5 April 2010

Jerusalem Quartet – Lowdown on West- East Divan Orchestra

The Debate Continues

Throughout this affair of the Boycott of the Jerusalem Quartet, there has been one consistent argument on behalf of the Jerusalem Quartet. Two of their members play in Daniel Barenbom’s
WEDO, which was co-founded by Edward Said.Now I disagree on principle with these type of organisations. They are the gloss on Apartheid and in fact similar organisations did exist in South Africa. They are based on an acceptance of the status quo. That is their starting point.

The existing laws and regulations, the ongoing evictions of Arabs in Jerusalem are taken for granted. WEDO and such organisations are ‘non-political’ which means it challenges nothing.Instead they take as their starting point the idea that the reason for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is that both groups, for some unfathomable reason, have got it in their heads that they don’t like each other. And that, not society, not laws, not structures, is the cause of the conflict. Get everyone to talk to each other and all will be solved!

It is pathetic and puerile because at the end of the day the Arab goes back to his home and lives in fear of a knock on the door from a settler ‘reclaiming’ his home whereas the Israeli Jew goes back to his home without any fears.Far from being radical such organisations serve to reinforce the existing structures of Apartheid by legitimising them.

Hence the Jerusalem Quartet can play quite happily for an Occupation Army that detains pregnant Palestinian women at check points until their baby is dead and on the other pop in to WEDO to enhance their credentials.

Ah, I hear you say, but Edward Said helped found WEDO. Well let us be blunt. Edward Said wrote a brilliant book Orientalism but when he helped found WEDO had had clearly forgotten that such ‘dialogue’ groups are part of Western Orientalist practice.

Secondly for most of his life Said, an American Professor, was very much on the right-wing of the Palestinian movement. In many ways Said was the embodiment of Shakespeares saying about Macbeth that ‘Nothing became his life so much as his leaving of it.’Said’s reputation politically was cemented, after years of supporting a 2 State solution, by his opposition to Oslo. In that he was undoubtedly right. He could see, unlike the corrupt Arafat and henchmen that Oslo could not be other than a continuation of Palestinian oppression. But his founding of things like WEDO were, in retrospect, a grievous error although it is understandable that he wanted to reach out to someone like Barenboim who, unlike the Jerusalem Quartet, understood that the founding of the Israeli state included the Nakbah.I also include a nasty little article in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph and the letter from Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods from Deborah Fink and myself in today’s Independent.

Tony Greenstein

Utopia as Alibi: Said, Barenboim and the Divan Orchestra
by Raymond Deane

As a classical musician involved in pro-Palestinian activism, I frequently encounter the assumption that I am an unconditional admirer of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO). My reservations on this score tend to produce shocked disapproval: How could I not enthuse about such an idealistic project, particularly since it was co-founded by the late Edward Said, a figure for whom I have frequently expressed respect and admiration?
In truth, I have always been a little wary of Said’s veneration for the eighteenth/nineteenth century canon of European classical music. I look in vain in his writings on the subject [1] for a historical and political contextualisation of music comparable of that to which he so perceptively subjected literature in his indispensable Culture and Imperialism. [2]

In his 2002 speech accepting the Principe de Asturias Prize, Said claimed that he and his friend the Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim founded the WEDO “for humanistic rather than political reasons”. This surprising dualism implies that music belongs to a utopian sphere somehow removed from the dialectical hurly-burly of hegemony and resistance.The paradoxes of Said’s position have been ably dissected by the British musicologist Rachel Beckles Willson. [3] She quotes her colleague Ben Etherington’s critique of Said’s tendency “to assert the intrinsic value of Western elite music without really exploring how that tradition escapes mediation.” Paraphrasing Said’s critique of literary scholars in his Humanism and Democratic Criticism [4] she convincingly claims that he “omitted to make ‘a radical examination of the ideology of the [musical performance] field itself.’” (Willson’s chain brackets).
Undoubtedly Barenboim has a less sublimated view of the classical repertoire than Said, and has been more broadminded than many of his superstar peers in his willingness to perform and advocate modern and “avant-garde” music. He has also displayed great independence and personal courage by criticising the Israeli establishment and repeatedly flouting Israeli laws to travel to the occupied West Bank – even bringing the orchestra to Ramallah in 2005.

In 2008, Barenboim accepted honourary Palestinian “citizenship” from the Palestinian Authority. The dissident Israeli journalist Amira Hass put this in context: “It could just as well have [been] said that the PA granted Barenboim citizenship of the moon, since the PA has no authority to grant citizenship… to anyone.” [5] She tellingly points out the broader political implications of such an action: “The PA is seen as a ’state’ with the sovereign right to grant ‘citizenship.’” The illusion of Palestinian statehood, fostered by the 1993 Oslo Accords, has served to absolve Israel from its obligations as an occupier under the 4th Geneva Convention. The gesture towards Barenboim, although empty, was pregnant with propaganda value for the Israeli state and its PA accomplices.

Barenboim’s most recent book is confusingly entitled Music Quickens Time in the US and Everything is Connected in Europe[6]. Reflecting on the fact that Hitler loved classical music, he concludes that “there is not enough thought about music, only visceral reactions almost on an animal level.” “Listening,” he tells us, “is hearing with thought.” The idea that an analytical approach to music is potentially an antidote to its instrumentalisation by fascistic forces is a radical one, but Barenboim goes a clumsy step further by repeatedly depicting musical processes as metaphors for social and political structures. Thus the failure of the Oslo process is linked to the connection between musical content and tempo: “the relationship between content and time was erroneous.” “The education of the ear” – or “auditory intelligence” – is important “for the functioning of society, and therefore also of governments.” “A nation’s constitution could be compared to a score, and the politicians its interpreters” and can be “challenged and adapted” in a democracy, “becoming a kind of collectively composed symphony.”

Unfortunately, while Barenboim professes faith in the axiom that “everything is connected”, the score written by Zionism is premised on “estrangement and alienation”, in the words of the anti-Zionist eco-socialist Joel Kovel. [7] Barenboim buys into the Zionist narrative all along the line. “The Arab population of Palestine had been unsympathetic toward Jewish immigration from the very beginning”, he tells us, as if the indigenous Jewish population hadn’t been equally suspicious of Zionist colonisation – to call it by its proper name. The totalitarian “military rule” imposed by Israel on its Palestinian minority during the early years of statehood was “abominable”, admittedly, but “necessary for its self-preservation”. The renaming of Arab streets after Israeli generals represents “at best thoughtlessness and insensitivity… and at worst an utter lack of strategy in dealing with the question of Arabs in Israel”, rather than a symbolic linchpin of Zionist conquest and dispossession.

In the midst of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead”, the onslaught on Gaza beginning in December 2008 that led to the killing of some 1400 Palestinians, Barenboim wrote a newspaper article that, while critical of the carnage, similarly repeated a number of Zionist propaganda tropes.[8] Hamas is “a terrorist organisation”, rather than a legitimate resistance movement, and must “realise that its interests are not best served by violence”, although this offensive followed the Israeli breach of a ceasefire long maintained by Hamas. The war in Palestine is “a conflict between two peoples who are both deeply convinced of their right to live on the same very small piece of land”, not a brutal colonial assault by a powerful state on a virtually imprisoned civilian population. Of course “it is self-evident that Israel has the right to defend itself”, a truism that, except possibly for the 1973 “Yom Kippur” war, has never had any bearing on Israel’s relentlessly belligerent actions against its neighbours.

This article almost certainly played a role in causing the cancellation of Barenboim’s projected attendance at an opera performance in Ramallah in July 2009, lest it be disrupted by demonstrations. Once again Amira Hass had her finger on the pulse: “The bulk of dissent across Ramallah was not just over the performance, but over the very existence of the Barenboim-Said Foundation”. [9]

This Foundation, which provided the Children & Youth Choir and theYouth Orchestra for the opera in question, was set up by Barenboim and Said shortly before the latter’s death in 2003, when its administration passed into the capable hands of Said’s widow Mariam. Hass quotes “[a] leading activist in the Palestinian movement for a cultural boycott of Israel” (PACBI) as stating that the Foundation “does not take any position against the Israeli occupation or apartheid policies. They talk about promoting mutual understanding and coexistence through dialogue, music, etc. This is an attempt to give a normal image to a very abnormal, colonial situation.”
Already in 2004 Barenboim stated that “[a]n hour of violin lessons in Berlin is an hour where you get people interested in music. But an hour of violin lessons in Palestine is an hour away from violence and fundamentalism…” [10] This insulting formulation led the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM) to decline any further funding from the Foundation.

The ESNCM is a department of Birzeit University with branches in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem. Without funding from the Foundation it is forced to exist on a shoestring, yet it provides a wide range of instruction in both western classical and Arabic music for young Palestinians regardless of class, creed, or gender, while running its own ensembles and an orchestra – The Palestine Youth Orchestra – which it hopes to expand to 100 members by 2010.

In her introduction to An Orchestra Without Borders, a collection of testimonies from WEDO members, Barenboim’s assistant Elena Cheah claims that “[a]n orchestra is a microcosm of society.” [11] In terms of the Middle East, it would appear that while the ESNCM strives, with explicit political determination and an almost total lack of encouragement from the West, to be a microcosm of the whole of Palestinian society, the WEDO represents the Israeli bourgeoisie and the more privileged sectors of Arab (including Palestinian) society. Barenboim’s claim that “young musicians from the Middle East have the freedom of choice over whether or not to come to the West-Eastern Divan workshop”, as if this option were available to young musicians from Gaza or from Lebanese refugee camps, displays an almost hubristic alienation from reality.

Alas, the testimonies from Israeli WEDO members collected in the book suggest that a “utopian” emphasis on human interaction with their Arab colleagues has done little to enhance insight into the political realities surrounding them.

For Daniel Cohen, Barenboim has “the power to help Israelis understand where they are living, and to help the Arabs to accept our existence in Israel as our right…” Clearly the young violinist doesn’t see this as a somewhat lopsided combination.

Sharon Cohen describes an argument in which “The Arabs kept saying: ‘You don’t understand about the checkpoints and the humiliation,’ and the Israelis kept saying, ‘You don’t understand about being in the army.’” Similarly, oboist Meirav Kadichevski expresses her understanding of the Palestinian sense of repression by evoking her own feelings “when I was in the army – I also felt repressed.” Clearly for these former soldiers there is no incongruity in equating the oppressor’s discomfort with the horror of being at the oppressor’s mercy.

Yuval the trumpeter, whose attitudes are described as having been positively transformed by orchestra membership, opines that “Palestinians have to start feeling responsible for themselves…” instead of “always waiting for someone to recognise their pain.” A lecture from the Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah criticising the “two-state solution” provokes his sharp reaction that “…some people are saying we should make one nation, and it’s insane.”
The impression ultimately gleaned from Arabs and Israelis alike is that the real glue binding these young people together is ambition: the WEDO provides an exceptional opportunity to gain experience under Daniel Barenboim, a famous and influential conductor, and hence is a stepping-stone to professional advancement. In itself, of course, there is nothing reprehensible about this – but it is a far cry from stylising the orchestra as an exemplary space of reconciliation and understanding.

In a letter to the New York Review of Books last October the actor Vanessa Redgrave (once a stalwart advocate of Palestinian rights), the screenwriter Martin Sherman and the artist Julian Schnabel dissociated themselves from opposition to the Toronto Film Festival’s featuring of Tel Aviv in its “city to city” section. They closed their letter as follows:

The year 2009 is the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Barenboim-Said West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. We hope that those who protest Israeli inclusion in film festivals will take note of this example of the power of art freely expressed and available to all, and reconsider their position. [12]

This is a sad and timely demonstration of how the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra can be enlisted to demobilize meaningful solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians. While it would be crass to dismiss the WEDO as merely “a bad thing”, the reality is that it offers uncommitted Western liberals, for whom an uncompromising campaign of BDS is a step too far, a peg on which to hang their sentimental belief in an unpolitical reconciliation that costs nobody anything.

Raymond Deane is a composer and political activist. This article first appeared in the Irish Left Review.
Photo Credits:
Photo 1: Daniel Barenboim talking to a member of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra during rehersals Photo 2: Palestinians run for cover from Israeli air strikes during the Israeli assult on Gaza. (Mohamed Al-Zanon/MaanImages – Photo courtesy of Electronic Intafada). Photo 3: Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Photos courtesy of the West-Eastern Divan website.

[1] Edward W. Said: Musical Elaborations (Columbia University Press, NY, 1991); Reflections on Exile (London, Granta Books, 2001); Music at the Limits (Columbia University Press, NY, 2007).
[2] Edward W. Said: Culture and Imperialism (Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1993; Vintage, 1994).
[3] Rachel Beckles Willson: Whose Utopia? (Music and Politics, Volume III, Number 2. http://www.music.ucsb.edu/projects/musicandpolitics/archive/2009-2/beckles_willson.html, accessed 7/12/09)
[4] Edward W. Said: Humanism and Democratic Criticism (PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, Hampshire and NY, 2004).
[5] Amira Hass: Honorary Citizenship of the Moon (Ha’aretz, 26th January 2009)
[6] Daniel Barenboim: Music Quickens Time (Verso, London/NY 2008); Everything is Connected (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London 2008).
[7] Joel Kovel: Overcoming Zionism (London, Pluto Press, 2007).
[8] Daniel Barenboim: The Illusion of Victory (The Guardian, 1st January 2009).
[9] Amira Hass: Palestinian anger with Barenboim forces him to cancel Ramallah visit (Ha’aretz, 17th July, 2009).
[10] Luke Harding: Conductor brings harmony to Arabs [sic] (The Guardian, 30th November, 2004).
[11] Elena Cheah: An Orchestra without Borders (Verson, London/NY, 2009).
[12] Redgrave, Schnabel, Sherman: Let Israeli Films be Shown (New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 16, 22nd October, 2009).


  1. jock mctrousers5 April 2010 at 20:37

    Brilliant piece by Raymond Deane. The letters you scanned are unreadable though - in my setup anyway.

  2. The reaction by Norman Lebrecht (who, like Israel, is supported and subsidised by the British public via BBC TV Licence Fees whether the British public like it or not) is as predictable as the complete abscence of BBC current affairs tv/radio programmes analysing the current global crisis in capitalism from a left-wing perspective.

    In fact, I have already in my own way predicted such mainstream corporate reactions to the JSQ-Whigmore Hall protest here on the TGB thread
    Jerusalem Quartet Concert at London's Wigmore Hall is Disrupted & Radio 3's Live Broadcast is Terminated
    3 April 2010 20:23

    Basically, Mr Lebrecht seems to be complaining about the lack of sand available, which can be used by ostritches to bury their heads into.

  3. I do not know Jock why the letters aren't readable. They are on my computer, both in IE and Firefox.

    However I had someone else say this and they had a Mac. Is that what you have because if so that might be the problem.

    Joe if you were posting a link it doesn't work. Not sure what the TGB thread is.

  4. The last comment is one of the more articulate Zionist comments I have been sent, so I thought it unfair to exclude it.

  5. If anyone is interested
    for easy reference, I've left links to news stories and to some Scottish PSC articles here -

    Scottish PSC 5 in Court Today - All Charges Dropped
    08 Apr 2010

    Do check out the SPSC website itself for more info as they seem to be uploading pdf files of original court documents, here -
    Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign

    Another great day!

    sorry my link doesn't work TG. It's not really important anyway.
    Just to say that in order to view the text of the newspaper articles, people should right-click their mouse on their images and select open up in a new window, they ought to be able to magnify the image from there.

  6. Mr. Greenstein, how would you feel if someone who does not necessarily share your point of view tampers with your blog and adds to it distracting advertisements that would pop all over your blog and will keep appearing no matter how hard you try to remove them?

    Or how would you feel if someone tamprered with your domain name and would direct all those who try to enter your blog to some other site and blocking your blog completely?

    How would that make you feel?

    I'm not threatening you with a cyber attack, I don't have those qualifications, no, but I would like you to think about it for a moment, and think about the audience who went to that concert to *listen to music* and you ruined that experience for them?

    Is that what a mentch would do?

    Is that how you really want to deliver your messages? Are you against culture as well as you are againts Israel and the occupation? Are you in favor of *anything?*

    How about some *constructive* thoughts and actions for reconciliation?

    Peace, man!

  7. אסף says would I like this blog to be hacked. Of course not. But I don't steal other peoples' land, drive them off it, attack unarmed demonstrators with chemical weapons at protests against the Wall in Bi'ilin.

    אסף asks us to be 'positive'. I consider the Boycott Campaign to be extremely positive, just as that against South Africa was, because it is a campaign for justice. Or would אסף suggest at the time of the equivalent of South African apartheid that we should have just looked for the 'positive' in the situation?

    In fact people throughout the 1930's sought to put over a positive 'image' of Nazi Germany via tours such as the one we disrupted through inviting politicians and friendly dignatories to Germany. People like Lloyd George went and sang their praises of Hitler. Many tourists went and said they saw nothing, because of course tourist resorts removed 'Jews not wanted' posters.

    Is that the type of positive images and contributions you wanted?

    I have a very positive suggestion. Let's see a democratic, secular state in Palestine and not one where priviliges and entitlements depend on a racial/religious classification.

    Israel rules, as it has done for 62 years, over about 4.5 million Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. It has at the same time obliterated the old Green Line, the Apartheid Wall does not follow the line, it has seized from Palestinians the land to build the settlements, their water (the .5m settlers received far more in total water than the Palestinians who are still 6 times their number). We have Settler Only roads in the West Bank and of course things like building permits are only for Jews, the 500 road blocks are only for Palestinians etc.

    One set of laws apply to the settlers and another set apply to Palestinians. At the same time it is clear that Israel has no intention of withdrawing from the West Bank, having invested hundreds of millions of dollars. So there can be no doubt apartheid exists there.

    In addition Palestinians are effectively tolerated guests in Israel itself. The whole society is segregated in terms of education, jobs, housing. We have a debate over the 'demographic problem' because the key concern is keeping a Jewish majority and that means, if necessary, sacrificing democracy because if it is a true democracy then if there is a majority of Arabs eventually (& in Palestine itself now there is rough demographic parity) then there is no Jewish state.

    What you are doing is avoiding all these questions and the actual situation of Palestinians in favour of some tokenistik feel good measures.

  8. Splendid protest - heard it on the radio - but I have to strongly disagree with the diatribe against the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The article you reproduce by Raymond Dean is terribly reductive - but I explain this on my own blog.

    I completely agree with you that the Israeli position is heinous, and also with Barenboim when he says he suffers to think that so much of what Israel does is not worthy of Jewish history—I would probably put it more strongly. But in the face of the despair generated by an intractable conflict to which any solution seems impossible, the orchestra remains a powerful symbol—because music is redemptive, and as Said once put it, “it exists intensely in a state of unreconciled opposition to the depredations of daily life, the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.” Please note: unreconciled opposition, not tacit support for the status quo.

  9. Is this strange? RE the WEDO-piece by Raymond Deane, note [9] (Amira Hass on Barenboim in Ha’aretz, 17th July, 2009). Today it has the dateline saying "Last update - 00:03 01/01/2009". That's predated more than six months. Technical only? I cannot compare with earlier versions, since I do not have any earlier version.


Please submit your comments below