The end of civilization: no ‘dignity’ in remaining silent at BBC Proms

on 15 Comments

In a Guardian review of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) at the BBC Proms, and referring to the boycott protests that disrupted their concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall on Thursday, classical music critic Erica Jeal praises IPO conductor, Zubin Mehta, as ‘the model of composure’. In the comment thread she clarifies that ‘the only ones who came out of this with any dignity intact were Mehta, Shaham and the orchestra’. This reverence for Mehta’s physical control is echoed in the right-wing, establishment paper, the Telegraph: the ‘supremely unflappable conductor-for-life Zubin Mehta, kept going… unflappable dignity is clearly his default mode’. 

What then is ‘dignity’ in the worldview espoused in both liberal and reactionary broadsheets? It appears that the mark of dignity is the ability to remain silent in the face of horrific human rights abuses, agreeing to be cultural ambassadors for Israel as part of its cynical campaign to present an apartheid state as an enlightened democracy; it is going into partnership with the Israeli Defence Forces, which are daily enforcing a brutal occupation, enabling the violent colonisation of Palestinian land, harassing, arresting and torturing peaceful protesters against the Israeli state’s crimes. Dignity is just standing calmly and silently, turning your back on the problem.

Can dignity also be about risking being booed, shouted at and despised for spoiling people’s fun at a public cultural event so as to deliver an urgent message about human rights and international law? Was it also uncouth to loudly decry the destruction of the Gaza Music School in January 2009 during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead massacre in Gaza? Do not these protesters insist on the world recognising the dignity denied to Palestinians living under occupation and an apartheid system by daring to carry out an inevitably unpopular boycott action?

This is the end of any meaningful notion of civilization if dignity is reduced to ‘not making a scene’, desiring to be counted as one of the civilized, respectable majority of cultural consumers and producers, respecting the status quo, revering power structures with their heinous inequalities. It is a very narrow definition of ‘dignity’.

One also notices the language of class hatred employed by detractors of the Palestine solidarity activists, depressingly familiar to anyone who has grown up in England: activists are dismissed as worthless ‘thugs’, ‘hooligans’, ‘yobs’. Of course, they are also charged with being anti-Semites and Nazi blackshirts (See JC editor, Stephen Pollard’s piece, also in the Telegraph, ‘A Proms protest with a whiff of Weimar about it‘), but this hateful slander cannot even be dignified with a response. 

About Eleanor Kilroy

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15 Responses

  1. Shmuel
    September 3, 2011, 2:19 pm

    Making a scene. Oh God no. Isn’t that what separates us from the … Never mind. Good to see the Grauniad standing up for true British values.

    • Talkback
      September 3, 2011, 4:42 pm

      “Making a scene. Oh God no. Isn’t that what separates us from the …”

      In Germany between 1933 and 1945 certain people whould have finished this sentence with the word “Jews” while commiting crimes against them and their families.

      • justicewillprevail
        September 3, 2011, 6:27 pm

        Yes, and now their place has been taken by Palestinians in particular and Muslims in general.

  2. Les
    September 3, 2011, 3:05 pm

    The stoicism of Mehta so admired by the critics is also evident by musicans in this YouTube clip of a film about a concentration camp orchestra playing for unsuspecting new inmates.

    Those musicians of course were playing to save their lives, leaving no room to judge the morality of just what they were participating in. Members of the Israel Philharmonic do have that luxury.

  3. piotr
    September 3, 2011, 3:39 pm

    Culture, science and sport should unite humanity and transcend conflicts, so it would be nice to exempt them from strife, even if symbolic. In the same time, culture, science and sport are harnessed as propaganda tools in the same conflict, and are also subject of repressions. I think that BDS activists (and official Palestinian organizations) could propose such exemptions, so neither protests nor repressions would be directed at those spheres. One could compile the list of repressions that Israel could lift.

    1) Indefinite detention of a number of writers and scholars
    2) Police bans on cultural evens in East Jerusalem that were promoted by PA — read about “Jerusalem as Arab cultural capital year”. Police comes to a theatre and shuts down a concert or a comedy show.
    3) Banning books printed in “enemy countries”, like Arabic translation of Pinnocchio if printed in Beirut
    4) Banning guests invited to scholarly or cultural events in Palestine, or Palestinian scholar and artists from visiting other countries
    5) Banning similar movements between different parts of Palestine.

    Refraining from demolishing a theater and arresting managers and actors would be nice too, it is hard to provide a comprehensive list. And one does not have to be a purist and demand “all or nothing”. If Israel keeps repressing events that have symbolic blessing of PA, boycott attempts are fairly applied to “cultural ambassadors of Israel”. So the boycott/repression exemption would cover independent activities of artists, scholars and sportsmen (sportspersons?)

    • Opti
      September 4, 2011, 9:08 am


      I understand where you are coming from and at a first glance/uncritical review, you make complete sense. However,

      1) Culture — Music, I can understand. But what about all those movies that display all Arabs / Palestinians as hateful ‘unpeople’ wholly intend on killing any beautiful Jewish children and other ‘infidels’…. Hollywood is a mouthpiece of Zionist machine and does not deserve to be free from BDS.

      2) Science — most basic science, I can understand. But a lot of science is funded by IDF/DoD and have destructive / military means, which should not be free from strife, protests, and other objections from BDS (and other activists worried about the militarization of science).

      3) Sport — Agree! [Need to crack down on any form of racism]

      On your points (1-5), I whole heartedly agree!

      • piotr
        September 4, 2011, 1:52 pm

        I do not expect Israeli government to respond positively to such a challenge. If it does not, such initiative would have educational and political value, because it would explain why disruption is directed at beautiful events. At least, it would provide a context: if police can shut down a concert because of its political ramifications (Arabs claiming that Jerusalem is also an Arab city), concerts with political ramifications are (sadly) a fair game.

        On the other hand, a positive response would be a welcome step in the good direction.

        Similarly, if Palestinian conjection makers from Gaza were allowed to compete with Israeli owned companies (even if they contribute to the charities that Israel does not like) then a boycott of an Israeli choclade make would be less justified. If I recall, such industry did exist in Gaza.

        Concerning Hollywood movies, they are outside BDS framework. I think a proper way to protest a movie would be to (a) write bad reviews (b) perhaps picket with posters, basically, presenting a polemic rather than disruption. Turkey (only Turkey) started to make anti-Israeli schlock, hm. This seems to be “tale for another time”.

  4. alexno
    September 3, 2011, 5:17 pm

    I thought that the disturbance was very well done, and well planned.

    A number of objectors stood up at the beginning, and were taken out by the security people. As a result BBC3 stopped its live broadcast. They took it up again, but I am not sure quite when. At the beginning of the second piece, another group stood up, and made their opposition evident, and were taken out by the security. At this point, BBC3 stopped its live broadcast permanently.

    I don’t have a precise account, as I wasn’t listening.

    I thought it was a great success for BDS. Although the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was not prevented from finishing its performance, the normal live broadcast ended up by being turned off.

    I thought the objectors did pretty well.

  5. eGuard
    September 3, 2011, 6:25 pm

    Writes some Pollard in The Daily Telegraph: But Thursday night’s events can only be understood in the context of anti-Semitism.

    Yep, now I understand.

  6. justicewillprevail
    September 3, 2011, 6:32 pm

    As pointed out, the hysterical reactions to a minor disturbance at a well-heeled concert, which didn’t even stop the concert, is in stark contrast to the same people’s utter silence when it comes to the deliberate destruction of schools and theatres in Palestine. I doubt it is the disturbance which bothers the hypocrites so much as the bringing to public attention of the state terror of Israel, which they all collaborate in studiously ignoring and denying. As they say in England, it shouldn’t be mentioned ‘in front of the servants’.

  7. lyn117
    September 3, 2011, 7:58 pm

    Checked the orchestra members. I couldn’t find any Arab-sounding names, tho plenty of Russian-sounding ones. I suppose if I were an Israeli Palestinian, I might refuse to participate in Israel’s branding efforts as well.

  8. Miura
    September 3, 2011, 8:30 pm

    Zubin Mehta is also an interesting person with an interesting background. “It is hard to imagine a greater ambassador for the Jewish homeland than this ‘citizen of the world’, as one of his players calls him”. Although the same account blandly mentions how on his first visit to Tel Aviv, the coastline reminded him of “his homeland India”, what it airbrushes is that Mehta is not your run of the mill Indian from a country that makes up one sixth of humankind. He’s a member of a tiny religious community commonly known as Parsis (corruption of Farsi or Iranian), based primarily in cosmopolitan coastal commercial cities like Mumbai where Mehta was born. The role of members of the community is an intricate one in the infinitely complex society of the “sub-continent” and ranges from the highest civic-minded leadership–and voices of sanity in communally charged locales–to ownership of gigantic conglomerates (one of which acquired Jaguar Motors recently). In other words, when Mehta says that “he adores Israel, the people, the dreams, the ambition–and the music-making”, one has to keep this background in mind and not confuse him for one of the 800 million low-caste Indians making do on $2 or less per day.

    Perhaps the most psychologically revealing portrait of the “comprador bourgeois” class position that Mehta was born into in British-ruled India–and which he shares with quite a few other commercially successful minorities around the world–comes from Albert Memmi who was born in French-ruled Tunisia:

    I was sort of a half-breed of colonization, understanding everyone because I belonged completely to no one…Unlike the Muslims, [Jews] passionately endeavored to identify themselves with the French. To them the West was the paragon of all civilization, all culture. The Jew turned his back happily on the East. They chose the French language, dressed in the Italian style, and joyfully adopted every idiosyncrasy of the Europeans.

    Freddie Mercury–born in another Parsi community in sub-Saharan Africa–rarely acknowledged his Indian childhood and was perceived as white by most of his fans. The very notion that he was “Asian” only became known toward the end of his career–and sadly life in the late 80s. He also performed in Apartheid South Africa in 1984 at the peak of the international cultural and sporting boycott of the racist regime.

    An analogous position was held by the Greek and Armenian trading communities in coastal cities of French North Africa and Alexandria. These communities fell victim to an ugly reverse racism once the “wretched of the Earth” gained power, although the marvelous fusion of cultures that was lost in the chauvinist nationalism of the 50s is acknowledged more openly now despite painful memories.

    To conclude, Mehta’s gushing adoration of all things Israeli is not the norm in India–or most of the “Global South” for that matter–except among fringe supremacist groups which were struck by the “discipline” of the Nazis once and later carried out the assassination of Gandhi. Speaking of the latter as someone who is mentioned much in the conflict (as shown by the IDF policy director’s comment on difficulty in dealing with those who are inspired by Gandhi’s philosophy), his opinion from before WWII still holds some lessons:

    Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home. The nobler course would be to insist on a just treatment of the Jews wherever they are born and bred. The Jews born in France are French in precisely the same sense that Christians born in France are French.

  9. LanceThruster
    September 3, 2011, 8:57 pm

    Gilad Atzmon offered these comments on his site – link to

    On a further note, I may as well admit that, regardless of the politics involved, it takes some boldness to stop a symphonic orchestra playing a violin concerto. I certainly cannot imagine myself engaging in such an act in million years. Regardless of the legitimacy of such a non-violent act, which I do not doubt, I have to agree that the people who stopped the Israeli orchestra, weren’t at all ordinary. I hope that their action will lead Israelis towards self-reflection, but I actually doubt it very much.

    Considering he opens his post with his complaints about elements of the movement, there’s a clear and undeniable admiration.

  10. CigarGod
    September 4, 2011, 10:54 am

    Beautifully stated.
    All times and locations for standing up for human rights…are the right time and place.

    No matter how one stands up…is more dignified than not standing up at all.

  11. dbroncos
    September 4, 2011, 9:45 pm

    The IDF continues to target a Palestinian theatre for violent atacks. Has this story been worthy of ink or newsprint at the Guardian or the Telegraph? Ruffling feathers at the symphony house is, it seems, the more serious crime.

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