London — When well-organized hecklers disrupted a recent London performance by the Jerusalem Quartet, the protest resonated far beyond Wigmore Hall, the city’s famous and much loved lunchtime place of pilgrimage for music lovers seeking a break from the hubbub of central London.
Not only did the disturbance cause the BBC to pull the plug on its nationwide live broadcast of the lunchtime recital; it sparked a new round of increasingly heated debates about the legitimacy of political demonstrations targeting Israel’s “cultural ambassadors” abroad, by protesters seeking to publicize alleged war crimes and human rights violations by the Jewish state.
Since the March 29 Wigmore protest, moreover, a landmark legal ruling elsewhere in the United Kingdom — arising from a previous demonstration against the quartet two years ago — is likely to further embolden those behind such actions.
In an April 8 ruling, a court in Edinburgh, Scotland, cleared five pro-Palestinian activists of racism, dismissing charges that they were guilty of racially aggravated conduct against members of the quartet.
The case dates to an August 2008 concert at the Edinburgh International Festival that hecklers disrupted repeatedly in protest against Israel’s blockade of Gaza, occupation of the West Bank and the musicians’ alleged links to the Israeli military.
State prosecutors had claimed that using this venue to protest against Israel and Israelis showed “malice and ill will” toward the quartet because of the musicians’ membership in a racial group, rendering the protest racist.
But after hearing a full transcript of the incident from a BBC recording of the concert, the presiding legal official (known as a “Sheriff” in this branch of Scottish law) ruled that the charges were disproportionate and failed to meet the test of racial abuse. He ruled the prosecution was a clear breach of the right to protest.
That it was the Jerusalem Quartet’s luck to be the target of high-profile protests in both cases is no small irony: The group’s name and its members’ past national service as musicians in the Israel Defense Forces notwithstanding, only one of the four lives in Israel today. And two are members and section leaders of the West-Eastern Divan — the youth orchestra co-founded by Edward Said, the late anti-Zionist, Palestinian-American scholar and activist, and by Daniel Barenboim, the Argentine-Jewish pianist and conductor.
The orchestra, based in Spain, is composed of musicians from Israel and of Arabs from across the Middle East, along with others from the region, and is conceived, in Barenboim’s words, “as a project against ignorance [where] people get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it… a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.”
“I don’t really know how to respond to these people or the misinformation they have been spreading,” said Kyril Zlotnikov, the quartet’s cellist, of the protesters. The musician, who was born in Minsk, Belarus, and is now based in Portugal, added: “I am an ambassador for my country in the same way that any musician from Britain, for example, is an ambassador for their country. Britain is like other countries in the world that have done some terrible things, but also some amazing good things.”
But a statement that the group released right after the Wigmore incident appeared to be less than accurate. “We are Israeli citizens, but have no connection with or patronage by the Government,” the statement said. In fact, publicity for the group lists Israel’s Foreign Ministry as a sponsor or co-sponsor of numerous appearances by the quartet, including on a European tour from 2005 to 2006 and a tour of the United States from 2007 to 2008. The group’s 2009 Australian tour was supported, in part, by an $8,000 Israeli Foreign Ministry grant, according to The Age, an Australian daily. In that same statement, the two members who play with the West-Eastern Divan added, “It is destructive of our attempts to foster Israel-Arab relations for us to be the subject of demonstrations of the kind we suffered the other day.”
“So what?” say supporters of the protest in the U.K., increasingly a European center for pro-Palestinian activism. Those involved in other manifestations of the same movement scored bigger publicity coups by securing arrest warrants from lower courts ahead of visits by Israeli military and political figures.
The Jerusalem Quartet should be boycotted, they say, for reasons such as their role as cultural ambassadors for Israel, the fact that their tours have been sponsored by the Israeli government and because they have enjoyed an official status in the military as distinguished IDF musicians.
“Their whole career has intertwined with the Israeli army and support for Zionist institutions. That is why they were targeted,” said Tony Greenstein, who was one of the Wigmore Hall protesters.
Greenstein, who is Jewish, said that the activists had deliberately ensured that two of the five protesters were Jews, in order to avoid accusations of racism and an attempt, as was the case in Scotland, to bring racism charges against them.
“Certainly I imagine that culture will be a target in the future,” added Greenstein, whose political activism dates back to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1960s, when he was involved in disrupting rugby matches by visiting South African teams.
“There will be protests … particularly when you get groups like this, which have lined themselves up so closely with the state. It’s a fertile field to plow, so to speak.”
As for the argument about the quartet’s role in the West-Eastern Divan, Greenstein claimed — inaccurately — that none of the Divan’s Arab members are from the Israeli occupied West Bank. The quartet’s argument, he said, was “also based on the idea that the conflict is based on what is inside [the musicians’] heads. That is simply the height of unreality.”
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The protesters have not gone unanswered. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, music critic Norman Lebrecht described their protest as “an assault on a place of sanctuary.”
Zlotnikov told the Forward that while he and the quartet’s other three members were eager to put the episode behind them, they were “stronger” as a result of it and were looking forward to a tour of the U.K. and other parts of Europe in May.
“We are about representing really good things that Israel has offered. We represent art, we do not represent any political views,” he said.
Contact Ben Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org
by Efraim Karsh
August 2, 2010
Shimon Peres, Israel's 87-year-old president doesn't usually arouse antagonism among Europeans.
A tireless peace advocate for decades, and architect of the Oslo Process for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize, he has long presented Israel's moderate face to the outside world.
Yet last week he provoked anger among British politicians and Anglo-Jewish leaders when he told a Jewish website that the British establishment had always been "deeply pro-Arab ... and anti-Israel," and that this was partly due to endemic anti-Semitic dispositions. "I can understand Mr. Peres' concerns, but I don't recognize what he is saying about England," said James Clappison, vice-chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel. "Things are certainly no worse, as far as Israel is concerned, in this country than other European countries. He got it wrong."
But did he? While few arguments have resonated more widely, or among a more diverse set of observers, than the claim that Britain has been the midwife of the Jewish state, the truth is that no sooner had Britain been appointed as the mandatory power in Palestine, with the explicit task of facilitating the establishment of a Jewish national home in the country in accordance with the Balfour Declaration, than it reneged on this obligation.
AS EARLY as March 1921, the British government severed the vast and sparsely populated territory east of the Jordan River ("Transjordan") from the prospective Jewish national home and made Abdullah, the emir of Mecca, its effective ruler. In 1922 and 1930, two British White Papers limited Jewish immigration to Palestine – the elixir of life of the prospective Jewish state – and imposed harsh restrictions on land sales to Jews.
Britain's betrayal of its international obligations to the Jewish national cause reached its peak on May 17, 1939, when a new White Paper imposed draconian restrictions on land sales to Jews and limited immigration to 75,000 over the next five years, after which Palestine would become an independent state in which the Jews would comprise no more than one-third of the total population.
Such were the anti-Zionist sentiments within the British establishment at the time that even a life-long admirer of Zionism like prime minister Winston Churchill rarely used his wartime dominance of British politics to help the Zionists (or indeed European Jewry). However appalled by the White Paper he failed to abolish this "low grade gasp of a defeatist hour" (to use his own words), refrained from confronting his generals and bureaucrats over the creation of a Jewish fighting force in Palestine, which he wholeheartedly supported, and gave British officialdom a free rein in the running of Middle Eastern affairs, which they readily exploited to promote the Arab case. In 1943, for instance, Freya Stark, the acclaimed author, orientalist, and Arabian adventurer, was sent to the US on a seven-month propaganda campaign aimed at undercutting the Zionist cause and defending Britain's White Paper policy.
That this could happen at the height of the Nazi extermination of European Jewry of which Whitehall was keenly aware offered a stark demonstration of the mindset of British officialdom, which was less interested in stopping genocide than in preventing its potential survivors from reaching Palestine after the war.
So much so that senior Foreign Office members portrayed Britain, not Europe's Jews, as the main victim of the Nazi atrocities.
THIS ANTI-ZIONISM was sustained into the postwar years as the Labor Party, which in July 1945 swept to power in a landslide electoral victory, swiftly abandoned its pre-election pro-Zionist platform to become a bitter enemy of the Jewish national cause. The White Paper restrictions were kept in place, and the Jews were advised by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin not "to get too much at the head of the queue" in seeking recourse to their problems.
Tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors who chose to ignore the warning and to run the British naval blockade were herded into congested camps in Cyprus, where they were incarcerated for years.
"Should we accept the view that all the Jews or the bulk of them must leave Germany?" Bevin rhetorically asked the British ambassador to Washington.
"I do not accept that view. They have gone through, it is true, the most terrible massacre and persecution, but on the other hand they have got through it and a number have survived."
Prime Minister Clement Attlee went a step further by comparing Holocaust survivors wishing to leave Europe and to return to their ancestral homeland to Nazi troops invading the continent.
While these utterances resonated with the pervasive anti-Semitism within British officialdom (the last high commissioner for Palestine, General Sir Alan Cunningham, for instance, said of Zionism, "The forces of nationalism are accompanied by the psychology of the Jew, which it is important to recognize as something quite abnormal and unresponsive to rational treatment"), Britain's Middle Eastern policy also reflected the basic fact that as occupiers of vast territories endowed with natural resources (first and foremost oil) and sitting astride strategic waterways (e.g., the Suez Canal), the Arabs had always been far more meaningful for British interests than the Jews.
As the chief of the air staff told the British cabinet in 1947, "If one of the two communities had to be antagonized, it was preferable, from the purely military angle, that a solution should be found which did not involve the continuing hostility of the Arabs."
One needs look no further than David Cameron's statements on the Middle East to see this anti-Israel mindset is alive and kicking. In the summer of 2006, when thousands of Hizbullah missiles were battering Israel's cities and villages, he took the trouble of issuing a statement from the tropical island on which he was vacationing at the time condemning Israel's "disproportionate use of force."
Four years later, while on an official visit to Turkey, he went out of his way to placate his Islamist host, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by criticizing Israel's efforts to prevent the arming of the Hamas Islamist group, which, like its Lebanese counterpart, had been lobbing thousands of missiles on Israel's civilian population for years.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Efraim Karsh is professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College London, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and author, most recently, of Palestine Betrayed.