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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.