew little about the issues. In an age of celebrity culture, she soon found herself bombarded with information, threats and invitations with each side in search of her endorsement. To her credit, she sided with Palestine and became an accidental hero of the BDS movement.
Like Lorde, Lange never choose to be the champion of the anti-nuclear movement. He nevertheless came to symbolize peaceful little New Zealand; refusing nuclear ship visits and standing up to the belligerence and bullying of US nuclear militarism. Lange became Prime Minister of New Zealand by winning a snap election in 1984 at the height of Reagan-era Cold War politics.
The outgoing conservative Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, had long overstayed his welcome having just managed to cling to power in 1981 by allowing the Springbok rugby team from Apartheid South Africa to tour the country. Muldoon cynically but correctly bet that conservative, small-town New Zealand would embrace the “keep politics out of sport” line and relish the sight of the Police batoning anti-tour protestors, none of whom would have voted for the National Party anyway. So the year that saw New Zealanders make international news by putting our bodies on the line to support the international boycott of Apartheid, ended with New Zealand’s last Apartheid-supporting government winning the election by a single seat.
Accommodation Plan Came Unstuck
Labour come to power with the support of a strong anti-nuclear movement. However, Lange was determined to accommodate the US military and maintain the tradition of visits to New Zealand by the US Navy. Although the US policy was to neither confirm nor deny the existence of nuclear weapons on any vessel, its fleet included ships that were widely accepted as not being nuclear capable. Recently declassified CIA documents confirm that Lange had been in discussions with the US over a plan for one of these ships to visit New Zealand. Lange would then give the country his personal assurance that the visit did not breach New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy.
However, when the US did request the visit of such a vessel, the USS Buchanan, Lange was out of the country. At the behest of the anti-nuclear grouping within Labour, Acting Prime Minister, Geoffrey Palmer, refused the visit. By the time Lange returned, the decision was made, the public was loving it, and so Lange owned it. Soon after, the Oxford Union debate gave David Lange a world stage and turned him into a global champion of the anti-nuclear cause.
It is pretty clear that when Lorde received the invitation to perform in Israel, she and her management team had no idea of its political significance. Had they quietly declined, we may never have heard that the invitation had even been issued. But Lorde agreed to perform and (unwittingly, it now appears) became a pro-Israeli partisan on the issue, provoking an instant response from her pro-Palestinian fans.
No Neutral Ground
Neutrality was no longer an option but Lorde now had to make a choice. Would she maintain her support for Israel, presumably with the usual claims about her not being political and just wanting to perform for her fans? Or would she recognise that just as playing rugby with white South Africa was inherently political in the 1980s, global superstars cannot perform apolitical concerts today in Tel Aviv?
To her credit, Lorde cancelled the concert. And at the point of making that decision, she must have known that she had to take sides. Although she had never set out to take a political stand on this issue, there was simply nowhere neutral for her to go. She must have known that any decision would incur the wrath of one side. By siding against Zionism, Lorde made enemies of a force that is immensely wealthy, powerful and influential, especially in the US.
Israel: the White South Africa of the 21st Century
Over the last decade or so, the BDS movement has succeeded in making Israel the white South Africa of the 21st century. Anyone believing that cultural engagement with Israel can still be apolitical need only look at the response to Lorde’s decision to cancel. The nature, scale and origin of the attacks on her, including a boycott call from Roseanne Barr, demonstrate that Lorde’s concert meant a lot more to Israelis than simply a chance to hear her music. It was seen as an opportunity to be seen as less of a pariah state, and more of a normal and acceptable society. The responses Lorde has been receiving are all part of what must be a steep learning curve for her.
Lorde is an exceptional young woman. She may be an accidental hero in this story. But for the sake of the long-suffering Palestinian people, I hope she continues New Zealand’s proud tradition of actively supporting international boycotts for justice, and commits to the Palestinian cause with Lange-like enthusiasm.