Certain pop-culture celebrities with little or no expertise in the Middle East have an urge to publicly air opinions on the subject, including in some cases asserting false claims about Israel. Singer John Legend seems to have joined those ranks as reinforced in the September 19 “Mehdi Hasan Show” broadcast.
MSNBC host Hasan, a chronically and often recklessly biased critic of Israel, encouraged Legend to express his negative claims against Israel and then, in response, once again failed to challenge his guest to provide evidence for serious charges against Israel. After noting how Legend has “spoken up for pretty unconventional causes,” Hasan asked Legend, “How did that happen?” The relevant segment of their exchange included the following:
MEHDI: One last question. We’re out of time. Indulge me on this one. John, you could have stuck to your music and had a hugely successful career[,] but you’ve spoken up for pretty unconventional causes. Prison reform as we mentioned, mental health — not the sexiest of topics. You’re also one of the few A-list celebrities I’ve noticed in this country to speak out on behalf of the Palestinians. How did that happen?
LEGEND: Well, I think it all flows from the same place. I grew up reading the work of people like Martin Luther King and you know, James Baldwin, and all these great thinkers and activists and organizers who taught me what justice meant, what love meant in public, what equality meant. And when I see what’s happening in Palestine to the Palestinian people where they’re clearly not being able to experience the full rights that they deserve, and it’s an extremely unfair and difficult life they’re forced to live, I had to say something. It is not fair, not just. And given that Israel is the recipient of so much American aid and support and is named as one of our strongest allies, we should hold them to a higher standard. And what they’re doing with the Palestinian people is not fair and it shouldn’t be done in our name and with our resources contributing to it.
MEHDI: Well said. We’ll have to leave it there.
While a number of Jewish publications and organizations have reported on this exchange and have criticized Legend’s remarks as well as Hasan’s bias, less attention has been paid to Legend’s curious invocation of the name of Martin Luther King Jr. whose staunch position against anti-Zionism and antisemitism is well known and might have steered the singer away from vilifying the Jewish state. Martin Luther King Jr. sought to strike a balanced approach to the State of Israel and its neighbors, affirming on the one hand the right to exist of the Jewish state, which he called “an oasis of brotherhood and democracy,” while also stating publicly that the Jewish state should “probably” relinquish territory it acquired during the Six-Day War, as “to hold on to it will only exacerbate the tensions and deepen the bitterness of the Arabs.” How King would view the conflict today in the wake of repeated Palestinian refusal to accept the legitimacy of a sovereign Jewish state is perhaps another matter.
But Mehdi Hasan doesn’t probe Legend’s baseless statement. Nor does Legend specify how exactly he believes the State of Israel is treating Palestinians unfairly or unjustly. Those sweeping charges obviously warrant a journalistic challenge for clarity, but Hasan instead offers just a “Well said.”
However, one might plausibly infer what Israeli actions Legend has in mind from earlier remarks he made while in conversation with Mehdi Hasan in a 2020 podcast recording: “There should not be a whole group of people in a country, because of their nationality or religion, being held in open-air prisons, denied freedom of movement and having their land annexed by settlers … that’s just a human position.”
Legend’s recitation of these tired propaganda themes underscores the shallow, if strongly-held, basis of the singer’s viewpoint.
There isn’t the slightest hint in Legend’s assertions or Hasan’s input that Israel has genuine security challenges as well as ancient claims and legal rights to the land. Nor does Legend seem aware of key facts, such as that Gaza is ruled by Hamas, an internationally-recognized terrorist organization that assaults Israel with missiles and rockets and is dedicated to Israel’s destruction. In order to ensure materials coming into Gaza are not used by Hamas or other terrorist organizations in Gaza against the State of Israel, the IDF subjects imports into the territory to inspection. Regrettably, although Gaza receives plentiful food and other supplies on a regular basis, Hamas seeks to divert millions of dollars to war efforts against Israel instead of to the needs of its own people. Legend seems oblivious to this genuine security threat to the State of Israel, tweeting “Palestinian Lives Matter” while failing to similarly publicly recognize the value of preserving Israeli lives back in May 2021 during a conflict involving missile barrages from Palestinian terrorists against the State of Israel followed by Israeli military attempts to neutralize security threats.
To suggest, as Legend does, that the IDF inspecting imports into a territory ruled by a terrorist organization is the result of a deliberate policy of discrimination resulting in the imprisonment of an entire population is a twisted presentation of recent history and current reality. As an admirer and student of the work of Martin Luther King Jr., Legend could learn from King’s balanced approach to the State of Israel and its neighbors.