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.