A concert at London's Barbican Centre in collaboration with the Embassy of Israel went ahead on Sunday despite a protest letter signed by more than 50 artists expressing their opposition last week. Artists, writers and musicians, including Tai Shani, the Turner Prize co-winner, and the acclaimed poet Benjamin Zephaniah, argued that the Israeli government must be "held to account for its policies towards the Palestinian people."
Led by founder Tom Cohen, Israel's Jerusalem Orchestra East & West performed folk songs from Morocco, Algeria and Turkey, as well as classic western songs.
The signatories, who also included the actors Miriam Margolyes and Stephen Rea, film-makers Peter Kosminksy and Ken Loach, and the writer Ahdaf Soueif, warned that the performance by the orchestra would be a "cynical attempt to re-brand apartheid as diversity and military occupation as tolerance." They pointed out that Jerusalem, an occupied city, "is the site of long-running oppression and violent military occupation as Israeli authorities seek to oust Indigenous Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and other areas. We doubt the Barbican would have partnered with the South African embassy during its apartheid era."
Moreover, the letter addressed the issue of the extreme far-right Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been indicted on corruption charges. "The recent inauguration of Benjamin Netanyahu has brought unapologetic supremacists into government, the most racist, fundamentalist and homophobic in Israel's history."
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Netanyahu's government was sworn in on 29 December, following a parliamentary election in November which gave the right-wing bloc a simple majority allowing it to form a coalition government.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), a founding member of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, welcomed the letter. PACBI added that Israel's "far-right ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, is no outlier", as the Israeli government "includes proud fascists who openly call for intensifying massacres and war crimes against Palestinians."
In response, a spokesperson for the Barbican said before the concert: "We present art and artists from all over the world. We are looking forward to welcoming Jerusalem Orchestra East & West, a talented and diverse group of musicians who celebrate musical traditions from North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Artistic work that is presented internationally often receives support from national governments, and we acknowledge the support for this event from the embassy of Israel in the UK."
In other words, said one observer, the Barbican hasn't addressed the concerns raised by the letter at all. "This is artwashing by the apartheid state and its accomplices," he added.