As the former editor of a noted classical music magazine, previously arts correspondent for Time, and a commentator for various major newspapers and media outlets, I have spent my fair share of time observing cultural initiatives that crossed, skirted, or danced around lines of conflict and controversy. Earlier this year, I debuted a play Off-Broadway that examined the role of music in the formation of the state of Israel. And these days, I spend a lot of time in Israel. So news of the controversy over the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visit to Israel next week is close to my heart, and familiar territory.
Here’s the catch-up: The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the world’s finest, and one of America’s so-called “Big Five.” They’ve appended a three-concert Israel visit to their European tour, to mark (and presumably some sponsors agreed that they should mark) Israel’s 70th anniversary year. Musically, this is straightforward, or should be.
Israel has a disproportionately rich tradition of turning out great classical musicians and every US orchestra, including the “Fabulous Philadelphians,” as they are nicknamed, regularly works with quite a few of these. Coming to the source, as it were, should be an enriching experience for them, while Israeli musicians will immensely benefit from hearing a truly great orchestra that, under brilliant Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin, is artistically resurgent as well — of the type that quite often used to come to Israel before funding became more scarce (and the Israel Festival in particular seemingly less interested).
But not everyone agrees that this visit is A Good Thing — you know the drill: concerts (shamefully) interrupted with protests, the Philadelphia Enquirer full of letters and articles on both sides, the BDS brigade out in full force.
It’s worth noting, too, that BDSers are making the US arts world a prime target. A low point occurred recently when a theatrical adaptation of David Grossman’s book, Towards The End Of The Land, was protested by a letter from multiple signatories to The New York Times, which, however, failed to arouse much in the way of on-site protests (that one, organized by Arab rights group and serial Israel-bashers Adalah, was especially shameful — the play was Grossman’s deeply personal way of processing the death of his son, Grossman himself of course also being one of the most vociferously pro-peace artists in Israel). So the rumpus over the Philadelphians’ visit came as no surprise, but the protesters are wrong. Wrong in their views, wrong to protest.
Culture can make peace (as with a Utrecht arts festival in 1713, that helped end generations of war); culture can provoke violence (one reason the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera has only now reached New York is the death threats that attended its initial UK tour). Mostly, though, culture inspires deeply personal, private reactions in its audiences. Listen to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a work the Philadelphia Orchestra will play around Israel, and you are filled with the composer’s yearning for a vision of humanity, for life to be as perfect as the music he heard in his head. The very act of striving to play that symphony — any great symphony — in a way that could could get close to that ideal is itself inspiring. It can move you to want to be better. That is what great music can do for humanity, one listener at a time, and that is why it is almost never wrong for an orchestra to play anywhere.
Almost. There are exceptions. We lionize Arturo Toscanini for refusing to conduct in Hitler’s Germany. I myself was once tangentially involved in an international orchestra trip to Iran, and had deep reservations about playing any part in a tour to a country whose leaders openly call for death to Israel, death to America, and, on occasion and for good measure, death to England. There isn’t an easy answer to any of these, except perhaps that you know it when you see it. I did work on that Iran tour and I believe I was right to do so. I still admire Toscanini.
But there is no parallel to Israel in any of those cases. Hamas, the terrorist group that rules in Gaza, knows that it cannot currently defeat Israel. Yet, as former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren has recently and correctly said, it hopes to force the Jewish state into a position of so much international pressure that the country will not be able to effectively defend itself.
The recent horrific events on the Gaza border were not instigated by Israel, which acted in self-defense. Did the IDF have to use live fire to that extent? I don’t know and I suspect you don’t either, but everything I have subsequently read and heard suggests there was no other way.
It’s hard to understand. Hard enough for Israelis themselves, wracked with pain over this event and so many others. Harder still for Americans, or Europeans, who aren’t confronted with a genocidal terrorist group willing — eager, even — for its citizens to die as (I use the term advisedly, and with a shudder) media fodder.
There is more than enough evidence now to show the complexity of what occurred. Let me reiterate some of those facts here — this mainly for readers outside of Israel who don’t regularly get their news from this publication (Israelis will know all of this all too well, and The Times of Israel has dutifully reported it)… The fact that a senior Hamas official admitted that more than 50 of the 60+ dead were Hamas operatives, that Hamas gave the protesters instructions to hide weapons under their clothes and specific plans for which Israeli villages to storm, that the massive crowds poured forward at coordinated moments in great, furious surges, that they flew flaming petrol-kites to raze Israeli fields, that there was a specific military choreography (Hamas soldiers stood a little way behind the protesters, ready to move fast to attack any breach in the fence, while they mixed in operatives, carrying weaponry such as explosives, among the citizenry to keep things as volatile as possible and force the IDF to react strongly). That Hamas itself repeatedly torched the only gas pipeline supplying its own people, the better to increase the suffering and anger of its citizenry. And remember, Israel is a tiny country surrounded by hostile nations, and Hamas is but one of the tentacles of Iran whose policy is to push Israel back on every border; back from the South via Hamas in Gaza, back from the north via Hezbollah in Lebanon with its 140,000 missiles aimed at Israel, back from Syria via its forces there.
I offer these facts simply to show that this is assuredly not one of those rarer-than-rare instances when a cultural visit should be blocked, when music should be silenced. Is there a case that the Philadelphia Orchestra shouldn’t go to Israel? That it should even be a question? None whatsoever. Israel is not occupying Gaza, Gaza’s own terrorist government is. If the orchestra doesn’t go, indeed, it is handing a victory to Hamas in its deadly propaganda games. The more widespread its bloody PR success, the faster Hamas will rush to arrange more of these kinds of atrocities. With its ultimate goal of seeing Israel destroyed.
So bravo to the members of orchestra for bringing their music to Israel, just as they bring it to any other country. And, just like everywhere else, Israelis will be inspired by what they hear. I hope that inspiration will guide them as they continue to seek the often treacherous road to peace. As for Hamas, here’s an idea. Don’t build the next attack tunnel into Israel — price-tag a reported $1 million each (some $150 million in total spent on these tunnels so far). Instead use a fraction of that to bring the Philadelphia Orchestra to Gaza and bring a little beauty to the lives of your citizens. Or is Tchaikovsky — is beauty — just not Hamas’s style?