On ‘socially conscious’ dialogue tour, Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra will visit Bethlehem but not ‘occupied territories’

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The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra lately announced a tour of the Middle East this summer, as a “socially and politically conscious organization.” The trip description announces gigs in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem:

The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra is thrilled to announce its participation in a musical and cultural exchange tour to the Middle East in June 2013. Building on the success of our tour to Cuba in 2011 and advancing our larger goals as a socially and politically conscious organization, the HRO now seeks to travel to the Middle East for a purpose higher than simply our own enrichment. Our exchange will be highlighted by performances in Jerusalem, Amman, Bethlehem, and Tel Aviv, and educational and musical outreach with students in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories.

Below is my exchange of emails with an orchestra official. I have left out his name for privacy reasons. Note that the Orchestra tour organizers seem to regard Jerusalem and Bethlehem as part of Israel. This turns out to be important in practical terms for the travellers, because Harvard University has placed “occupied territories” off limits “due to safety concerns”.

First email:

From: Peter Belmont
To:    [Official] Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra
Subject: HRO’s Trip to Israel, Jordan

Dear [Official],

I was a member of the HRO’s trip to Mexico in 1961. I was a graduate student at the time, but still young. The trip was marvelous and I am glad I went. I think I was the #2 cellist. Ursula Oppens was our piano soloist and Charles Castleman was our violin soloist. I played the Haydn “Joke” quartet with Castleman on first violin (!) in a few schools as part of our outreach. Snappy tempos, let me tell you.

OK, back to your Middle East trip.

Ordinarily I’d be pleased as punch that HRO was taking such a trip, but history intervened, my history. Although of Jewish ancestry, I married a Palestinian-American (her father Palestinian, her mother American, both Quakers) and I learned a lot about the very, very unfortunate history of Israel as dispossessor and oppressor of Palestinians.

This history is readily available today [Belmont provides links to this website].

This history was much less “available” in 1967 when I married, but even at age 29 I was a “kid” without much political or historical knowledge. I’d never really heard of Palestine then. My wife was slow to raise the topic, fearing a typical-then-as-now pro-Israel (because Jewish) reaction from me.

So instead of politics, we did music. She was a very good pianist, mostly chamber music. We met in a music “camp”. Her name was Sibyl Totah, and her father was Khalil Abdallah Totah, an educator in Ramallah (now in Israeli-occupied Palestine). If you visit the Friends (Quaker) Schools in Ramallah, you’ll find a building there named after him. He was a beloved headmaster there.

Chances are your orchestra today has a lot of people who know more about Mathematics (my subject) and Biochemistry than they do about Israel/Palestine. And chances are, too, that your orchestra has many people — mostly Jewish I should imagine — who love, admire, and defend Israel and are, at least in effect, indifferent to Palestinian suffering. That’s the way America is today. Although sympathies seem shifting a bit recently. Perhaps your trip recognizes this.

The reason I write is to express regret that HRO is taking this trip which

      [leaving aside a side trip to Jordan: does it visit the refugee
      camps where the Palestinian exiles from 1948 and 1967 still
      live, because Israel will not allow them to return to their
      homes and homeland?]

appears to be almost entirely to Israel, not to occupied Palestine at all (except perhaps for some sort of outreach, I hope via the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music).

As such — as a trip to Israel — it VALIDATES Israel at a time when Israel needs more than anything else to be INVALIDATED due to its illegal and anti-human-rights oppression of the Palestinians living in the occupied territories, especially its dreadful siege of Gaza and its settlement project in the West Bank (and the Syrian Golan, another topic). The settlements are all illegal, even those near the Old Walled City of Jerusalem.

The settlers should all be required to move back to Israel (pre-1967 Israel) and the wall (I hope you will see it) should be pulled down, as the International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 (a ruling ignored by the USA and Israel and hence by all the nations).

To learn about the settlements, read up on them. You might start here:


To learn about international efforts to create “Boycott, Divestment,and Sanctions” against Israel (as the “wars” within Harvard’s Hillel may make a bit known to all Harvard students), see


BDS would presumably urge you to cancel your trip. VALIDATING Israelis a truly horrible thing to do. Cultural Boycott is a noble (and often a costly) thing to do. Many performers (mostly or all “popular” entertainers, I believe, some with BIG NAMES) have canceled planned trips to Israel. It does make the Israelis sit up and take note! That’s what cultural boycott is all about.

I imagine the HRO’s trip will go forward, and if so I hope you all enjoy it. If it is canceled due to BDS,  I’ll be glad for the political message of its cancellation though not for the sadness of the orchestra members.

Good luck!

Yours, Peter Belmont



From: [Official] Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra 
To:    Peter Belmont
Subject: HRO’s Trip to Israel, Jordan

Dear Mr. Belmont,

Thank you very much for your thoughtful email. I have forwarded your concerns along to the Tour Committee and to the rest of the Board of Directors.

I want to assure you that the students involved in planning this tour have put a lot of thought into the issues you mentioned in your email. There are in fact many members of the orchestra who do deeply care about the troubles occurring in the Palestinian territory. However, we have aimed from the very beginning to take non-partisan stance towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to instead focus the tour on increasing dialogue about the conflict and fostering understanding and respect among all parties.

We had also hoped to spend a substantial amount of time in the Palestinian territories, but unfortunately, Harvard University’s travel restrictions bar us from going there due to safety concerns. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an important issue, we hope that others do not [consider?] that issue as the only one our tour attempts to confront. In fact, we see the tour as a tour to the Middle East in general, and as such we will be collaborating with both Israeli and Jordanian musicians and spending much of our tour raising money through benefit concerts for Syrian refugees.

        [ * omitted * ]

Thank you again for your email, for expressing your concerns about the tour, and for your support. We are always thrilled to hear from HRO alumni like yourself.

Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra


      From: Peter Belmont
To:    [Official] Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra
Subject: HRO’s Trip to Israel, Jordan

Dear [Official]

Thanks for your very thoughtful reply. I cannot ask for more than that the players in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra have thought and talked about the issues of the Palestine/Israel conflict. I think they “got it wrong”, even as the trip was at first conceived, but you know that already.

But the trip will not occur “as first conceived”. With Harvard, rather late in the game, ruling out “outreach” travel to the Palestinian occupied territories (“due to safety concerns”)

    — most Israeli friends of Palestine find it entirely safe to
    visit the West Bank, BTW, but Americans might not be safe from
    attack by Israeli settler-zealots, police, army, the centers of
    violence in the West Bank —

your trip (apart from its side-trip to Jordan) amounts to a trip solely to Israel, and thus tends to validate/legitimize/promote Israel (in the face of Israel’s blatant human-rights violations, grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, war crimes, etc.) at a time when Israel’s record cries out desperately for a POINTED REFUSAL by all decent folk to validate/legitimize/promote it (which is what BDS demands).

To be brutal: in my mind, a vacation or cultural visit to Israel, with knowledge of Israel’s behavior, is like a visit to Berlin might have been in 1938-42, with knowledge of Hitler’s crack-down on Jews (and others), perhaps a cultural visit in celebration of Germany’s wonderful  cultural heritage, its value and beneficence to the world, Germany, the land of Schiller, Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, etc. And imagine people returning from such a visit, and gushing to everyone they meet about how wonderful and kind and receptive the German people were, and how clean the streets were.

I will be interested in the reception any member of the orchestra receives (especially upon landing at any Israeli airport) who has an Arab or Muslim sounding name or national origin. And, of course, no-one should take a computer or cell-phone or the like (or hard-copy) which contains any contact-information or political information about Palestine.

Please at least talk to the BDS folks at Harvard before leaving on this trip.

And leave me with the hope that my old friend [**] did not play a role in planning this trip. For it smacks of a put-up job, and I can almost smell the Zionist money proposing the trip and offering to make up the deficits.


 Peter Belmont


About pabelmont

Retired. Married for 24 years to Palestinian-American, Quaker. Myself of Jewish descent, non-religious. Classical musician (cello). Run my own website, 123pab.com, for which I do all the programming (PHP, MYSQL). Favor an international intervention, as a "deus ex machina", to rescue Palestinians, Israelis, and USA from the tail-wags-the-dog AIPAC-et-alius. This probably means doing an end-run around USA's UNSC veto and doing more-or-less coordinated BDS at nation-state level. Non-Action on Global Warming is a far bigger threat to all the world than the 63-year non-action on Israel/Palestine. On this topic, I am truly hopeless: "I cry a tear for the soon to be late humanity."

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9 Responses

  1. Ira Glunts
    March 25, 2013, 1:31 pm

    Beautiful letters. Well done, Peter.

  2. bintbiba
    March 25, 2013, 2:01 pm

    Mr. Belmont,RESPECT!!!
    and Thank you!!!

  3. tokyobk
    March 25, 2013, 2:09 pm

    It was 1936 but still bad enough. The great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois toured Germany and, typical of his love for German culture, (he lived there as a student after Harvard), extolled the clean roads, the people the music. He also became one of the first Americans to comment on the worsening condition of the Jews, though he felt that it was not as bad at that time as black Americans had it. He was always treated better in Germany, even Nazi Germany, than he was in America, particularly the South.

    Du Bois was right on all counts and had every right to be there as a cultural ambassador and to praise the praiseworthy aspects of German culture.

    A legitimate One State (not one group dominating the other) will require tremendous acts of normalization and cultural engagement as well as acceptance of much of what Israel has built, even as the conqueror.

  4. Fritz
    March 25, 2013, 5:58 pm

    Great piece. It seems that Harvard has changed to a much more pro-occupation position than it was in the 80ties.

  5. MK_Ultra
    March 25, 2013, 7:13 pm

    Bravo! Great exchange. It’s a good thing the ‘official’ in question is a musician and not a professor of geography at Harvard. LOL! Although that would certainly explain, and illustrate, why Americans only learn geography thru the imperialist wars their government engages in. Having said that, add Barack Obama to the mix (also a Harvard alumni) and they illustrate why the US is in sad state of affairs that it is and houses some of the most ignorant beings on the face of the planet.

    PS: I’m not saying Obama is dumb, something he certainly isn’t but, rather, I’m referring to his academic qualifications v. his performance in the area of Constitutional law. Shameful indeed!

  6. andrewfelluss
    March 26, 2013, 8:34 am

    Nice one Peter, i also sent this letter based on their response:

    Dear Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra,

    I’m writing to urge your cancellation of performances in apartheid Israel, and to highlight a logical error in your response to Mr. Peter Belmont (pasted below for your reference).

    You stated that some of your members “…deeply care about the troubles occurring in the Palestinian territory”.

    This is ambiguous and deceptive, implying:
    A) That your members are unaware or unconcerned about human rights violations affecting Palestinian citizens of Israel, or those of human rights violations affecting Palestinian refugees in diaspora.
    B) That the geographic fragmentation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and other territories occupied by the State of Israel is negligible, that they might be referred to in singular. (I strongly doubt that your referral to “the Palestinian territory” was meant to include the entirety historic Palestine’s geographic area)
    C) That ongoing human rights violations carried out by the State of Israel against the Palestinian people can be reduced to “troubles” that are best conveniently ignored.

    Acknowledging the geographic (and resulting political) fragmentation of the Palestinian population is central to focusing international solidarity. That Israel can continue its brazen colonization of Palestinian land (across its state and occupied territories), crimes of apartheid, proclaim daily to be acting in the interest of “the Jewish people” by maintaining a racist-ethnostate (I am Jewish and the State of Israel does not represent or speak for me), and still receive the best in international entertainment is a testament to the level of normalization that’s been manufactured here.

    It’s worth considering the tone on the matter in 1919, from the suppressed report of the King-Crane commission: “…a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ is not equivalent to making Palestine into a Jewish State; nor can the erection of such a Jewish State be accomplished without the gravest trespass upon the ‘civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ The fact came out repeatedly in the Commission’s conference with Jewish representatives, that the Zionists looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, by various forms of purchase.”

    The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (www.PACBI.org) recognized that normalization is the bluntest weapon of Zionism, and luckily the most impotent when challenged with truth. The truth is that the State of Israel is an occupying and disenfranchising entity, with most of its cultural institutions complicit in normalizing its injustices. Boycott of these complicit civil and state cultural institutions for the purposes of eliminating their normalizing power is the aim of the campaign, not to suppress art. Those institutions that are taking a lucid stance against apartheid, occupation, colonialism, ethnic segregation and other animated skeletons of the past, might be happy to host your performance in the land of Palestine. Such a ‘Solidarity Appearance’ would be at the discretion of local hosts, and would not be in violation of the cultural boycott.

    Consider that many in the arts suffer from a ‘Jesus Complex’, expecting that if only their voice could be clearly heard in a sea of misery, their message would ring universal peace and love all over the motherfucker. In the arena of global media, the opposite occurs and a side is chosen. Regardless of any ‘soul-uplifting’ that might occur in the arts venue (often temporary bliss quickly replaced by “ego-reality”), the lingering asset you will have created is more propaganda to be employed with infinite supply by Israel’s foreign ministry and advocates of ethno-supremacy.


    Andrew Felluss, New York City
    Musician, Media Artist and Co-Founder Artists Against Apartheid International Alliance (writing in a personal capacity!)

    • MRW
      March 26, 2013, 6:29 pm

      Ah. Andrew. Thanks for the laugh. Consider that many in the arts suffer from a ‘Jesus Complex’, […] their message would ring universal peace and love all over the motherfucker.

  7. talknic
    March 27, 2013, 3:28 am

    “We had also hoped to spend a substantial amount of time in the Palestinian territories, but unfortunately, Harvard University’s travel restrictions bar us from going there due to safety concerns. “

    Strange that the Israeli Government encourages Israeli citizens to illegally settle in Palestinian territories ..

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