Sound and fury at the Proms over “apartheid” remark

This article first appeared in the September 2013 issue of the BRICUP Newsletter, http://www.bricup.org.uk
Proms collaboration between Kennedy and the young musicians from Palestine Strings.  Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Proms collaboration between Kennedy and the young musicians from Palestine Strings.
Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Violinist Nigel Kennedy sent Israel’s apologists into a mighty spin during a Promenade concert in London on August 8 when he used the word “apartheid” to refer to the life circumstances of the young Palestinian musicians with whom he was sharing the stage.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Kennedy, addressing an overwhelmingly supportive audience for his innovative performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the Royal Albert Hall, “ it’s a bit facile to say it, but we all know from experiencing this night of music tonight, that given equality and getting rid of apartheid gives a beautiful chance for amazing things to happen.”
Kennedy, an enfant terrible of the classical music world , had not played at the Proms for years but took advantage of a radical mix of programmes this time to revisit the Four Seasons with a number of jazz musicians, his own largely Polish Orchestra of Life and 17 players from the Palestine Strings wearing trademark keffiyehs. Aged between 12 and 23, these protégées of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music demonstrated considerable artistry in one of the world’s greatest performance spaces. No wonder the Zionist reaction to their mentor’s solidarity comment was so swift and strong.
Within days the Jewish Chronicle announced with satisfaction  that the BBC intended deleting Kennedy’s remark from its edited TV broadcast of the concert. Baroness Ruth Deech, a prominent Zionist and former BBC governor, had pronounced his words “offensive and untrue” and unfit to be heard during a Prom concert. The BBC, saying they did not“fall within the editorial remit of the proms as a classical music festival,” duly obliged. The critically-acclaimed concert went out on BBC4 on August 23 without the offending comments.  
In the interim BRICUP chairman Jonathan Rosenhead had joined supporters of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, among them actress Miriam Margolyes and writer/comedian Alexei Sayle, in signing a letter contesting the BBC censorship decision. It was published on August 22 in the Daily Telegraph (scroll down through the other letters to find it here) along with a fair-minded article by the paper’s Religious Affairs editor John Bingham.
The Jewish Chronicle named BRICUP and Rosenhead in its coverage.
The issue was taken up by wider activist circles with writers’ organisation PEN and Index on Censorship weighing in in Kennedy’s defence. Rock legend Roger Waters of Pink Floyd was moved to issue a long-awaited statement calling on fellow musicians to back the boycott.
petition calling on the BBC to revoke its censorship decision  quickly garnered more than 1,200 signatures.
Music commentator Norman Lebrecht, himself deeply pro-Israel, picked up the story, calling into question the provenance of a statement in which Kennedy described his comments as “purely descriptive and not political whatsoever” anddenounced the BBC’s “imperial lack of impartiality”. The flighty genius does not own a computer or use any new-fangled digital media so the statement was issued via a musician friend’s Facebook page. As a matter of interest, Lebrecht later posted YouTube footage of the concert, generating serious and largely favourable discussion on his blog.
Matters were complicated by Kennedy’s own manager Terri Robson – presumably with an eye to her charge’s potentially lucrative future bookings – publicly suggesting that the BBC was within its rights to censor him.
Thanks to links with pro-Palestinian classical musicians who are in contact with Kennedy – he does at least own a mobile phone – we were primed and ready when he once again re-iterated his pro-Palestinian stance in an open letter to the Palestine Strings.
He observed that his comment would surely not “have been censored if it had been referring to the benefits of the demise of the apartheid in South Africa when playing with an African ensemble”.
 
Kennedy’s letter suggested that the Palestine Strings had been detained for 12 hours on their return to Palestine. This turned out to be a misunderstanding. The players were not detained but Edward Said National Conservatory of Music’s Orchestras Manager, Tim Pottier, was held for 12 hours at the Allenby Bridge. An official at the conservatory explained in a private email, “Tim is now sadly used to long interrogations and waiting at the Bridge, although the return from the Prom established a record. The occupying authorities who control all entries to Palestine know him far too well and, I suspect, do not like what he does.”
This incident, naturally enough, was not deemed newsworthy by mainstream media. Indeed, although the Telegraph’s Bingham refers to “a bitter row over alleged censorship”, others showed zero interest in the BBC censorship story.
One late entry into the fray was pundit Dominic Lawson who chose to use his valedictory column in the Independent on September 2 to slag off Kennedy and Waters as part of a sinister army of antisemites holding Israel responsible for all the evils of the world.
His attack highlights the care supporters of BDS need to take in the terminology they use. Waters has defended himself expertly when challenged, but drawing attention to Baroness Deech’s Jewish-sounding maiden name (“nee Fraenkel”) rather than referencing her vociferous Zionism, and shooting down a pig-shaped zeppelin emblazoned with a Star of David (albeit alongside other symbols of oppression), has handed ammunition to the enemies of BDS. A call from a small group of German Jews to boycott a forthcoming concert by Waters has won mainstream coverage denied to the injustice done to Kennedy.
It remains to be seen, at the time of writing, if any further controversy will follow Kennedy’s planned appearance at the Last Night of the Proms on September 7.
As he himself noted when news of the BBC’s censorship plan became known:
“ . . . the BBC has created . . . a huge platform for the discussion of its own impartiality, its respect (or lack of it) for free speech and for the discussion of the miserable apartheid forced on the Palestinian people by the Israeli government supported by so many governments from the outside world.”

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