Rihanna, Dwight Howard and the trouble with tweeting #FreePalestine

July 15, 2014

Earlier today, the sultry chanteuse Rihanna, who is best known for seduction-via-pop-song, decided to make a serious political statement and tweeted “#FreePalestine.”

Eight minutes later, according to TMZ, she deleted it. Nevermind the ridiculous explanation offered by “a source close to the singer” — the tweet was not an accident. But was it a mistake?

Three days ago, on July 12, NBA player Dwight Howard also tweeted “Free Palestine,” and again, within minutes, ta-ta to his tweet. “Previous tweet was a mistake,” Howard wrote as apologia after that. “I have never commented on international politics and never will.”

Howard was wise to exercise some humility when it comes to international relations. After all, he is an NBA star who plays center for the Houston Rockets and not a policy wonk. And when it comes to the never-ending geopolitical juggernaut that is the Arab-Israeli conflict – of which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just one facet – even the best intentioned, best educated politicians and policy experts are at an utter loss. If Clinton and Kerry and Condoleezza failed, what might Howard – or Rihanna – resolve via hashtag?

But the merit of a view owes nothing to the biography of the person who holds it, as American-Jewish intellectual Leon Wieseltier has taught. Both Rihanna and Howard are entitled to an opinion, irrespective of their backgrounds, religious persuasions or professions, even if that opinion seems misguided, unpopular or alternately, In Vogue.

Whether or not it was wise for them to make a political statement, they were well within their rights to do so. So why blot out those tweets as if they were an abomination?

My guess is that whoever immediately insisted Rihanna and Howard take down their tweets was not at all concerned with their right to publish their views, but rather, incensed at the pro-Palestinian message and how it might impact the stars’ 41 million followers (Rihanna has 36.4 mil; Howard, 5.23 mil).

What might their social media fans make of this unadorned declaration?

The message “Free Palestine” is in fact a political tool that should be understood in context. Its meaning is not the sort of thing a tweet can convey or an audience can comprehend without a wealth of background information. So it becomes a little bit dangerous when celebrities use their power to turn a political tool into a trend. Are they sure they know what they’re saying?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more complex than a hashtag. And to treat the conflict only as a cause for Palestinian freedom, while admirable and empathetic, is also narrow-minded.

Resolving the issue of “Palestinian freedom” would solve only one aspect of an enormously thorny, rambling, labyrinth of issues (and I’m using quotes, because, as I mentioned, it’s complicated: While Israel has military presence in and around Gaza and the West Bank, both territories are actually self-governing – never mind, for now, the epic fail of Palestinian leadership).

If Rihanna and Dwight Howard want to use their influence for a cause, they might try educating themselves and their audiences on the issues they care about. What better cause is there than inspiring 41 million followers to read books, news articles and contrasting opinion pieces on a subject that matters?

If only it were as simple as “Free Palestine.” But actually, some things in this world are not reducible to 140 characters.

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