Musical Protest

A few days ago, a concert at the Wigmore Hall by the Jerusalem Quartet was interrupted by what the radio announcer (I happened to be listening to the live broadcast) called a disturbance. Turned out it was a protest by a group of anti-Zionist activists, one of whom, Tony Greenstein, subsequently explained on his blog that

we wanted to make a clear statement that those who aid and abet the murderous activities of the Israeli Occupation Forces cannot then claim some form of musical diplomatic immunity

— because the Quartet are not only ‘cultural ambassadors’ for Israel but they regularly perform for the troops of the Israeli army. [*]

Well, I’m all in favour of such protests, even once participated in one myself, and if I’d been there I would have applauded them. But I find that I now have to disagree strongly with Greenstein’s subsequent blog on the subject, which purports to give us the lowdown on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. This comes up because some of the quartet’s members also play in this orchestra founded ten years ago by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, which has become very high profile internationally, in which young musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Middle East countries sit down together to perform, yes, the European classics—and since Barenboim is one the very finest conductors around today, the results, it must be said, are amazing. (More mellow than Gustavo Dudamel’s Bolivarian Youth Orchestra, but just as inspired.)

Greenstein dismisses the West-Eastern Divan because it claims non-political status, ‘which means it challenges nothing’. Said, he says, wrote a brilliant book on Orientalism, but when he helped found the West-Eastern Divan he ‘had clearly forgotten that such “dialogue” groups are part of Western Orientalist practice’. This is debatable. When he says the founding of the orchestra was ‘a grievous error’—well, what mean-spirited nonsense!

To support his case, he reproduces an article by the Irish composer Raymond Dean called ‘Utopia as Alibi: Said, Barenboim and the Divan Orchestra’ which is basically a kind of ultra-leftist critique. This begins by citing Said explaining that the orchestra was founded ‘for humanistic rather than political reasons’, which according to Dean ‘implies that music belongs to a utopian sphere somehow removed from the dialectical hurly-burly of hegemony and resistance’. But this is only half right. Utopian, absolutely, but also unreconciled and transgressive, as Said in his various writings on music well understood, which means it is only removed from the hurly-burly dialectically, in order for it to re-enter symbolically. Which of course is not going to satisfy the ultra-leftist, who wants action.

Dean relies in turn on British musicologist Rachel Beckles Willson, but gives a terribly reductive reading of her highly illuminating essay, ‘Whose Utopia? Perspectives on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’, which argues that this is a complex business, multi-layered, multifaceted, and full of internal contradictions, because it depends on competing utopian projects, and on whose point of view you see it from.

Dean also criticises Barenboim, who ‘goes a clumsy step further’, he says, ‘by repeatedly depicting musical processes as metaphors for social and political structures.’ But this is exactly what they are! Music is always an expression of actual or ideal social relations. ‘The groups which musicians constitute, the relations they engage in when playing or performing, these are analogues either of existing patterns of social relations, or else their idealisation, their ideological refraction. It is not for nothing that from Plato to John Cage, music has been an agent of utopian thinking in all its various guises.’ Anyway, this is what I once wrote in a book…

In other words, if Mahler was right when he claimed that a symphony should contain the whole world, then one of the young musicians of the orchestra is right when he says ‘The orchestra is a human laboratory that can express to the whole world how to cope with the other’.

How? By seeing what it means to listen to each other! This is what Barenboim knows: ‘The Divan’ he has said,

‘is…not going to bring peace… [it] was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to 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.’

This has to be right, because there is no military solution. (Barenboim himself thinks there are basically three possibilities: ‘either we kill each other, all of us; or we live in a bi-national state, which is unacceptable to Israel as a starting point; or we have two states – but they have from the very beginning to have open borders and to work together in some kind of a federation’.)

I completely agree with the protestors that the Israeli position is heinous, and with Barenboim when he says he suffers to think that so much of what Israel does is not worthy of Jewish history—I would probably put it more strongly. But in the face of the despair generated by an intractable conflict to which any solution seems impossible, the orchestra remains a powerful symbol—because music is redemptive, and as Said once put it, “it exists intensely in a state of unreconciled opposition to the depredations of daily life, the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.”

Greenstein also reports (as do many other sources) that protestors on an earlier occasion, in Edinburgh in 2008, have just had charged of ‘racially aggravated conduct’ against them dropped in the Scottish courts. This is excellent news. It provides a legal judgement that protesting against the actions of the Israeli state is not to be construed as racism. In other words, anti-Zionism is not anti-semitism!

[*] According to stuff thrown up by the affair, the Jerusalem Quartet have probably signed the same secret contract with the Israeli Foreign Ministry that the Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor wrote about two years ago, which includes a provision that

The service provider is aware that the purpose of ordering services from him is to promote the policy interests of the State of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel

— and another clause which effectively prohibits the ‘service provider’ from saying so. Greenstein compares such ‘service providers’ to ‘Leni Riefenstahl, Ezra Pound and many other distinguished people of culture who lent a willing hand to repressive regimes’, a rather odd paring. But it’s true that many states, of both right and left, support their artists this way. Sometimes it gets even more Kafkaesque, and the artists don’t even know (like when the CIA has gotten involved).

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