I attended a free performance of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago at the city’s world-class Symphony Center earlier this week.
At the beginning of the program, in an acknowledgement of the terrible massacre during a rock concert at Paris’ Le Bataclan last Friday, the orchestra’s director spoke of the positive role music can play in a time of tragedy and violence.
Yet music and the arts more generally can also be used as a fig leaf for those committing the violence plaguing our world.
The night before I enjoyed the Civic Orchestra’s exhilarating performance of Beethoven’s 7th, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra played on that same stage.
The program an usher handed me before I found my seat featured two full-page ads with the names of the wealthy patrons who sponsored the philharmonic’s US tour and its performance in Chicago.
Cultural ambassadors for apartheid
One of those acknowledgements described the orchestra as “the preeminent cultural ambassador for the State of Israel.”
As such, the orchestra is part of the state’s efforts to market itself abroad – what its foreign ministry, then led by Tzipi Livni, who held top government office during the slaughter of 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza in winter 2008-2009, termed the “Brand Israel” campaign in 2006.
The stated goal of “Brand Israel” is to promote a liberal image of the country to advance commerce, tourism and foreign investment, as well as to improve its “political stand.”
Israel’s “political stand” – and increasingly, its economy – is suffering as world outrage grows after each successive massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians and as its military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and apartheid rule over all of historic Palestine lurches into yet another decade.
Two years before the launch of “Brand Israel,” another initiative made its debut – the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
A year later, Palestinian civil society made its call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) measures on Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinians can enjoy their fundamental rights.
These efforts to burst its bubble of impunity – afforded to it by the US government and other world powers – are something that Israel can no longer ignore.
Tours by “cultural ambassadors” are one strategy to combat these growing campaigns, as well as paying international artists huge sums to perform in Israel.
Refusing to play
But increasing numbers of cultural workers are vocally refusing to play Israel’s game, recognizing, as British musician Brian Eno and Israeli musician and boycott activist Ohal Grietzer put it, “In the current context, performing or not performing in Israel forces a choice between taking the side of the oppressor or the oppressed.”
In a video released this week, eight prominent artists state their support for the cultural boycott of Israel and describe its abuses of Palestinians’ human rights in general, and its targeting of culture in particular.
The short video features musicians Roger Waters, Kool A.D., Kyp Malone and Tamar-kali; the actress Kathleen Chalfant and actor Tunde Adebimpe; the author and artist Molly Crabapple; and the visual artist Swoon (Caledonia Curry). It can be viewed at the top of this page.
Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, which produced the video, states that more than 180 cultural workers in the city have signed a pledge to support the boycott.
Music and other forms of cultural expression can indeed play a powerful role for good.
Artists who reject the exploitation of their work to whitewash Israel’s violence are showing us how.