Who really wields the baton at the London Philharmonic Orchestra?

The Israel lobby and the London Philharmonic
The Israel lobby and the London Philharmonic

Calls for the boycott of Israel’s cultural ambassadors just won’t go away. Now London’s Globe Theatre is being criticised for its invitation to Israel’s Habima Theatre, the latter having performed in Israel’s illegal settlements. Prominent arts figures such as Mike Leigh, Emma Thompson, Jonathan Miller, and Mark Rylance, the Globe’s founding artistic director, have publicly called for the theatre to cancel Habima’s appearance. Meanwhile Günter Grass, author of the classic anti-Nazi novel The Tin Drum, created a storm with his poem Was gesagt werden muss (What must be said), which seeks to free Germans from the ancestral guilt that Israel exploits to secure their obedience. An outraged headline in the Jewish Chronicle equated the boycott call with Nazi book-burning, and Israeli politicians smeared Grass as a Nazi for his conscription into the Waffen-SS, which German youths ‘joined’ to stay alive. 

These prominent figures have the forum to counter the smears. But classical musicians? We’ve yet to hear from the four musicians (Tom Eisner, Nancy Elan, Sarah Streatfeild and Sue Sutherley) in the world-renowned London Philharmonic Orchestra who were summarily suspended last September without pay for six months for being among 24 musicians who signed a letter, published in The Independent newspaper, objecting to a London Proms concert by the Israel Philharmonic at the invitation of the BBC.[1]

Indeed, anyone perusing the ample media coverage of their suspensions would not find a single word from any of the four musicians themselves. Nothing. The media’s sole source of information was the very management that suspended them, and in his news releases the orchestra’s chief executive seemed inexplicably bent on making villains out of his own musicians. The whole situation begs explanation. 

In fact, journalists got nothing from the ‘LPO4’ (as they’ve become known) because the orchestra management had put them and their families under a gag order. I’d heard some of what went on before the gag order was imposed. 

The media could report only what the orchestra’s chief executive, Timothy Walker, told them: that the musicians had been suspended because they’d included the letters ‘LPO’ after their names in the letter. If six months’ unpaid suspension seems excessive punishment for this claimed three-letter indiscretion, there was also much that Mr. Walker did not tell the media. 

He did not tell the media that one of the four musicians had not put her affiliation. He knew that it had been mistakenly added by someone else who had immediately taken full responsibility for the error. Yet she was suspended anyway, making a mockery of Mr. Walker’s public claim that the musicians were not being punished for their views. 

Nor did he tell the media that an ‘in personal capacity only’ disclaimer for all signatories had been inadvertently omitted by the professor (not a musician) who submitted the letter to The Independent. This, too, the management knew. 

Why did the orchestra management withhold these facts from the media, when they could have defused the issue? Perhaps Mr. Walker himself let the reason slip out when he told the BBC, The Times, and The Telegraph, that “some Jewish supporters had threatened to … withdraw financial support from the LPO.” The Jewish Chronicle, indeed, carried an article entitled “‘Jewish pressure’ led to suspensions”.[2] Given what was withheld from the public, were the punishments demanded for the four’s inclusion of the affiliation, or for their criticism of Israel? 

Whatever went on behind the scenes, the investigative journal Private Eye adjudged that “the LPO has acted rashly, possibly unlawfully and with a lack of transparency that ill-becomes a charity partly funded by the public purse.” Mr. Walker, Private Eye concluded, “must come clean about what’s happened.”[3] 

It gets worse. A few days after the musicians’ letter, the Israel Philharmonic Proms concert was disrupted by protestors inside the hall, and the false rumour circulated that the four London Philharmonic musicians were involved. Understandably, any upset about the measured letter in The Independent paled by comparison to the uproar over the disruption of the concert. Amid the furore, it was baffling that in all the press attention afforded the London Philharmonic’s management, nowhere does Mr. Walker attempt to clarify that its four musicians had nothing to do with the disruptions, that indeed none of them were in the hall. 

Even though the public knew only the management’s version of events, their reaction was overwhelmingly in support of the suspended musicians. Outraged pro-LPO4 postings on the orchestra’s Facebook page so embarrassed management that it eventually closed the page and deleted all the postings. The London papers printed numerous letters of support from respected academics and artists, notably one signed by 117 arts figures, including film directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, theatre director Michael Attenborough, and actress Dame Harriet Walter. They wrote that artists should be allowed to express themselves freely “without fear of financial or professional retribution.” Letters warned of the chilling effect such “retribution” would have on a free society.

It’s worth noting that two of the ‘LPO4’ are Jewish, and one of them is the child of a Kindertransport survivor—the rest of his maternal family was wiped out by the Nazis. Both have been to Palestine and witnessed Israeli apartheid first-hand. 

The letter that got them suspended is similar to that now arguing against the Habima Theatre’s invitation by The Globe—that the Israel Philharmonic is used by Israel as a “cultural smokescreen” for its “denials of human rights and violations of international law.” It noted that “Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians fits the UN definition of apartheid,” paralleling its stand to the now-venerable boycott that helped end apartheid in South Africa. 

And it is this issue that is perhaps Mr. Walker’s most cynical misrepresentation. Twisting their purpose 180 degrees, he laments that it is “abhorrent” to try to stop musicians from performing,[4] whereas the original letter’s very point was solidarity with Palestinian musicians who, along with all aspects of Palestinian daily life, are paralyzed by Israeli apartheid and occupation.

Mr. Walker’s response to those who complained was that the LPO is self-governing, and that the decision to suspend the musicians was made by their own colleagues. But his lack of public candour makes this claim all the more suspect, and although the LPO4 are now back at work, they are still not free to speak about what happened. In January, however, the media reported that one of the four is suing the orchestra[5], and perhaps this will shed more light on what went on behind the scenes. 

Boycott of apartheid South Africa began as a contentious device and eventually proved itself to be the constructive, moral response to the white supremacist system. Here in London, the Musicians’ Union itself had a boycott of South Africa in place by 1970. Are we finally nearing the tipping point when a boycott of Israel is similarly accepted as the appropriate, necessary and principled stance?


1. “Proms exploited for arts propaganda campaign,” The Independent, 30 August, 2011

2. Richard Morrison, Times Modern, 16 Sept, 2011, p3 (print only); “’Philharmonic Four’ in Proms protest backed by Mike Leigh and Ken Loach,” The Telegraph, 22 Sept, 2011; “Mike Leigh defends suspended Philharmonic musicians,” BBC, 22 Sept, 2011; and others. “‘Jewish pressure’ led to suspensions,” Marcus Dysch, The Jewish Chronicle, September 27, 2011.

3. Private Eye, 30 September, 2011

4. Richard Morrison, Times Modern, 16 Sept, 2011, p3 (print only), and others.

5. Alex Needham, “Violinist suspended for Israel Proms protest takes claim to tribunal,” The Guardian, 13 January, 2012.

About Chris Somes-Charlton

Chris Somes-Charlton is the artist manager and husband of the noted Palestinian singer, Reem Kelani. He is also a consultant on the Middle East.
Posted in Activism, BDS, Israel Lobby, Israel/Palestine

{ 28 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Fredblogs says:

    “artists should be allowed to express themselves freely ‘without fear of financial or professional retribution.’”

    So, if they want to express themselves by say, putting on a performance in a settlements, they shouldn’t have to fear financial or professional retribution in the form of a blacklist of them performing somewhere else.

    Reap what you sew. Your side is trying to intimidate musicians and artists into boycotting Israel, so you have no legitimate complaint when someone boycotts you for trying to boycott Israel. Unfortunate if the people boycotting you are your bosses though. I guess the moral is be careful when you sign a controversial letter that the people you are signing it for are reliable, remember to include all relevant disclaimers, and don’t misrepresent you as speaking for your workplace.

    • RE: “Reap what you sew.” ~ Fredblogs

      REPLY: Sew? Really? I’ve never heard that one before!
      Frankly, I’ve never been able to sew at all. I’m “all thumbs”!

      • it is supposed to be “rip what you sew.”

        • RE: “it is supposed to be ‘rip what you sew’.” ~ Munger

          REPLY: Oh, now I understand. In fact, the few times I’ve ineptly tried to sew, that was the seemingly inevitable, ultimate outcome!
          Did I mention that I’m “all thumbs”? But apparently one or more of them is “green” (perhaps the entire baker’s dozen minus three) because my garden is indisputably (if I do say so myself) the best this side of Eden. At the risk of being immodest, I might say that anything I sow is certain to “bear fruit” (figuratively, if not literally).

    • eGuard says:

      Fredblogs: So, if they want to express themselves by say, putting on a performance in a settlements, they shouldn’t have to fear financial or professional retribution in the form of a blacklist of them performing somewhere else.

      Yes. And that is how it is. (Additionally, Fredblogs, I can add that boycotts are aimed at institutes that normalise the occupation).

    • Ha ha, as usual you turn the whole thing on its head, in your hopelessly muddled efforts. No-one ‘intimidated’ the musicians to sign a letter. The only intimidation going on is, guess what, from the chief executive and his funders, who object to the free expression of individual views. And that is standard behaviour from the Israeli firsters who think they have the right to censor, smear and attack individuals who happen to not share their delusional opinion about Israel. They knowingly ignored the minor mistakes about attribution in the printed letter in order to intimidate and punish four individuals who spoke as individuals, no doubt in an attempt to silence any future actions or criticism. I should think they 4 have a very good legal case, and the executive should be sacked for his indefensible actions.

      • Fredblogs says:

        Not the ones who signed the letter. The performers of any type that you want a secondary boycott against. Trying to force them not to perform in the settlements by trying to ban them from performing elsewhere.

    • Kris says:

      “Reap what you sow?” I’m astonished by this, Fredblogs, since I thought you were a supporter of Israel.

      Hosea 8:7: For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: it hath no stalk: the bud shall yield no meal: if so be it yield, the strangers shall swallow it up.

      from Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible:

      “They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind – As the husbandman reaps the same kind of grain which he has sown, but in far greater abundance, thirty, sixty, or one hundred fold; so he who sows the wind shall have a whirlwind to reap. The vental seed shall be multiplied into a tempest so they who sow the seed of unrighteousness shall reap a harvest of judgment. This is a fine, bold, and energetic metaphor.

      “It hath no stalk – Nothing that can yield a blossom. If it have a blossom that blossom shall not yield fruit; if there be fruit, the sower shall not enjoy it, for strangers shall eat it. The meaning is, the labors of this people shall be utterly unprofitable and vain.”

      That describes Israel perfectly, of course, and is why Israel will end up on the dustheap of history.

    • stevieb says:

      Except, Freddy, that one involved signing a letter condemning the acceptance of Israelis who support war crimes and crimes against humanity(ongoing)to perfrom in the London Philharmonic. The other involved the suspension of people opposed to war crimes and crimes against humanity – for six months and without pay.

      But you’re right. If you aren’t prepared to accept the concequences than don’t play. But I think your point is moot. Decent people are more than willing to accept the concequences of speaking out – and acting out – against war crimes and crimes against humanity. Because it show others just how morally depraved those who support war crimes and crimes against humanity, truly are. That’s the whole point, I figure…

  2. piotr says:

    Zionist are true bookburners of 21st century.

    Examples of censorship, censorship, blacklisting and harassment could fill a book, which is perhaps worthwhile to compile. For starters, books are contraband subject of confiscation if printed in Beirut, even if this is an Arabic translation of Pinocchio.

    My suggested book would have chapter on every art form, while sciences would also have their entries. What other country bombed a university in this century?

    • Daniel Rich says:

      @ piotr,

      The list of what israel didn’t bomb, attack or kill is much, much shorter.

      • piotr says:

        Exactly. One can make arguments for not involving arts and sciences in political conflicts, but it is Israel and supporters that show initiative and achieve results: destroyed universities, banned books, blacklisted artists, theatre performances closed by police (Year of Jerusalem as an Arab Cultural Capital) etc.

        110 years ago Czarist Russia was notable for exquisite ballet etc. and pogroms, somewhat comparable situation. But Czars did not involve arts and science in the conflict as opposed to what happened 30 years later in Germany. For example, Czar Alexander purchased a painting of a Jewish painter Repin for a record amount of 35,000 rubles. Thus a hypothetical case for boycotting a visit in London of a ballet sponsort by the Czar would be weaker — still arguable, but weaker. (My history is iffy here, individual Czars had very different policies, but I think the historical analogy is very good here). But Israel and supporters are really engage in Kulturkampf or Kulturkrieg.

  3. Shmuel says:

    The Jewish Chronicle, indeed, carried an article entitled “‘Jewish pressure’ led to suspensions”.

    The JC also ran an article by Professor Colin Shindler (“active in the Soviet Jewry campaign between 1966 and 1975″) on the obvious similarity between the IPO incidents and the targeting of Soviet cultural events in the 1970s. Shindler’s main argument against targeting the IPO seems to be a tactical one:

    Militancy only works if it achieves a public resonance. In the UK, there was already a sympathy for the cause of Soviet Jewry and for figures such as Andrei Sakharov. The strategy of the 35s cultivated and carried public opinion. The same cannot be said about those who attempted to disrupt the concert of the Israeli Philharmonic. Probably a majority of British citizens wish to see a just two-state solution and an end to violence. A protest against musicians did not encapsulate that vision.

    Wrapping oneself with the flag of righteousness alienates multitudes. After all it is the very same Jewish community that campaigned for Soviet Jewry who, according to last year’s JPR survey, overwhelmingly opposed the settlement drive on the West Bank. Unintelligent protests deter, not recruit.

    I wonder what kind of effective tactics Prof. Shindler would recommend, or how he believes Palestinians might garner wider sympathy for their cause. A strongly-worded (but staunchly pro-Israel) letter to The Times perhaps? Judging by the title of his forthcoming book (‘Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimisation’), I suspect that Prof. Shindler might find that rather “alienating” and “unintelligent” as well.

  4. Daniel Rich says:

    An allergic reaction to [the] truth.

  5. RE: The Jewish Chronicle, indeed, carried an article entitled “‘Jewish pressure’ led to suspensions”.

    SPEAKING OF THE JEWISH CHRONICLE: UK Jewish Chronicle Hosts BNP White Supremacist Blogger, by Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam, 4/17/12

    (excerpt) Stephen Sizer reports that the UK national Jewish community’s ‘Jewish Chronicle’ has offered a blog-column to Carlos Cortiglia, a leader of the British National Party, the nation’s leading white supremacist political party. Cortiglia is the BNP candidate in the London mayoral race.
    I asked Electronic Intifada’s Asa Winstanley to put BNP’s politics in a U.S. context, and whether it could be compared to the Tea Party. He replied that BNP carries more political weight, but its politics are more extreme. . .

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – link to richardsilverstein.com

    P.S. As Mayhem likes to say: “Birds of a feather. . .”

  6. eljay says:

    >> It’s worth noting that two of the ‘LPO4’ are Jewish, and one of them is the child of a Kindertransport survivor—the rest of his maternal family was wiped out by the Nazis. Both have been to Palestine and witnessed Israeli apartheid first-hand.

    Well, that explains it: They’re self-loathing, anti-Semitic, Israel-hating Jews. I guess that means they’re not “real Jews”.

    • piotr says:

      This is one of the hallmarks of the Jewish state. It provides protection and favors to Jews according to their quality. There are super-Jews, so-so Jews, mediocre Jews and unfortunately-they-are Jews.

      There are three ways of becoming a super-Jew: super-active Zionist == settler who personally bashes “Pals”, super-rich Zionist and super-religious Jew. And bicycling anarchists are on the bottom of the heap. There are very few of them, but they are like a drop of tar in a barrel of honey. They are probably the reason for a violent reaction to a bicycle outing of Sharek Youth Forum which was never before branded as “anarchist”.

      The degree of deference to super-Jews is hilarious at times. For example, a stupid hasbarah chief Yuli Edelstein designed a campaign promoting immigration to Israel where a Jew can date Jewish girls unlike in USA. That touched a raw nerve and after few TV ads this motif was dropped. Which made me thinking: why suddenly a hasbarah chief is so sensitive? Anything to do with Michael Bloomberg, mayor of NYC, owner of Bloomberg News and a munificent Zionist, having a shiksa girlfriend? I imagine that Edelstein had to admit his stupidity personally and profusely apologize for any implied aspersions on the august personage of Bloomberg, in a phone call to Bloomberg secretary.

      • dimadok says:

        A little humbleness for you, Piotr, would be nice. You know, as a proud Polish guy like you, there are so many stories about Jews in Poland you must be ashamed of. Or aren’t you? Maybe before posting a long comments about Jews, Judaism and history of my people, you could go back to your own roots and gain the understanding why Jews need their state, why and how they were persecuted in Poland and what made them leave. Telling that Israelis are stupid does says a lot about yourself, rather than makes a point for discussion.

        • piotr says:

          By “going back to my roots” I am 1/4 Polish. So I guess various parts of my roots have a lot to apologize to other parts and I should be thoroughly humble.

          The story of Jews in Poland is very complex and it is not “they were persecuted which made them leave”. Of those who left, the ones that ended up in USA, Belgium, England etc. do very well, thank you very much, without any help from “their state”. Does Michael Bloomberg needs his own state? Or his own city is enough (not cheap, mind you, if you check how much he spend)? Why Sheldon Adelson needs Israel? So he can display to his fellow moguls the most precious tchotchke of them all: his very own Prime Minister? Why anti-Zionist Haredi need Israel? To log more hours of Torah study than their colleagues in Brooklyn? Why a daughter of Judge Goldstone who moved from South Africa to Israel and later to Canada needs Israel? Can a single answer describe them all?

  7. NickJOCW says:

    It is, of course, ugly and short-sighted but they are getting desperate and beginning to live from one crisis to another while pretending their Titanic isn’t actually sinking. From their point of view, they avoided the possibility of a cancellation. True they have exposed themselves to a level of stricture and criticism but it is less dramatic, more equivocal, and probably the lesser of two evils. Meanwhile, it is obvious that the Egyptian cancellation of their gas contract with Israel is anything but a ‘simple commercial dispute’ as everyone is claiming, and Turkey banning Israel from the next NATO conference unless there are apologies and compensation for the flotilla slaughter? Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin?

    • piotr says:

      This “getting desperate” should be viewed rather skeptically. For the Lobby, there is always a crisis, “Israel now more than ever needs your help, please send us the largest donation you can afford. ” To give an analogy, consider this joke:

      Two Jewish mothers are sitting in a restaurant. The waiter comes over.

      “Is ANYTHING alright…?” he asks…..

  8. seafoid says:

    Jewish diaspora money supports a lot of Israeli cruelty. Below the radar of course. But Israel is fundamentally adrift of morality at this stage so it will all be revealed in due time. And denials will fly.

  9. Theo says:

    Chapeau off to those four decent and brave musicians with a special wink to the two jews who are ready to fight against the apartheid in Israel.
    England still being a democratic country, why did they not get a lawyer and get justice throught a court? If you start a dance, then might as well finish it. Six months without pay is hard, unless they quietly received their usual salary for not working.

    • Hello Theo, just to say that I am quite sure, unfortunately, that the suspensions were indeed without pay.

      • Theo says:

        If I am correct, the LSO is owned by the city of London and the highest boss is the lord mayer of the city, Boris Johnson.
        I do not have all details, however if I was one of those musicians whose civil rights were so drastically hurt, not to forget my bank account, I would have filed a lawsuite against the big boss and the city.
        As I said before, if you start a dance then you must finish it!!
        I am ready to make a bet that they would have had a lot of popular support and making public the names of those jews, who put the pressure on the management, would be most emberassing to the zionists in England and themselves.

  10. Freija says:

    Bravo to the LPO4, if they would not have been reintegrated into their orchestra
    I would have created immediately the The Human Dignity Orchestra for all of them.
    This is the reap what we saw: New things and much better coming out, when the pro-slaughter manager goes wild than there are a lot of answers pro-human. No chance for the butchers and their pro- any more…

  11. Shame on the management of the London Philharmonic for aiding and abetting an apartheid state!

  12. eGuard says:

    Come to think of it, Timothy Walker, how can you keep musicians from playing in the orchestra without influencing the artistic performance? Were they playing the air-violin?