Israel’s war on Palestinian music

Jonathan Ofir

Last Thursday, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition by Tzafia Radwan and Raslan Ashur, against the Israeli occupation’s barring of 16-year old musicians from participating in an international professional musical workshop, involving a tour in Jordan, Palestine (Ramallah) and Israel. (official document in Hebrew, thanks to Ofer Neiman)

The music students in question are from Gaza. The respondents at court were Israeli Defense Minister, Coordinator of Government activities in the [Occupied] Territories (COGAT), Directorate of Coordination to Gaza Strip, and the Military Commander in the West Bank Area.

The court noted that the workshop would take place from today (1st of August) to the 15th August, and that the participants were merely meant to cross first to Jordan and then to Ramallah in order to take part in the workshop and performances. The Israeli destination is not even mentioned.
The court mentions that although the respondents (the state) first responded saying that there is government policy in such cases (and that thus it is not obliged to provide such permit), it nonetheless made an extraordinary concession — to allow the participants to cross over to Jordan, but only to Jordan — cutting them off from the rest of the workshop and performances.

The court noted the plea by Mr. Souil from the Conservatory of East Jerusalem (one of the instigators of the project) as well as that of the Palestinian Authority to accept the request of the appeal.

Nonetheless, the court headed by judges Solberg, Meltzer and Mazoz, opined that there were no grounds for the court interfering, especially in view of the state’s extraordinary permission for the appealers to partake in the part of the project that was in Jordan, and noted finally, that “musical development, about which Mr. Souil spoke, is not necessarily bound by location”.

Let’s take a moment to digest that. The state allows, in its exceptional demonstration of generosity, the Gazan students to exit Gaza — but only to go to Jordan. Why not Ramallah? After all, Jordan is a whole other state over which Israel does not assert effective control — whilst Ramallah is a Palestinian Bantustan circled by Israeli control. Israel could easily have managed to allow them at least Ramallah. But no. They should be so happy. The court finds this satisfactory, as the state is portraying ‘generosity’ which it is not at all obliged to. Finally, the court plays the know-it-all musical expert: Music can be done anywhere, so you can practice it in the world’s biggest outdoors prison (or concentration camp as Israeli journalist Amira Hass called it), and it wouldn’t matter. Why on earth leave?

As I have noted before, Israel practices aggressive boycott, divestment and sanctions — against Gaza (Mondoweiss). It does it in all areas — including art and culture. The irony of Israel’s outcry against BDS, including cultural boycott, seems to pass under the radar of many people.

In his superb article written exactly two years ago, ‘Israel vs the Violin’, Tom Suarez, an author as well as a violinist like me, wrote:

“For Palestinian musicians, Israel’s draconian control over civilian life means that they can only collaborate with colleagues in the same Israeli-created bantustan; that reliable planning is impossible; that your child’s music teacher may suddenly be expelled; and that on the day of the concert your child has worked all year to prepare for, s/he may be stopped from reaching the hall. Imagine a national music competition in which a foreign country blocks participants: In last year’s Palestine National Music Competition, the Conservatory had to establish video links to circumvent Israeli interference and enable all Palestinian applicants to audition. Some winners were forced to present their celebratory concert “live” by video link set up on the concert hall stage.

All Palestinians live with the fear of violence from the occupying military. In the West Bank, one talented teenage violinist I have coached and known for years was accused (wrongly, though the issue is irrelevant) by IDF soldiers of throwing stones; he denied it, and they smashed his violin. Another young musician similarly accused was, like so many other Palestinians, arbitrarily imprisoned and forced to sign a “confession”. In the most extreme case known to me, a Palestinian contrabass student (now a colleague) returning from a lesson was stopped by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint. They tied him to a wall and called in several new IDF recruits. “We caught this terrorist”, the soldiers told the new recruits. “What do we do with terrorists?” He awoke the next day in a hospital. His bass bow, broken in two, was all that was found with him.

One experience of mine is representative of the more mundane day-to-day obstacles confronting musical life in Palestine. The premiere of my string quartet Peregrinations was to have taken place in April 2014 at Bethlehem’s Peace Center, next to the traditional site of Christ’s birth, in a performance by the NCM String Quartet, under the auspices of the John Paul II Foundation and with the support of Bethlehem Municipality. It had been well-advertised and was to be broadcast live by Radio Mawwal. Two weeks before the performance, Israel prevented the quartet’s first violinist from reaching the West Bank. Diplomatic efforts to stop Israeli interference failed, forcing the cancellation of the concert. Within the space of one year, Israel thwarted three concerts of mine alone.” (See Mondoweiss)

These are the things we hear less about, because a concert that cannot be performed doesn’t make much sound, and cannot compete with the noise of blazing guns and the outrage over ‘terror’.

This matter is very, very close to me. I am not a religious man, but my connection with music is, I would say, somewhat spiritual. When either playing or conducting, I often feel I am in a sphere that is somewhat removed from this world (even if expressing very tangible human feelings), it is a heaven of sorts that heals me from so many mundane worries. When I perform Bach’s mass in B minor, reaching the section ‘Et in Terra Pax’ (‘and Peace on Earth’), it is an elation wherein I am delivered elsewhere, where politics and wars do not exist. This is something that so many people share, musicians as well as those who experience the music. This is also the value of music for Gazans. It’s part of an elevation above and beyond the nearly uninhabitable reality. I understand it is natural, especially for those who feel strongly about music and art in general, to seek to hold away from the sphere of politics, to not ‘entangle’ that heavenly means of expression with the mundane.

Alas, such idealism fails us, when we note the reality of Israel’s oppression, and how it applies its oppression also on culture, in a systematic and cruel way, in so many forms.

Imagine if we applied the Israeli Supreme Court’s arrogant and chauvinist final note — “musical development…is not necessarily bound by location”.

Right — Israelis don’t need international musicians to visit them — they’ll do just fine with the local ones. Israeli musicians don’t need to travel abroad — they’ll develop just fine in Israel.

And suddenly, when you apply the notion of the Israeli Supreme Court to Israelis, you’ll get so many Israel-apologists crying ‘anti-Semitism!’…