The Rihanna Israel-Palestine controversy that never really happened

October 24, 2013

Rihanna on stage in Abu Dhabi, just before her Tel Aviv concert. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S.-based Barbadian pop star Rihanna's big concert in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv had one very brief, strangely political moment. When performing the song "Pour it Up," according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, she substituted the lyric "All I see is dollar signs" with the phrase "All I see is Palestine."

The switch-up generated controversy and discussion on the Israeli Web and in some segments of the Arab press. It was picked up by lots of American aggregators. The choice of words seemed not just political but deeply provocative.

Except it turns out that it didn't really happen.

First, here's why it was controversial. It wasn't clear whether the lyric was meant as simply a generic nod to Palestinians, perhaps a subtle suggestion that Rihanna's audience of some 50,000 think about the Palestinian territories and Israeli policy toward them, or whether it meant something more.

Much of the online discussion focused on the fact that Rihanna apparently did not say the word "Israel" during her performance and had come under pressure to cancel her show from some pro-Palestinian groups that support boycotting Israel. In singing "all I see is Palestine" in the middle of Tel Aviv, was Rihanna suggesting that the city should be considered not part of Israel, but part of a single Palestinian state? Didn't that sound uncomfortably close to the rhetoric of anti-Israeli groups that insist the entire country is illegitimate and should be dissolved?

If these sound like overwrought questions to you, then it turns out that you are correct. Simone Wilson, a writer at the site JewishJournal.com who has been impressively persistent in covering this story, got ahold of a cellphone video recorded by a fan at the concert. And it turns out, as best one can tell from watching the video, that Rihanna used the normal lyrics. She didn't mention Palestine at all. Wilson also noted that a Jerusalem Post reporter had expressed earlier skepticism about the controversial lyrics, pointing out that no other Israeli journalist at the concert had heard "all I see is Palestine."

The whole episode was pretty silly. So why are you reading about it? Because this is a reminder of how remarkably sensitive the politics of the Israel-Palestinian conflict can get, and indeed always are. The mere hint of a one-word political statement by a 25-year-old Barbadian pop star, during a highly non-political event, was enough to generate controversy and debate in multiple countries.

The fight over symbolism can sometimes feel almost as vicious as the fight for territory; recall the endless rounds of controversy and allegation and conspiracy-theorizing over the photos of children who were killed or wounded during the November clashes between Israel and Gaza. The difference, of course, is that what Rihanna said, or in this case didn't say, is of next-to-zero actual significance. What is of significance is that both parties to  the Israel-Palestinian conflict are so primed for controversy and outrage, so hawkishly ever-alert for the slightest indication of someone taking sides, that this incident would become a story at all.

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Max Fisher · October 23, 2013