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 travelers, 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

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Beautiful letters. Well done, Peter.

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

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… Read more »

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

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… Read more »