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Boycotting beauty - the Jerusalem Quartet

By Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi

In March 2010, protests in a London concert hall interrupted a live BBC Radio3 broadcast by an Israeli chamber music group and sparked vehement arguments about the legitimacy of such actions. On Saturday (May 22) the Jerusalem Quartet returned to London's Wigmore Hall, as unrepentant about being designated "Distinguished IDF [Israeli Army] musicians" as are the protestors who took them off air in March about their actions.

Boycott campaigners, with many Jews among them, say targeting high-profile Israeli cultural institutions is legitimate as long as Israeli injustices against the Palestinian people continue unchecked. They point to an explicit Palestinian call, issued in July 2005, "for people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts… against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era." The goals of such boycotts include ending the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, dismantling the separation Wall, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of Palestinian refugees "to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194".


The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), a leading boycott advocate, has posed a challenge to the members of the quartet and to viola virtuoso Laurence Power who shared the stage with them on Saturday evening. In a letter to Powers the Committee said the Israeli state "provides strong financial inducements to its artists and academics in an attempt to add a spuriously respectable veneer to its contempt for human rights and international law". BRICUP asked Power not to take part in "this state-sponsored attempt at cultural whitewash" and invited the Quartet to "dispel any mistaken impressions that exist about your relationship with your government".

BRICUP has received no reply and takes this as an admission that the quartet remains a state-approved cultural ambassador for Israel and therefore a legitimate boycott target. Zionist lobbyists, however, claim that boycott actions against the Jerusalem Quartet are examples of a well-oiled campaign to "delegitimize" Israel, with the ultimate aim of denying Jews the right to a homeland.

When Scottish Palestine solidarity campaigners disrupted a Jerusalem Quartet concert in Edinburgh in August 2008, Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor said, "We must not give in to the attempts to sabotage the marketing of Israeli art and culture in Britain." (Jewish Chronicle, 4 Sep 2008) According to historian Tony Judt, a Jewish critic of Israel, "[so-called] 'de-legitimization' is just another way to invoke anti-Semitism as a silencer." (http:/www.forward.com/rticles/126991/)

Refusing to be silenced, soprano Deborah Fink from the campaign group Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-BIG) interrupted the second movement (Andante) of Mozart's string quartet in D (K575) at a concert in Wigmore Hall on March 29, singing "Jerusalem is occupied" to the tune of "The Holy City". She was joined by four other protesters who disrupted the performance by the Jerusalem Quartet at regular intervals until they were each in turn escorted from the hall by security staff. There were no arrests.

The BBC halted its live Radio 3 broadcast as soon as Ms. Fink started to sing, causing initial confusion among listeners but then generating an intense debate on their online discussion forum. Some sympathised with Wigmore Hall director John Gilhooly's comment: "It is such a pity that music has been politicised." Others argued that music was always political and cited composers Shostakovitch and Messiaen to support their case. Yet others contended that political demonstrations should never intrude upon the sanctuary of the concert hall. In response, some contributors to the debate recalled with approval disrupted performances by touring Soviet orchestras, opera and ballet companies in the 1970s. The protesters themselves said allowing representatives of the State of Israel free access to cultural events implied approval of its brutal occupation.

The quartet's riposte was to insist they "no more represent the government of Israel than the audience at the Wigmore Hall represented the Government of the United Kingdom". Two of them work to "foster Israel Arab relations" by playing in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian thinker Edward Said to bring together young musicians from across the political divide in the Middle East. "We are musicians, not politicians," they said in a statement, which avoided any political reference to the Palestinians or the Israeli army's role in their suppression. But they took part, in 2006, in events marking Israel's 60th anniversary that Barenboim refused to attend because they celebrated the Palestinians' tragedy.

Tony Greenstein, also of J-BIG and one of the Wigmore Hall protesters in March, said the "art not politics" arguments mirror those used to try to undermine boycott actions against South African apartheid. Musicians, or sportsmen, who allow themselves to be paraded as ambassadors for a state denying rights to a subject people cannot claim to be divorced from politics, he said.

In fact the quartet was established in 1994 under the auspices of the Jerusalem Music Centre and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation which funded their studies. Its website states clearly: "Our recipients serve as Israel's cultural ambassadors around the world…" (http://www.aicf.org/)
Like all Israeli citizens, the four young musicians have served the Israeli Defence Force. In 2003 the Israel Press Service reported: "When their military service ended three years ago, they changed status to Distinguished IDF Musicians and continue to play for troops three times a week when they're in Israel." In 2006, Cellist Kyril Zlotnikov told an Australian newspaper they were happy to be called "the best ambassadors from Israel." (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/)

The quartet's Australian tour in 2009 was part-funded by the Israeli government. The contract signed by Israeli artists receiving state sponsorship describes their role as "service provider… to promote the policy interests of the State of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel." Thus, the "musicians not politicians" defence simply does not work.

Music journalist Jessica Duchen found herself in a "horrible dilemma" over the Wigmore Hall protests, loving JQ's music but hating what their government did in Gaza and is doing in the occupied West Bank. "Because of that association… I'm afraid they do by default become fair game for the hecklers," Duchen wrote on her blog.

So what options are open to Palestine solidarity activists? Israel defies UN resolutions, flouts international law and treats with contempt even the most modest moves to hold it to account – witness Netanyahu's recent spat with Obama over illegal settlements and the witch-hunt against Judge Richard Goldstone for his report on Gaza. It is because Israel succeeds in pushing Palestine to the bottom of the international agenda that a professional singer, used to treating classical music performance with reverence, was driven to interrupt a concert in a hallowed concert hall.

"I hated having to upset the audience, and the players too," said Deborah Fink, "but ultimately their upset is as nothing compared to the dreadful suffering of the Palestinian people. They are not free to enjoy music, nor can they travel freely to study and perform. A picket on its own would not have had the same impact."

Zionist lobbyists have made a deliberate decision to direct attention away from arguments about settlement and occupation, which they acknowledge they cannot win, to questions of legitimacy. Presenting a cultured, civilized face to world is a key component in this strategy, and the Jerusalem Quartet is an exquisite brick in the fa├žade.

Boycott actions like Fink's pose the question, should we challenge Israel's politics of conquest and domination with their potential for a catastrophic conflict engulfing the Middle East, or do we just lie back and enjoy the music?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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