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Musicians suspended over Israel Proms row

New Statesman 15 ‎September ‎2011

By Ben White

The London Philharmonic Orchestra management has some serious questions to answer.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra has suspended four of its musicians for up to nine months for putting their names to a letter, published in the Independent, that called for the BBC to cancel a concert by the Israel Philharmonic.

For expressing support for the Palestinian boycott call, these individuals have received what has been called “the most severe penalty inflicted on London orchestral musicians in memory”.

Plenty of people have been disturbed by the LPO management’s response, including those who disagree with the views expressed by the four musicians. Classical music journalist Gavin Dixon, for example, has written that “the efforts by the LPO management to distance themselves from the views of these players has clearly been an over-reaction”.

Norman Geras, someone who thinks that boycotting Israel is “contemptible”, has written of his concern about “whether a nine-month suspension from one’s job for writing a letter to a newspaper isn’t rather excessive”. Geras also raises the legitimate questions about LPO internal disciplinary policy, and asks:

“Why should members of an orchestra not be free to signal their professional affiliation when publicly expressing their views? Academics do it as a matter of course, and no one assumes that the University of Edinburgh, or Oxford, or Birmingham, or wherever, is implicated in the views that their members have publicly espoused.”

There are many unanswered questions here.

First: the letter appeared in the Independent on 30 August. On 2 September, in what seems like the first official public response to enquiries, LPO chief executive Timothy Walker told the Jerusalem Post:

“The views expressed by four members of the LPO concerning the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Proms are the views of the individuals and not the company.”

A reasonable (and rather obvious) clarification statement – but no indication that the musicians were liable to face internal disciplinary action, let alone the severity of a 9-month suspension. What happened between 2 September and the decision to mete out the punishment?

Second: On 8 September, the Jewish Chronicle reported that an LPO violinist had been suspended for launching “an anti-Israel tirade at a question and answer session”. The article said that “LPO chief executive Timothy Walker confirmed she had been suspended indefinitely” and that “the LPO board will decide on what disciplinary action to take”. But the recent confirmation of four suspensions by LPO is reported as because of signing the letter — not for “an anti-Israel tirade”. Which is it?

Third: On announcing the suspension, the official LPO management statement said “the board’s decision in this matter will send a strong and clear message”. This indicates that the severity of the punishment is motivated by deterrence, rather than being an appropriate response guided by established practice or policy.

Finally, it was Gavin Dixon who pointedly noted that the LPO is “obviously trying to appease somebody. It would be indiscreet to speculate as to who and why”.

www.newstatesman.com – Musicians suspended over Israel Proms row

What you can do:

Write a politely worded post on the LPO Facebook page expressing your opposition to the decision to suspend four musicians for signing a letter supporting justice, human rights and the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Thank you!

PROTEST FOR PALESTINE AT BBC PROM – HOW AND WHY

Royal Albert Hall photos by Brian Robinson


Events at a Promenade Concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall on Thursday Sept 1 did more to bring to world attention the Palestinian call for a boycott campaign against Israel than any single previous peaceful action.

Royal Albert Hall

Repeated interventions by small teams of activists from all over the UK substantially delayed the start of two of the four pieces on the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert programme. The first piece was interrupted as it drew to a close by a boycott choir of thirteen “Beethovians for Boycotting Israel”.

A report, including video clips is here. Additional footage of the choir’s intervention can be seen here.

It was the BBC’s decision to abandon its live broadcast on Radio 3 – the first time a Prom had ever been taken off air – which denied listeners around the world access to the concert. Although media reports made it appear otherwise, the audience in the hall were able to enjoy everything on the programme, with the added bonus of a rarely heard message in support of Palestinian rights.

This is how it happened…

In July, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) wrote to BBC Proms director Roger Wright calling on him to cancel the concert, explaining that the IPO was a boycott target because of its close association with the state of Israel and its armed forces. Further letters went from Israeli activists from Boycott from Within and from BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine).

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) launched a public campaign to halt the concert and mobilised its supporters to mount a picket outside the hall.

The PSC's flyer. (click to enlarge)

Meanwhile, members of BRICUP were working behind the scenes with J-BIG (Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods) and members of the Boycott Israel Network and London BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) to orchestrate protests inside.

Wright paid no heed to the letters he received, replying to every appeal by insisting that the decision to invite the IPO was “purely musical”. Emails sent shortly before the concert to ticket holders showed that he understood full well the political stand he had taken, warning of thorough bag searches and a ban on flags.

Even so, activists had no trouble taking their places in the hall and mounting their action.

The first intervention was by our boycott choir, seated in the choir stalls behind the orchestra. Protesters held up letters spelling out ‘FREE PALESTINE’ a couple of minutes before the end of Webern’s Passacaglia and then sang repeatedly:

Israel end your occupation

Palestine must now be free.

Ethnic cleansing and apartheid

Should belong to history.

Some audience members snatched letters out of the singers’ hands. All thirteen protesters were ejected from the hall, still singing as the last notes of the piece died away.

At the beginning of the second piece, just as conductor Zubin Mehta was raising his baton for soloist Gil Shaham to start playing Bruch’s Violin Concerto, four protesters started calling out slogans.

They waved Palestinian flags and called ‘Free Palestine – End the Occupation’ three times, followed by ‘The occupation – Is out of tune – With international law’ while some in the audience tried to drown them out with shouts and boos. Three were led away by security staff.

The fourth passively resisted by hanging on to the brass railings along the balcony, continuing to shout Free, Free Palestine as Shaham began to play. The protester was finally forced onto the landing, where staff held him on the floor with his hands behind his back for some time.

The violin concerto was then played uninterrupted but after the interval the remaining thirteen protesters, seated in groups of two or three, again intervened, causing a delay of about five minutes to the start of the Albeniz Iberia.

Some of the audience were quite irate by this time and some protesters were hit. But there were no injuries and the Royal Albert Hall made no move to involve the police.

Radio 3 was on air until about a minute into the second piece, when the BBC halted its live broadcast. It returned briefly after the interval but again went off air once our protests resumed. The fourth and final piece, by Rimsky Korsakov, was played without interruption, but the BBC did not resume broadcasting.

Once removed from the hall, protesters joined the PSC picket outside and various newspapers and broadcasters started to show an interest.

Our own news release went out in the early hours of Friday morning.

While Zionist and right-wing commentators were quick to denounce the protesters as jackbooted Nazi thugs, supporters of Palestinian human rights responded enthusiastically.

Rima Tarazi, Director of the General Union of Palestinian Women, applauded the “innovative and courageous action at the Royal Albert Hall.”

In a letter passed on to protest organisers by Scottish PSC, Tarazi said:

“Your courage and commitment to uphold Palestinian rights in the face of an ongoing policy of dispossession and ethnic cleansing, were extremely appreciated by our people and I believe such an action should become a beacon to be followed and emulated by all the peoples of the world struggling for freedom and justice. May our voices continue to join in harmony to create a better and gentler world for all.”

Israeli film-maker Gideon Gitai posted on a comment thread under a predictably hostile article by music critic Norman Lebrecht describing personal experiences which underlined how richly the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra deserves to be a boycott target.

In 1987, Gitai said, he produced a documentary film called “Nablus – a Rebellious Town” in which the IPO appeared playing Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” for Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank. The special concert was dedicated “In love to the IDF.”

Has the debate stirred up by the Proms protest been entirely positive for the Palestinian cause?

Some campaigners fear the backlash from music-lovers insisting that politics must not be allowed to sully the purity of the concert hall.

Extreme Israel supporters have been quick to brand the protest as motivated by Jew hatred reminiscent of the Nazi era, claiming that attacking an Israeli institution is an attack on all Jews.

Others take the view that performers so closely tied to the Israeli state do not deserve to play a note uninterrupted and that we have a strong enough case to defend an uncompromising boycott position.

The Palestinian Boycott National Committee has laid down the ground rules for waging the BDS campaign. In each particular case tactical decisions must be carefully weighed, but arguments about anti-Semitism and “musical purity” always needs to be firmly contested.

Israel, as a matter of policy, deploys cultural ambassadors such as the IPO to throw a civilised veil over its persistent, brutal and illegal treatment of the Palestinian people.

Unlike many other vicious regimes that opponents of BDS tell us we should boycott instead, Israel has the ear of western political leaders, newspaper editors and the corporate interests that determine foreign policy priorities. It benefits from scientific, military, academic research and cultural agreements with Europe and has been allowed for 63 years to get away with flouting international law, facing no sanctions of any kind.

Palestinians, while suffering the loss of their land, their livelihoods and their very lives, are ignored or grossly misrepresented by politicians and media and gain nothing from European business or institutions other than patronising lectures and occasional handouts to rebuild infrastructure the Israelis have destroyed or to arm and train security forces for Israel’s benefit.

Gaza is under siege, the situation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is not much better, Palestinians living inside 1948 Israel are facing deepening racism and refugees are offered no hope of return.

Ordinary forms of protest and lobbying have proved totally inadequate in bringing Israel to its senses. Boycott, as in the case of apartheid South Africa, has taken off as THE non-violent form of action available to civil society to end the injustices suffered by the Palestinians.

The Apartheid Wall

Let’s not forget that Zionists used identical tactics in the early 1980s in their campaign to force the Soviet Union to allow Russian Jews to go to Israel. Music lovers with long memories recall disruption of a Soviet performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture at London’s Royal Festival Hall. A Russian soprano singing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was also targeted.

Cultural boycott actions, it seems, are acceptable in support of the Zionist cause, but criminal when staged on behalf of Palestinian human rights.

A little inconvenience to musicians or concert goers is a small price to pay for getting Palestinian voices heard. And the threat of rising anti-Semitism comes not from BDS campaigners, who are explicitly anti-racist, but from those who insist on shackling Jewish identity to the Israeli state and all its works.

Israel devotes massive resources to its public relations war machine, called “Brand Israel”. Supporters of BDS cannot match a fraction of those resources, but by its own actions Israel makes it easier by the day to “Brand Israel” in the public mind as the racist, colonial settler state it is.

Beethoven would have approved!

Demonising the fly-in: Israel’s strategy in action

J-BIG member Les Levidow was one of the London-based activists whose plan to travel to Bethlehem via Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on July 8 was thwarted by a hysterical security clamp-down by the Israel authorities. After returning from several days detention in Givon Prison, Levidow wrote this analysis of Israeli attempts to stigmatise participants, first as “provocateurs” and “hooligans” and then as “terrorists”.

Short version in German

The ‘Welcome to Palestine’ initiative aimed to challenge Israel’s blockade on Palestinians receiving foreign visitors. They have been effectively barred from Palestine unless pretending to be tourists or Christian pilgrims. Even prisoners have some rights to receive visitors, but the Israeli prison known as ‘the West Bank’ keeps out pro-Palestinian visitors.

To challenge this restriction, several hundred of us planned to arrive at Ben Gurion airport on 8th July for a week-long programme of events. In the publicly advertised plan, we would openly declare our intention to visit Bethlehem and to be hosted by the Al-Rowwad Cultural Centre there. This initiative came to be called the fly-in. Some mass media called it the flytilla, by analogy to the Gaza flotilla being simultaneously blocked by Greece, though our week-long programme had been planned several months earlier.

Nearly all of us were blocked enroute to Palestine (see below), resulting in high-profile mass- media coverage in Israel and Europe. This achieved a major aim of the initiative, said Dr Mazin Qumsiyeh:

The local organizers of the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign, while sad about our continuing isolation from the international community, are pleased that this episode and brutal Israeli assault removes one of the last illusions about “Israeli Democracy.”

Blocking hooligans?

Just before 8th July, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denouncedus as ‘provocateurs’ intending to cause disturbances and criminal damage. ‘Our intelligence says some of these people want to cause confrontation’, he said. He personally inspected prison facilities for detaining us. Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharomowitz warned, ‘We will block these hooligans from entering the state.’

Pre-emptive actions ensued. Israel sent airline companies a list of banned individuals, who the day before received email messages barring them from their flights, e.g. from Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt and Geneva. On 8th July protests at those airports were filmed and posted on YouTube with the title ‘Israeli checkpoint’. A spokesperson for the fly-in said, ‘Charles de Gaulle Airport is under Israeli occupation.’

The Israeli government encouraged such a view of its political influence in Europe. Commenting to the mass media, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said that Israel’s diplomatic efforts led to the airlines’ cooperation in preventing the departure of the activists. This political basis was denied by airlines: ‘The fact that we prevented the activists from boarding the planes is no evidence of our supporting the State of Israel against the activists, or the opposite.’ According to Lufthansa, their action was legally constrained: airlines are obliged to block anyone ‘whose entry is refused by the destination country, as in this case’.

We learned about the Europe-wide blockages on the day before our departure and so anticipated problems at London’s Luton airport on Friday morning 8th July. Fortunately, we smoothly boarded our Easyjet flight (except for one well-known activist who had been interviewed on Israeli radio). As we proceeded to the passenger area upstairs, some of us were stopped by a British official – probably from MI5, the political police. He asked to see our boarding passes, apparently to identify anyone on the Tel Aviv flight, and then asked exactly where we planned to go or whether we planned to attend a demonstration. When one womansaid no, she was accused of lying. Here the UK government was turning Luton airport into an Israeli checkpoint, acting on the paranoia and lies of the Israeli government.

Arriving at Ben Gurion airport, when we told passport control that we intended to travel to Bethlehem, 14 of us were detained – but were never questioned by Israeli authorities.

(Another UK participant was allowed through passport control, soon received a phone call about our detention, tried to protest, was arrested and then was detained with the rest of us.)

Delegates arriving earlier from other countries had a similar experience; only a few of them were questioned. We all had stated our travel destination in order to challenge the blockade.

Nevertheless the government attributed subterfuge and deception to us. An official told the mass media that ‘most of the activists were identified and taken in for questioning during the afternoon hours’, implying that they had a great task to identify us.

Moreover, the Prime Minister later commented: ‘We stopped the defiant fly-in against the state of Israel. Israel will continue to frustrate provocations and attempts to break through our borders, whether by land, sea or air.’ Such paranoic language attributes physical force to people seeking to enter the country in the normal way. If openly visiting Palestinians is ‘against the state of Israel’, then what kind of the state is it?

While awaiting transfer from the airport to prison, at least 60 of us were crowded into an office of the Border Police. Officials there seemed unprepared for dealing with us, even embarrassed at detaining us. After a couple hours, 21 soldiers and police stormed in, grabbed some activists and dragged them downstairs to a police vehicle, where handcuffs were waiting and applied.

Meanwhile the police were filming us, perhaps hoping to get a violent response to show the mass media, though we simply huddled together for protection. We would have appeared as implausible hooligans, especially given our social composition: more than half were women, and approx. one-third were more than 50 years old. Without physical resistance, the rest of us walked downstairs to the police vehicles, which took us to Givon Prison near Ramle. There a wing had been allocated to us, with separate sections for the men and women. This prison is normally used to detain people who are classified as ‘illegal immigrants’, originating mainly from the global South.

Returnees from Givon Prison at Luton airport, 12 July. Women had written on their prison-issue t-shirts: ‘Prisoner of Israeli Democracy’. Credit: Alan Wheatley, London Green Party

We never received an official explanation for why we were detained. According to the UK consulate’s second-hand account from the Israeli government, officially we had never entered Israel and so were still ‘in transit’, despite being imprisoned 30 km from the airport. Although Israel has formal rules and rights for illegal immigrants, ‘You are in another dimension’, the Givon Prison chief told us. In response to the blockage, the Welcome to Palestine organisers stated: ‘Over 120 internationals attempting to visit Palestine are still being illegally detained – kidnapped – in two Israeli detention centers, in Ramle and in Beer Al-Saba’ (Beersheva).’

Demonising Arab-European activists

After our imprisonment, the Israeli authorities attempted to salvage their original storyline that the fly-in posed a violent threat. Here is how…

The day after we arrived in the prison, a couple Border Police officials visited the prison with an offer – initially to me: ‘For humanitarian reasons, you can go to Bethlehem if you sign a document promising not to visit any place where there is conflict with the Army.’ I asked, ‘Couldn’t there be conflict with the Army anywhere?’ They clarified that the restriction meant places such as Bilin, Silwan, Jayous, etc. – i.e., flashpoints around the Apartheid Wall.  As they also clarified, this offer was open to all the prisoners more than 55 years old.

After discussion among the older men, we agreed to accept the travel restriction – if the offer was extended to all the prisoners, regardless of age. We discussed our idea with the younger men, who supported our counter-proposal. Then we put this to the Border Police officials, who gave no verbal response.

Why the age limit in the Israeli proposal? Youth was being used as a marker for the dangerous Other: the French and Belgian younger men (approx. 30-50 years old) were mainly of North- African Arab descent, while only one older man was. The Border Police aimed to use the older men for a political aim: if we accepted their offer, then the ethnically Arab-European men could be isolated and stigmatised. Israel more widely uses youth as a marker for danger, e.g. in its 2009 ruling that only the under-15s and the over-50s males could go pray in Al Aqsa during Ramadhan and for a few weeks afterwards.

The Israeli offer to us was repeated several times. It was put individually to some older prisoners during our four days there. And was put again to eight of us (Brits and Americans) when brought back to Ben Gurion airport on Tuesday 12th July. An hour before our London flight, the Border Police repeated the offer. ‘We can take you to Jerusalem this evening’, one said half-jokingly.

In my final opportunity to probe the rationale of the Border Police, our interchange went as follows:

Q: Why is this offer only for the older people?

A: We first made this offer especially to you.

Q: Why me?

A: Because we know that you won’t act in a violent way.

Q: When we proposed to accept your offer if it was open to all the prisoners, why didn’t you agree?

A: Because our intelligence agency has information about the others.

Q: What information?

A: Involvement in terrorism.

So the original threat was upgraded – from provocateurs and hooligans to terrorists. Supposedly the Israeli officials had such information yet had not warned airlines about ‘terrorists’ on passenger lists.

(A Zionist website tried another demonization tactic, saying that older members of the delegation had been ‘flirting with fascism’, e.g. by effectively supporting Hamas or Hizbollah via involvement in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign)

Colluding with the Occupation

Non-violence was a central principle of the ‘Welcome to Palestine’ fly-in.16 As peace-keepers, international solidarity activists often join Palestinians in trying to protect their houses or their olive crops against pressures from illegal settlements. Sometimes the presence of internationals helps to deter terrorist activities by the IDF and settlers. So, how could Israel label the fly-in participants as hooligans or terrorists? Like its precedents in European colonialism, the Zionist state has generally projected its terrorist activity onto its colonial subjects, thus portraying its own crimes as self-defence against ‘terrorism’.

Unfortunately, this strategy has ideological resonance with EU laws conflating terrorism with any resistance to oppression and even verbal solidarity. Under EU law, a vaguely defined ‘terrorism’ encompasses offences committed with the aim of ‘unduly compelling a Government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act’, anywhere in the world. On this basis, the EU banned a list of organisations (e.g. Hamas) as ‘terrorist’ and even authorised penalties against anyone associated with ‘terrorism’, as a means to deter European solidarity with resistance against oppression abroad.

In particular, bank accounts in Europe can be denied or frozen, simply on grounds of suspicion. This happened to the UK’s Viva Palestina convoy, though eventually it found an alternative bank. A Muslim charity providing aid to Palestine has been disrupted by three investigations about supposed links to terrorism, on the basis of no credible evidence.

By contrast to those political targets, the EU’s allies are never subjected to the vague definition of terrorism. For example, President Sarkozy is sponsoring a September 2011 conference on victims of terrorism. The organisers emphasise attacks on Israelis but remain silent about their attacks on Palestinians.

In those ways, the EU political-legal system encourages Israel to portray its war crimes as self- defence by an innocent victim. When the Border Police attempted to isolate Arab-European men from other European delegates, this attempt complemented the EU’s ‘counter-terror’ regime. The European fly-in became another target of Israel’s racist apartheid system, especially its demonization of resistance.

In the future we may face more systematic collusion between the EU and Israel in protecting its Occupation of Palestine against international solidarity. How best to anticipate and challenge this collusion?

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Author’s note

Thanks to the following: the ‘Welcome to Palestine’ network for organising the event, Scottish PSC for coordinating the London Easyjet contingent, fellow delegates for helpful comments on an earlier draft and of course the Givon Prison residents for camaraderie.

Bio-note: Les Levidow has been opposing the Israeli Occupation through various UK campaigns since the 1980s. These include: the ‘Return’ petition against the Israeli Law of Return (late 1980s), Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Jews Against Zionism (JAZ), Jews for Boycotting Israel Goods (J-BIG), and the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP). He also participates in the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC), which opposes ‘anti-terror’ powers of the EU and UK.