“We will picket the Proms” promised Palestine solidarity activists who had responded to a Palestinian call for a boycott of the BBC Proms concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) in London. When the concert went ahead this evening, more than 40 protesters gathered outside while a determined group inside the Royal Albert Hall disrupted both the first and second half of the performance, forcing the BBC to take the Radio 3 live broadcast off air. In anticipation of disturbances, security had been greatly increased, including airport-style bag searches.
As the orchestra played Passacaglia, Op. 1 by Webern, the group calling themselves ‘Beethovians for Boycotting Israel’ positioned themselves in the choir stalls so they could be seen by the audience. To the tune of Ode to Joy by Beethoven they sang:
Israel, end your occupation:
There’s no peace on stolen land.
We’ll sing out for liberation
’till you hear and understand.
Ethnic cleansing and apartheid
Should belong to history.
Human rights cannot be silenced:
Palestine will soon be free.
Before 13 of the group were escorted out, they held up individual letters spelling, ‘Free Palestine’ – many of which were snatched off them by angry audience members. At the very beginning of the next item, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, four remaining activists stood up and chanted slogans such as “Settlements are out of tune with international law!” After the interval, and during Albéniz’s Iberia, a number of groups intervened with further slogans. Even after many in the audience had responded with their own chants of “Out, out, out!” and cheered the removal of some of the activists, the words, ‘Free Palestine’ still rang out clearly across the vast hall. The BBC refers to ‘some people in the audience’ who began booing and shouting. You can listen to the BBC audio of the action here.
A request by a few members of the orchestra and the audience for the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva, to be played at the end was ignored by the conductor Zubin Mehta. The Jerusalem Post reports that Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey, who was in the audience tweeted, “Demonstrators seem to have turned the entire audience pro-Israel.”’ Another tweet by @JonathanPos compared the disruption to the Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht – the pogroms against Jews in Nazi Germany (in 1938): “Closed my eyes and suddenly imagined I was at the Berlin Philharmonie circa 1936. Breaking glass would have added a bit of colour”.
In an open letter, Out of Tune with Human Rights, Palestinian cultural institutions, including the leading musical organizations, had urged the BBC to cancel the concert, due to IPO’s complicity in whitewashing Israel’s persistent violations of international law and human rights. A letter in Tuesday’s Independent newspaper signed by over twenty musicians explained that when the Director of the Proms, Roger Wright, was asked to cancel the concert in accordance with the call from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott (PACBI), he rejected this call, saying that the invitation is “purely musical”. The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine BRICUP wrote its own letter to Roger Wright on 31st July: “By inviting the IPO, a pillar of the Israeli state system and of its cultural propaganda campaign, you provide the Israeli government, perpetrator of the Cast Lead invasion of Gaza and of so many other violations of international law and of human rights, with the support that they crave. Cancel the concert!”
An inside source reported overhearing orchestra members referring to a cancelled concert tour in Scandinavia in response to the boycott call.