Israel Boycotter or Not? Russell’s New Brand of BDS

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Comedian and presenter Russell Brand cycles in London, June 21, 2014.Credit: Reuters

It’s never easy taking celebrities very seriously when they turn to political commentary, and during this summer’s Gaza war in particular, lots of them decided to jump in with their two cents.

It’s even more difficult when one is not a huge fan of the entertainer in question, as is the case with myself and actor/comedian Russell Brand. Maybe I’m too old, too uncool, or simply not British enough (or all three) but his bohemian hipster pose and snide, oh-so-knowledgeable-and-jaded humor and commentary has never really done it for me. Not to mention that it’s hard to respect someone who dumped their pop starlet wife via text message, though Katy Perry seems to have bounced back just fine. (His current flame is Jemima Khan, the part-Jewish heiress and socialite who converted to Islam when she married Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan.)

With all that, I’m not the ideal target audience for his web show/social protest movement called the “The Trews” (“Trews” is an abbreviation for True News, because, presumably, if Russell reports it, it must be true). The ‘show’ is actually a series of short videos with a webcam focused on Brand as he gives us his take on the headlines, mixing politics with schtick, while showing off his hairstyles, hat collection, numerous tattoos and prodigious underarm hair in what appears to be his sleek loft in an unknown, but clearly fashionable London neighborhood.

The ‘show’ has been around since last February, but the first to get big international play - and the first one I watched - was a July 29 video uploaded in the midst of the Israel-Hamas conflict ridiculing Sean Hannity of Fox News and his finger-jabbing and “childish” aggressive interviewing style vis-a-vis a Palestinian spokesman. While the official target was Hannity himself, it was pretty clear - and unsurprising - where Brand’s sympathies lay when it came to the conflict. He bridled at Hannity’s (admittedly obnoxious) fixation on forcing his guest to declare whether he viewed Hamas as a terrorist organization. The Palestinians with “their tunnels and a few puny rockets” said Russell in their defense, “don’t have an army, so if they are in any way trying to defend themselves, it is going to be through acts of terror - but that’s just language, really.”

It should be clear to all, he said, that “the people who are doing the most and the most effective violence are clearly committing the greater crime.” You don’t have to be a genius to guess who the criminals were in his book. Criticizing Israel is not new for Brand, who joined other British celebs condemning Israel’s policies towards Gaza way back in 2009.

This time around, he followed up on the July episode with another video, uploaded on August 13, this time, encouraging his followers to take action, specifically, sign a petition calling for pressure on European businesses that profit from “Israeli atrocities” in Gaza.

He explained to the uninitiated that when you “lobby companies that invest in Israel to divest - that means not be involved anymore, because you take money out of a situation, often it helps people reach peaceful conclusions."

The object of his ridicule this time round was not Hannity, but Barclays Bank, which “manages the portfolios of a company called Elbit and Elbit makes the drones that bomb Gaza and all that kind of stuff.” He then proceeds to entertain the viewers by poking fun of a Barclay’s commercial and their “scurrilous duplicity” by purporting to be nice guys when they are actually helping “to bomb dispossessed people in the Middle East.”

The two videos, naturally, sparked a predictable backlash. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has to jump on anything involving Jews and celebrities, beat him up thoroughly in a piece in the New York Observer entitled, “Russell Brand, Israel-Hater” in which the rabbi calls Brand, among other things, a “moral idiot” an “ethical imbecile” and his opinions “the muddled ramblings of a severely damaged man.” Others called Brand anti-Semitic and he reportedly received death threats.

Brand responded to his haters in a piece for the Huffington Post.

For me, that was the point where Brand’s position on Israel got a bit more complex and interesting. He opens describing his fondness for Jews (some of his best friends since childhood, after all … no shock there, the man is in show business) and strongly rejecting the taint of the “anti-Semite” label.

That he is upset about being called anti-Semitic isn’t a surprise. He did, after all, famously call out Hugo Boss on its Nazi history. But the fact that he doesn’t want to be called a boycotter and put into the same club as Roger Waters – is surprising.

Brand wrote in the Op-Ed that he supported the Avaaz petition because it targeted “businesses like Barclays Bank that manage the account of drone makers Elbit, Dutch pension fund ABP, British security firm G4S, Caterpillar and others directly profit from the atrocities that we have all been shocked by in recent weeks.”

But … he further states that he does NOT believe in boycotting Israeli products.

“Like anyone who has spent any time reflecting on this complex issue I naturally wanted to make positive suggestions for positive action. The petition against European businesses provides exactly that opportunity. This is clearly distinct from a boycott against Israel, which means abstaining from buying goods from Israel. The obvious reason that this distinction is important is if we are to boycott all nations that practice unsanctioned violence against a weaker opponent we would begin with the U.K. and U.S.A. and include every nation on earth. That is, I suppose, why Avaaz's petition is appropriate and effective; no boycott against any nation was proposed.”

If that wasn’t clear enough, he states again: “This is not a boycott of Israel, of Israeli goods” - and continues: “We can no longer allow arguments and our shared communicative spaces to be dominated by extremist profiteers. We must disavow anti-Semitism and all forms of prejudice that lead to exclusion and execution like the people of Palestine now face. All governments and institutions that permit violence and proliferate weapons in order to meet territorial or economic objectives ought be equally condemned and confronted and I, like all of us, welcome any means through which we, the ordinary people, can be empowered to act.”

Weapons. Not academics, not Jewish film festivals. While Brand may be an annoying celebrity hipster, I think he gets some major points for staking out a position that while one may or may not agree with, is not a kneejerk call for cutting off evil Israel. In this day and age in Europe, the distinctions should be appreciated.

Does this allow for a Sodastream in the gleaming kitchen of his loft or Ahava mud mask in his marble bathroom? Might he follow in Lady Gaga’s glittering footsteps and bring his rebel act to a Tel Aviv stage? Even though, as stated, I’m not a big Brand fan, I’d attend. You never know what the guy is going to say next. 

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