The Guardian / February 1, 2023
Jerusalem Orchestra East & West’s performance ‘cynical attempt to re-brand apartheid as diversity’, claims letter by over 50 artists.
More than 50 artists, including the poet Benjamin Zephaniah and the Turner prize co-winner Tai Shani, have protested over the Barbican arts venue’s collaboration with the Israeli embassy in London in putting on a concert.
Arguing that the Israeli government must be “held to account for its policies towards the Palestinian people”, the artists say the concert this weekend is “a cynical attempt to re-brand apartheid as diversity and military occupation as tolerance”.
The concert is to be performed by the Jerusalem Orchestra East & West, which describes itself as “a multicultural orchestra, with members from all three religions, from all over the country and from all sectors that make up Israeli society”.
Tom Cohen, its artistic director and head conductor, integrates music from the Arab world and north Africa into the work of classical, western musicians, and vice versa.
He told the Songlines website last month: “Some members [of the orchestra] are conservatives, some liberals, but we all agree on one specific notion: that everyone can define themselves however they want and act accordingly as long as it doesn’t harm anybody else.”
He added: “The idea is to create a new musical language, taking the best of western music … and combine it with all the jewels that are found in the music of the Arabic and Muslim world with its passion, sentimentality and heartfelt melodies.”
Mehdi Nassouli, a Moroccan singer and instrumentalist, will accompany the Barbican performance on a three-stringed guembri, and three other Moroccan musicians will play the qraqeb, a traditional percussion instrument.
In a letter objecting to the concert, the signatories acknowledge “the appeal of an event” that appears to join together Jerusalem’s different cultures for a broad audience.
But, they say, “this has to be seen for what it is – a cynical attempt to re-brand apartheid as diversity and military occupation as tolerance. Far from exemplifying a convivial multiculturalism, Jerusalem itself is the site of long-running oppression and violent military occupation.”
Citing reports by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, that designate Israel an apartheid regime, they say they “doubt the Barbican would have partnered with the South African embassy during its apartheid era”.
Many of the signatories to the letter are well-known supporters of Palestinian rights. They include the actors Miriam Margolyes and Stephen Rea, film-makers Peter Kosminksy and Ken Loach, and the writer Ahdaf Soueif.
Supporters of the Palestinian cause have a range of views about possible actions. Some advocate a complete boycott of Israel, including its cultural, academic, business and sports institutions. Some favour targeting Israeli activity only in the occupied territories, mainly East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Some say that boycotts and protests should be directed at the Israeli government and official agencies, not all Israeli citizens.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (Pacbi), part of the wider Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, says in its guidelines that any cultural body that does not explicitly recognize the rights of the Palestinians, or that “whitewashes” or justifies Israel’s violations of international law, is a legitimate target for boycotting.
Some also believe that organizations that seek to work across the Israeli and Palestinian populations are complicit in the “normalization” of relations between an occupying force and an occupied people.
According to Artists for Palestine, Moroccan human rights organizations have called on the four Moroccan musicians taking part in the Barbican concert to withdraw.
A number of international artists, including Lorde and Lana Del Ray, have pulled out of performances in Israel after pressure from pro-boycott activists in recent years.
In a statement responding to the artists’ letter, a spokesperson for the Barbican said: “We present art and artists from all over the world. We are looking forward to welcoming Jerusalem Orchestra East & West, a talented and diverse group of musicians who celebrate musical traditions from North Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
“Artistic work that is presented internationally often receives support from national governments, and we acknowledge the support for this event from the embassy of Israel in the UK.”
The Israeli embassy in London and the Jerusalem Orchestra East & West have been contacted for comment.
Harriet Sherwood writes about arts and culture for The Guardian; she was previously Jerusalem correspondent, foreign editor and home editor