IDF soldiers aboard the Ramallah Orchestra bus in 2012 (T Suarez)
The Ramallah Orchestra, an initiative of the Ramallah-based music school Al Kamandjati, is composed of both Palestinian and foreign musicians. But whereas the foreign musicians can make the roughly ten-mile journey from Ramallah to East Jerusalem (assuming Israel did not block their entrance from abroad to begin with), the Palestinians need Israeli ‘permission’. East Jerusalem lies in Palestine according to international law, but Israel militarily seized the land and employs various pseudo-legalistic and bureaucratic smokescreens to cleanse it of its Palestinian citizens and block their access to it.
Last year, in 2012, the Ramallah Orchestra had to cancel its St. Anne Church concert when Israel failed to give the Palestinian musicians permits. This year’s smokescreen was more imaginative—the musicians would need new magnetic cards, but those cards would not be available until after the concert.
The musicians need to cross a major checkpoint to get past Israel’s apartheid wall. But it is an open secret that this Wall paralyzes only normal daily life in Palestine; it is farcical as regards security, its claimed purpose. Those desperate enough can get around it, and this year, the Orchestra’s Palestinian musicians were determined not to be stopped. So they hired professional wall-evaders, who brought them to an isolated area, cut through barbed wire and hung a knotted rope from the top of the wall so that the musicians could climb over it.
One by one, the young musicians mounted the ladder, sat atop the wall, grabbed the rope, and slowly slithered down, trying to use the knots as footholds. It wasn’t easy; the knots were small. Halfway down, one of the string players saw a vehicle approaching on the narrow access road. He froze; was this a soldier coming to arrest him? “Don’t worry,” the coyote called down, “it’s a local Palestinian.”
This is a risky undertaking for those not seasoned in the ritual, and one of the musicians, a violinist, misjudged his height on the far (‘Israeli’) side and jumped to the ground too soon, falling onto his back. He reached St. Anne’s church along with the others but suffered a vomiting fit before the concert and was unable to play.
St. Anne’s Church, set for a Ramallah Orchestra concert (T Suarez, 2012)
Mr. Tolan’s report adds yet further support to the call for BDS. When one country suppresses another people—in this case, blocking them from playing music on what, by international law, is their own land—that country’s cultural institutions should not be patronized as a matter of elementary fairness. Simple reciprocity makes the boycott of Israel an unassailable matter of principle.
What is important about this incident is that it is not exceptional, but represents life as usual for Palestinians. “It’s just the way it is here,” one fourteen-year-old boy told me when he came to a lesson with a borrowed violin, his having been smashed by Israeli soldiers. One Palestinian colleague had as a student been beaten to unconsiousness by Israeli soldiers miffed that he studied with a renowned teacher in Jerusalem (those studies then ended). Mr. Tolan documented the recent plight of a young Palestinian singer arbitrarily accused of throwing stones at the invading IDF and forced to sign a fake ‘confession’ in order to avoid the terror of long-term Israeli prison—prison that Israel can and does impose on Palestinians without charge and without limit. These are all mere snippets of every-day life as usual in Palestine under the Israeli yoke; they are not the exception, not the excess, not the mistake, but all mechanisms in Israel’s strategies of culturecide. Even as an outsider, one quickly witnesses Palestinian children blocked from performing the concerts they had worked for months to prepare; professional Palestinian musicians whose families were ethnically cleansed then blocked from reaching their concert in the West Bank; and music institutions burdened with the expensive and never-ending dance around Israeli interference.
Yet the US musicians’ union, which flaunts the torch of boycott in solidarity with musicians suffering far lesser injustice in other parts of the world, censors any mention of injustice against Palestinians by Israel. In its journal International Musician, the national organization refuses not only to publish information about gross injustice against Palestinian musicians, but even to publish mention of the difficulties faced by one of its own members teaching and performing in Palestine. The New York local (802), to which I belong, privately acknowledged that its strict policy forbidding the topic in its otherwise eclectic journal Allegro, is the result of pressure by certain of its members. This censorship is so strict that the very topic may not be broached even in a letter to the editor.
This imposed ignorance perpetuates not just injustice against Palestinian musicians, but indeed helps perpetuate the entire Israel-Palestine nightmare.
Mr. Tolan’s full report is here.
With best wishes to the violinist who suffered the fall attempting to reach the concert.
* Sandy Tolan is the author of The Lemon Tree, and (the following from Amazon) the author of Me & Hank: A Boy and His Hero, Twenty-Five Years Later. He has written extensively for newspapers and magazines, and has produced dozens of radio documentaries for NPR and PRI. His work has won numerous awards. He was a 1993 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and an I. F. Stone Fellow at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where he directs the school’s Project on International Reporting.