Classical music censored for Israel

White phosphorus bombs explode over Gaza City on 8 January 2009.

Mohammed Salem Reuters

In March 2008 Angela Merkel became the first German chancellor to address the Israeli parliament.

In a speech that never once mentioned the occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands, she described Israel’s security as “part of my country’s raison d’être” – Staatsräson – more precisely, “reason of state,” and asserted that “only if Germany accepts its enduring responsibility for the moral disaster in its history will we be able to build a humane future.”

However, Germany accepts no responsibility for the fact that its “reason of state” has led to a moral disaster perpetrated against the dispossessed Palestinians, violently deprived of a humane future by Israel, with which Merkel claimed Germany shares “the values of freedom, democracy and respect for human dignity.”

Germany’s ruling political and media elites see no paradox in the fact that their country’s much-vaunted Vergangenheitsbewältigung – “coming to terms with the past” – entails both unconditional support for an ethnocracy actively engaged in the ethnic cleansing of a subject people, and the suppression of free speech at home in order to manufacture consent for this complicity.

It might be thought that such McCarthyism constitutes, if anything, a regression that should have been precluded by reflection on the Nazi past.

Recently, such music festivals as Ruhrtriennale and Pop-Kultur have been riven with controversies surrounding the critique and indeed boycott of Israel.

Hitherto the supposedly sedate world of contemporary German classical music has been spared such tensions, but that seems set to change.

Wieland Hoban is a 40-year-old Anglo-German composer and translator (notably of works by the philosophers Theodor Adorno and Peter Sloterdijk) based in Germany.

Hoban’s aims as a composer, his website tells us, only “occasionally incorporat[e] ideas from other arts or extra-musical areas.”

Such an area is Palestine, which Hoban evoked in a pair of compositions, Rules of Engagement I and II, dealing with Israel’s 2008-2009 onslaught on Gaza, which were performed in Berlin in 2013 and 2014 to small audiences without controversy.

However, when Hoban approached Björn Gottstein, the director of the legendary Donaueschingen music festival in southwest Germany, with a proposal for a third work in the cycle he was met not just with rejection but with the following statement, as paraphrased by Hoban: “although [Gottstein] gave composers a free hand in their use of political content, he would not tolerate any criticism of Israel at the festival and would prevent the appearance of any piece on the program that contained such criticism.”

What is at issue here is not Gottstein’s right to reject a proposal, but his right as an employee of a public broadcaster SWR to impose what Hoban terms “an absolute ban that applies to any and all composers who might be interested in addressing this subject,” specifically in a manner critical of Israel.

Rather than take this lying down, on 15 August Hoban published an open letter and within a matter of days had secured more than 180 signatures, mostly from composers, performers and musicologists and from some heavyweight personalities.

Signatories include writers and scholars Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Iris Hefets, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy, Avi Shlaim and Slavoj Žižek, former German parliamentarian Annette Groth and rock legend Roger Waters.

In taking this courageous step Hoban may be putting his career on the line, because the German state and its apparatchiks don’t take kindly to their unconditional support for Israel being questioned. (Indeed a decade ago I myself was privately threatened by a well-known German composer that my support for Palestinian rights constituted the crime of Volksverhetzung – incitement to hatred.)

There is also an online petition calling on public broadcaster SWR to end its policy of censoring criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights, and to ensure that Wieland Hoban suffers no professional or other disadvantages as a result of his courageous stand.

Gottstein’s response to Hoban, tweeted by the online music magazine VAN the next day, was uncompromising.

“Due to its history, Germany has special responsibilities towards Israel. Also due to its history, blatant anti-Semitism is not acceptable in most circles of German life. Instead, anti-Semitism is communicated through criticism of the state of Israel.”

“I would consider it a fatal mistake for Donaueschingen to present a piece of music singling out Israel for criticism,” Gottstein added. “In addition, the composer has participated in other actions which have called for the cultural boycott of Israel, and denounced Israel as practicing apartheid. These positions are unacceptable for me and for the Südwestrundfunk [SWR]. I do not want to contribute to anti-Semitism in Germany in any way.”

Once again, there is no mention of Palestinians.

Gottstein and by extension SWR (which to date has not confirmed that this is in fact its policy as well as Gottstein’s) explicitly equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, an equation denounced by, among others, the Jewish philosopher Judith Butler: “In holding out for a distinction to be made between Israel and Jews, I am calling for a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel to articulate; but I am also opposing anti-Semitic reductions of Jewishness to Israeli interests.”

Or, in this case, to German interests.

Among the signatories to Hoban’s open letter is the group Jewish Voice for Peace Germany (which is not affiliated with the similarly named organization in the US).

It would appear that for Gottstein, the Donaueschingen festival and SWR, Jewish voices don’t matter: a strange way to “come to terms with the past.”

Raymond Deane, co-founder and former chair of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, is an Irish composer, author and activist living in Ireland and Germany.

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Thanks for the excellent report and analysis. Relations between Germany and Israel are indeed a matter of importance for both countries. There are many reasons why business groups and political officials would prefer to maintain these connections without the need to answer criticism from defenders of Palestinian rights.

But it appears that in Germany as elsewhere, Jews who speak out against Israeli state crimes are being threatened in their own name, as it were, for the announced purpose of defeating antisemitism. Thus we're treated to the spectacle of a country with a horrific record of persecution of Europe's Jews endeavoring to silence through intimidation descendants of the very people their grandparents murdered.

There's a vaunting quality to German professions of guilt and shame, as though these are just more examples of the nation's innate superiority. I'm reminded of the boastful pride of the biggest sinner at a revival meeting. And we're expected to receive this profession in a humble spirit, submitting our judgement to theirs and ourselves to their guidance. It's as if their historical burden of guilt has rendered them innocent and given them a priestly vocation to steer the rest of us onto the path of righteousness. Personally, I don't think we really need to take lessons from them.

So whenever I hear Germans talk about their moral duty towards Jews, I think of the old admonition, "Just don't do me any favors- please."

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If you are in Germany in a higher position and you wish to continue your work it is recommended to act like the Donaueschingen Music Festival Director Gottstein. If he let the song of Hoban pass he will be the target of a well organised, loud and active shitstorm. His case will be in all news, in TV, talk shows, in magazines for days or weeks and he'll find himself maybe even fired. Therefore - unless you have a backbone and a personel value of moral - this is the way it's going in such a case in Germany.

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