David Rovics: Singing in solidarity with Palestine

July 19, 2009

Former US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney was among a group of activists who made international news when they were seized from their boat, the Spirit of Humanity, and imprisoned by the Israeli military on June 30.

Their crime was attempting to deliver humanitarian supplies and books to Gaza. The Palestinian territory has been reduced to destitution with most people unable to work and dependent on the meagre trickle of aid the Israeli government allows in.

Global opposition to Israel's actions is growing, much to the concern of Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"Incredibly, there now is even an Israel Apartheid Week conducted in cities across the globe", Kohr told an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference on May 3, a June 29 Znet article said.

The Palestinian-initiated boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel is gathering pace. One of the most recent successes for the BDS campaign has been the non-renewal Connex's contract to operate Melbourne trains.

Connex is an offshoot of French multinational Veolia, which is helping build light rail for illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

Such advances have the likes of Kohr very spooked.

Kohr told the AIPAC conference: "This is a conscious campaign to shift policy, to transform the way Israel is treated by its friends to a state that deserves not our support, but our contempt; not our protection, but pressured to change its essential nature."

As part of the international campaign that is terrifying Israel's rulers and supporters, Green Left Weekly is touring US musician David Rovics, along with Brisbane-based, Phil Monsour, across Australia through July and August for the Palestine Solidarity Tour.

The tour will raise funds for medical, educational and sporting equipment to be delivered to Palestinian refugee camps through the Australian Friends of Palestine humanitarian projects.

GLW's Ruth Ratcliffe spoke with Rovics about music, social change and the US's role in the Middle East.

You've travelled to the Middle East and have friends and contacts throughout the region. How does this personal contact affect you when you hear of attacks such as Israel's December-January war on Gaza?

It certainly makes it all much more personal and urgent when you know people there. No matter how much empathy one has for humanity in general, it's always different when the people under fire are people who you can picture in your head, communicate with regularly and can conjure up mental images and memories, smells and tastes.

As an artist, it's the personal, up-close stories that you tell. These are the stories you can put into a song that can most powerfully make sense of the bigger picture.

There has been little change in policy from the new administration of US President Barack Obama and the numbers of US troops in Afghanistan has almost doubled since Obama's inauguration in January. How do you think US progressives can best struggle for a genuinely anti-imperialist foreign policy?

First, US progressives have to come to terms with the fact that the Democratic Party is still run by multinational corporations, get over their honeymoon with Obama and get to work.

Not that they aren't working hard at one good thing or another, but even if those that believe Obama really wants to do radical stuff are right, Obama will need a heck of a lot more of a militant mass movement to back him up if he's got any hope of taking on the military industrial complex, the insurance industry, the oil companies, and all the other obstacles to sanity.

People need to be in the streets and in large numbers. We need a mass movement with all the trappings, and we don't have it right now in the US.

What role do you think music could have in such a mass movement?

People are inherently musical creatures, and therefore mass movements are inherently musical.

Little sects of activists, though well-meaning, in the absence of a mass movement have a tendency — though by no means a universal one — to become bookish and disdainful of art and music. Certainly there are many wonderful exceptions to this, but elsewhere on the left the same old boring stuff persists.

Phil Monsour, who I'll be touring with in Australia for most of my gigs, is a fine songwriter who writes about the state of the world, with an emphasis on the struggle in Palestine.

One guy who's written loads of powerful songs about life in Australia is Mick Thomas [from Weddings Parties Anything].

What inspires you to keep fighting?

Aside from the government of Colombia and the recent coup in Honduras, what's been happening over the past decade, especially throughout Latin America, has been incredibly inspiring.

All over Latin America people are managing to elect truly left-wing governments that are instituting serious reforms and changing the lives of millions of people in dramatic ways.

The unity and purpose of the left in places like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Cuba, etc, is a great source of inspiration for me, especially as the empire drags more countries into its wars of conquest and European governments generally move more to the xenophobic right. Latin America is definitely where it's at.

Spending the majority of my time in the global North, this is all a bit theoretical and really my inspiration comes more directly and personally from being part of comparatively small but genuine efforts to shake things up here. These are some fine folks to be associating with on a regular basis.

They are generally a great source of inspiration for me, even if they haven't managed to overthrow the government — yet!

How do you see your role – singing from the belly of the beast?

I see myself as having various roles. Music has great value just as music. Playing and hearing music is just a good thing.

It also has great value as a means of telling a story, keeping a memory alive, inspiring people through these stories to keep doing what they're doing and to feel part of something bigger. It can do all those things, daily, and more.

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