Music platform Boiler Room in hot seat for Israeli army link

Lone performs a DJ set at Boiler room #69 on October 11, 2011 in London, United Kingdom
6 min read
04 November, 2021
Noam Ohana, an investor and former Israeli army special forces volunteer, served as a company director at Boiler Room, a company with a pro-Palestine stance, for seven years.

A former Israeli army special forces volunteer sat on the board of the prominent live stream and events brand Boiler Room for seven years.

Noam Ohana, a 43-year old French citizen born and raised in Paris, flew to Israel in the early 2000s to join the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) during the Second Intifada, the four-year Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation between 2000 and 2005.

Now a venture capitalist, Ohana served as a company director at the London-based Boiler Room from October 2014 to this September, when Boiler Room was sold to the events and ticketing giant DICE. 

Founded in 2010, Boiler Room is one of the UK’s most prominent brands in youth and music culture. It’s best known for live-streaming parties and concerts from various locations around the world. It’s arguably the most influential brand in the overwhelmingly progressive, forward-thinking underground electronic music scene.

"Boiler Room’s years-long affiliation with Ohana is the latest in a series of perceived contradictions between its public statements and its actions. A list of prominent missteps includes a much-criticised collaboration with London’s historically Black Notting Hill Carnival, for which Boiler Room was accused of whitewashing Black culture"

The company hosts gay parties, champions racial diversity in its line-ups and showcases fledging, grassroots music scenes, sometimes propelling budding DJs to stardom. An appearance on a Boiler Room live stream can catapult a young DJ’s career, and even established artists see an appearance on the platform as a form of validation. To date, Boiler Room has hosted over 8000 performances across 200 cities.

The wider electronic music scene and many of its top DJs often speak out against the occupation of Palestine. Many in the scene, including some of Boiler Room’s favourite artists, boycott Israel altogether under the hashtag #DJsForPalestine.

In the past, Boiler Room has made posts supporting BDS and Palestine but has also retracted or edited some statements after blowback.

During his time as a company director, the New York-based Ohana represented Exor, a billion-dollar investment holding company that pumped millions into Boiler Room. It’s not suggested that Ohana, who did not respond to requests for comment on this article, had any involvement with the creative side of his investment.

'War Diaries'

At Boiler Room, Ohana sat on the board as Exor’s financial representative, having visibility over finances and reporting them back to his New York offices.

“No investor or board member has ever given Boiler Room artistic or political direction, nor attempted to influence or censor what we do,” Boiler Room founder Blaise Bellville told The New Arab in a written statement. “And no investor or board member acts as a spokesperson for us as a company. We hope that the artists and scenes we have supported throughout our history through events and broadcast, the many documentaries we have made, and the clear political stances we have communicated over the years, all speak for themselves.” 

As Ohana was not born in Israel (according to Ohana’s writings, his parents were left-wing Moroccan Jews who emigrated to France to study) and he was therefore not conscripted into its armed forces, but joined as a volunteer.

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After travelling to Jerusalem to apply for an elite commando unit at the age of 24, army recruiters told Ohana he was too old to join – but he persisted. He was eventually assigned to Sayeret Tzanhanim, a counter-terrorism unit of paratroopers that he said operated “in the heart of the Palestinian territories.”

During the Second Intifada, Sayeret Tzanhanim soldiers were responsible for raids on refugee camps operated by the UN, which is prohibited by international law. According to the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, Israeli soldiers would knock through, or tear down, the walls of civilian houses to reach the next-door dwellings during house-to-house searches. Explosives used during these raids injured countless civilians, including children. 

Ohana wrote about his experiences during the Second Intifada in a French-language book called Journal de Guerre, or War Diaries and, according to the US news website The Daily Beast, he remained in the Israeli army's special forces as a reserve until at least 2013.

"Critics have long pointed to a disconnect between Boiler Room’s actions and its ostensibly left-wing, progressive stance. Ohana’s outspoken, pro-military and pro-occupation views couldn’t be further from the views of the scene Boiler Room represents"

In his public Twitter feed, he rails against Iran, BDS and anti-Semitism in US politics. He’s also authored several op-eds.

“Jews would be killed in the streets of Paris by the same disenfranchised youth that had graduated from thug-life to jihad,” he wrote in a column about BDS for The Times of Israel in 2016.

How progressive, really?

Once a low-budget, DIY operation (its first stream was made possible by a webcam duct-taped to a wall) Boiler Room’s streams now attract millions of views. 

One of its most-viewed videos is a one-hour recording in Ramallah, where the Palestinian DJ Sama' Abdulhadi played for an outdoor crowd. At the time of this article’s publishing, it’s been viewed over 8 million times. Boiler Room has hosted other streams and events throughout the Arab world, including in Marrakech, Cairo and Beirut.

But critics have long pointed to a disconnect between Boiler Room’s actions and its ostensibly left-wing, progressive stance. Ohana’s outspoken, pro-military and pro-occupation views couldn’t be further from the views of the scene Boiler Room represents. 

Boiler Room’s years-long affiliation with Ohana is the latest in a series of perceived contradictions between its public statements and its actions.

A list of prominent missteps includes a much-criticised collaboration with London’s historically Black Notting Hill Carnival, for which Boiler Room was accused of whitewashing Black culture. It was also revealed that Boiler Room received a public grant three times the amount allocated to Notting Hill Carnival’s organisers. 

And while Boiler Room hosts events with little-known DJs in London, it also signs branding deals with Jameson, Bacardi and Absolut Vodka – giant companies many view as the antithesis to underground music culture.

Noam Ohana’s position on Boiler Room’s board amounts to a betrayal to any fan that opposes the Israeli occupation, not least the Palestinian musicians Boiler Room has showcased over the years. 

They include artists such as Al Nather, Shab Jdeed and Sama' Abdulhadi, who featured in a 2018 documentary capturing everyday life under occupation for Palestinians, from navigating military checkpoints to jumping the West Bank barrier.

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Boiler Room’s links with Ohana have been openly discussed on social media since at least 2020. Sam Karam, a Lebanese techno DJ based in London, outlined Ohana’s links with the Israeli army in a self-published essay earlier this year, but no major music website picked up the news.

Some music magazines even turned Karam’s essay down, worried about the potential repercussions if they ran his piece. Ohana’s involvement has also been an open secret in certain corners of Twitter, discussed by artists and fans in the US, Dutch and French scenes.

“I felt like I was screaming into a void,” Karam said. “What measures were in place to prevent Ohana from using his power to push an agenda? Where was the transparency from Boiler Room?”

Ohana resigned as director on September 27, four days before it was announced that Boiler Room had been sold for an undisclosed sum. It’s unclear if he left any legacy at the company, other than further proof of a statement many in the scene have held true about Boiler Room for years: as long as the money keeps flowing, what are values?

Matt Unicomb is a news and culture journalist based in Berlin, where he’s currently the online editor of Exberliner