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.”
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