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From the Royal Albert Concert Hall to an Israeli Dungeon: Omar Saad, a young violist and conscientious objector

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Omar Saad

Omar Saad

Omar Saad is the oldest of a quartet of siblings from the Galilee village of Maghar. The four are, indeed, literally a quartet, namely the Galilee String Quartet, composed of violist Omar, his two younger violinist brothers, and their sister, the ensemble’s ‘cellist.

When not performing as a quartet, their other musical accomplishments are no less interesting. The three brothers were featured members of the ensemble known as the Palestine Strings, a brainchild of Palestine’s National Conservatory of Music, when the eminent violinist Nigel Kennedy brought that ensemble to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall for a performance at the 2013 Proms. To a packed London audience of five and a half thousand people, Mr. Kennedy not only showcased them playing their respective instruments, but also improvising and singing.

They are ‘Palestinians of 1948’: Palestinians who were not ethnically cleansed from the land that became the Israeli state. Omar’s region of Galilee, in fact, does not even lie on the Israeli side of the 1947 Partition, but Israel seized it in late 1948 under Operation Hiram. Israel refused to vacate the region, and kept Maghar under Martial Law until 1966. The village’s proximity to Lebanon has left it vulnerable to more violence: During the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, several people in Maghar were killed by Hezbollah rockets and cluster bombs.

When Omar turned seventeen in 2013, he received orders to appear at the IDF recruitment office. He replied with an open, polyglot letter to the Prime Minister and Defense Minister which read in part:

I am Omar Zahreddeen Mohammad Saad from Maghar village-Galilee. I received a summons to present myself at the recruitment offices on October 31, 2012 [but] I refuse to go… I declare myself as a conscientious objector and refuse to serve in any army … How can I carry arms against my brothers and my own people in Palestine? How can I be soldier at the Qalandia check point or at any other barrier when I have experienced the oppression of barriers? How can I prevent people from Ramallah visiting their city, Jerusalem? How can I guard the separation wall? How can I be the jailer of my own people when I know that most of them are prisoners of war and seekers of justice and freedom? … I declare it loud and clear: I am Omar Zahreddeen Mohammad Saad and will not be fuel for your arms or a soldier in your army.

At first, the IDF dealt with his refusal by ignoring it, ordering him to appear for conscription on March 3, 2014. But on November 27, this date was moved up, without explanation, to December 4, 2013. So on December 3, the Galilee String Quartet played together one last time, and in the morning Omar presented himself at the recruitment office, repeated his refusal to serve, and was taken away.

Most Arabs do not face the issue of serving in the Israeli military, because they cannot serve. Like the infamous ‘grandfather clauses’ of post-slavery United States, this keeps them from civil service jobs, since military service is a prerequisite. Omar, however, is Druze, and by Israel’s ethnically predicated laws, Druze must serve. This grants them a citizenship status one notch above that of other non-Jewish Israelis, but at a terrible price. In return they must take up arms in support of the same state that took their land, the same state that refuses to make them equal members of society. Most terrible of all, they will find themselves pointing automatic weapons at Palestinians in Palestine.

Having Druze in the military gave Israel the opportunity to demonstrate ‘accountability’ without convicting Jewish Israelis. Of the thousands of Palestinians killed by the Israeli occupation forces, only once was the killer was brought to justice—the Druze soldier who killed Tom Hurndall as that twenty-two year old British man attempted to sweep a Gazan child from harm’s way.

I have had the pleasure of working with Omar Saad at the National Conservatory of Music, in the Conservatory’s orchestra, and coaching chamber groups he played in. Like the American heroes who went to jail rather than collude with their governments’ crimes against Vietnam, Omar is a threat to Israel’s incessant war. His stance challenges both the Apartheid system within Israel, and its war of ethnic aggression beyond the Armistice Line.

His sacrifice offers us an opportunity to raise awareness of both issues.

Links :
Support Omar Saad Facebook page
Support Omar Saad Website
News video of Omar explaining his position
Video of the Galilee Quartet’s last meeting before Omar’s imprisonment
Wikipedia entry on Maghar

Update: This piece originally stated that Omar’s family has not been told what prison he is in. The family did then learn which prison he is in. Thanks to Nigel Kennedy’s agent, Terri Robson.

Tom Suarez
About Tom Suarez

Tom Suarez is the author, most recently, of State of Terror, how terrorism created modern Israel.

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17 Responses

  1. xanadou
    December 11, 2013, 3:49 pm

    Methinks that the Israeli army is being used by the state to punish Nigel Kennedy in absentia for including the Quartet in his Proms’ performance, and for making the pro-Palestinian statement.

    I hope that someone, better yet, an organization with clout, will follow Omar Zahreddeen Mohammad Saad’s fate. The vindictive state of Israel will likely disallow him access to a violin. Not good for someone with professional aspirations.

    Good Lawrrd! Is there no depth of depravity to which the apartheid state of Israel will stoop? Seventy years later, Germany is still paying, literally and figuratively for its 5-1/2 years of savagery. One wonders, what is the half-life for 65 years, and counting, of Israeli brutality?

  2. Walid
    December 11, 2013, 4:05 pm

    That’s one less Palestinian in the way. The cleansing goes on and on. What other reason to move up his conscription date knowing all too well he’d still refuse to serve? The slimeballs couldn’t bear to wait until next March to have him thrown in jail. Vicious , vicious people.

  3. Philip Munger
    Philip Munger
    December 11, 2013, 5:20 pm

    Back last summer, when Nigel Kennedy presented the Palestine Strings (including the Saad siblings) at the Proms, in collaboration with his own ensemble, he stated near the end of the concert:

    Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a bit hard to say it, but, we all know from experience from this night of music that given equality and getting rid of apartheid gives a beautiful chance for amazing things to happen.

    When BBC aired the concert on television, Kennedy’s remarks were censored out:

    Kennedy angered many members of the Jewish community earlier this month after using a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the Royal Albert Hall to accuse Israel of practising “apartheid”.

    His comments, at the end of a performance given by a group of young Palestinian musicians, were broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, which was carrying the concert.

    But the corporation has since confirmed that the impromptu remarks, delivered by Kennedy from the platform before the encores, will be cut from the footage when the concert has its first television broadcast on BBC4 on Friday.

    The Board of Deputies of British Jews applauded the decision but campaigners accused the BBC of “censoring” an “integral” part of the event.

    The controversy comes two years after protesters disrupted a Proms performance given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in London. [emphasis added]

    Immediately after his comments, Kennedy shared the stage front with Omar Saad’s 15-year-old brother, Mustafa, in the slow movement from Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor for two violins.

    Here is the concert, with the remarks restored. Kennedy makes his statement at 1:21:29.

    • Taxi
      December 12, 2013, 1:31 am

      Philip Munger,

      Thanks for posting the concert link. Wonderful stuff!

      Thanks too to Nigel Kennedy for bringing the Kafieh to the Albert Hall!

      Viva Vivaldi! Viva Palestina!

  4. Susan A
    Susan A
    December 11, 2013, 8:14 pm

    And the still pic that we can see before the commencement of the video shows Nigel playing with Omar himself. His thirteen-year-old brother Gandhi performs the first violin solo/duet with Nigel and sings a couple of mawwals during the concert.. It’s awful to think that they, Mostapha and Gandhi, will also have to face what Omar is facing. Their sister will suffer because of the loss of her brothers but she won’t be conscripted herself as they only force this ugly, occupation work, or alternatively, ugly incarceration, on young Druze males. I met an Israeli family in London who were passing by during an action recently, and they said that the reason they were in London was so that the son wouldn’t have to join the military. Apparently he can’t go back until he’s forty, which I assume is when people are free from reservist duty too. What a sh***hole!

    • Philip Munger
      Philip Munger
      December 12, 2013, 1:40 am

      Susan A: It is a beautiful concert, from start to finish. Crossover Seasons in a very special way that Daniel Barenboim and his project would never dare to contemplate. Kennedy’s ensemble is about crossing boundaries and making the borders between genres, eras, cultures, seem to disappear. YoYo Ma is less bold in his Silk Road series but does make those borders disappear. Kennedy’s way of including the Palestine Strings in the ensemble, along with the jazz elements, was comfortable for all the players, no matter what their background.

      Barenboim’s West-East Divan Orchestra is much more about teaching outsiders (young Palestinian musicians) how to recognize and adhere to borders, as they socialize with and accommodate the cultural elite Barenboim regards as superior. Very little cross-cultural stuff in their repertoire. Pieces outside of the Western legacy tradition that they present, generally represent music that comes from one or another distinct pre-existing musical culture.

      above, xanadou writes in a new comment:

      Methinks that the Israeli army is being used by the state to punish Nigel Kennedy in absentia for including the Quartet in his Proms’ performance, and for making the pro-Palestinian statement.

      That is possible, but it is more likely that the young quartet, having been given local recognition since their return from the greatest cultural success their community has ever had, needs to be taken down before they become a Youtube phenom. Wrapped up in the package of Omar’s poignant public letter on his refusal and growing concern about Israel’s rapidly diminishing stature worldwide in the arts, this is a story that needs to be looked into much more deeply.

      Interesting, in light of the frequent pleas of “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” from liberal Zios and PEPs, that Omar’s youngest brother is named – Gandhi. Must be some cool parents, eh?

  5. ritzl
    December 11, 2013, 8:46 pm

    I thought non-Druze Palestinian-Israelis were excluded from the military obligation. If that’s not the case, nevermind.

    But if so, why did Israel decide to take this kid, and make such a point of it?

    Was it because he played in London and they wanted him put away?

    • Inanna
      December 12, 2013, 12:03 am

      ritzl, in the Middle East we say that the Druze will hold up the strongest wall. What is means is that, as a minority, they are historically characterised as supporting the strongest group, since their survival depends on it. Thus in Lebanon you see Jumblatt switching support to whomever is strongest, in Syria you see Druze leaders supporting the Assad regime etc. In Israel, many Druze have tried to normalize into mainstream Israeli society but there are still many who do not. I congratulate Mohammad Saad at the same time as my heart breaks for him. There will be too many who suffer before justice is achieved.

      • Walid
        December 12, 2013, 1:06 am

        “they are historically characterised as supporting the strongest group, since their survival depends on it.” (Inanna)

        Interestingly, as an offshoot of the Ismaili-Shia religion, this socio-religious neoplatonic secretive group is instructed to do so for their survival, as Inanna said, because they don’t take in converts by which they could multiply their numbers, not even by marriage; one is born a Druze but can never become one. Where they are in small numbers such as in Europe or in the Americas, they take on the outward appearance of whatever is the dominant local religion to “blend-in” but continue observing their religion in secret.

      • ritzl
        December 12, 2013, 3:37 am

        Thanks Inanna. Well said.

        I skipped the relevant para in the article for some reason.

        It makes it a doubly poignant act of conscience that he and his sibs did this concert knowing he/they would be subjected to this. Even more so when you consider he is breaking with Druze tradition as well.

        What courage. I wish them all well.

      • homingpigeon
        December 13, 2013, 3:40 pm

        I had a Druze explain to me that by collaborating with Israel they were actually holding onto their land successfully.

        Not only is their religion secret from the rest of the world but from most of the Druze themselves. You want to be Druse, you can maybe be one in your next incarnation, and if you want to know the religion you have to wait for the next incarnation after that.

        I did manage to find out that they believe in both reincarnation and in a final Day of Judgement. When that day comes, you will be judged for all your incarnations.

  6. traintosiberia
    December 11, 2013, 9:20 pm

    Celebrity can be a dangerous source of information to the masses who are otherwise fed one sided propaganda. Israel fears to see rise of anti Israeli activist as a celebrity particularly in the West.they are more powerful than intifada .

    • Philip Munger
      Philip Munger
      December 12, 2013, 1:45 am

      And they especially regard excellence in classically-based musical performance as their own province.

    • Walid
      December 12, 2013, 3:29 am

      Good point, train, the bad guys already have their hands full this year with Mohammed Assaf spreading the Palestinian word and the positive exposure to the kaffiyeh by Omar Saad at the Royal Albert ,as Taxi noted, is more of the same that most definitely goes against the negative image of Palestinians being pushed by Israel for decades. There’s 3 more of the same family where Omar came from and hundreds more that will be showing up in the years to come. Israel can’t stop all of them.

  7. just
    December 11, 2013, 11:05 pm

    The IOF and their government and enablers are unparalleled monsters.

    Why don’t they jail all of their haredi “concientious objectors” instead?

  8. justicewillprevail
    December 12, 2013, 5:47 am

    What a brave young man. His eloquent resistance to his colonial masters speaks volumes about the dignity of an indigenous culture against the crass, enslaving mentality of a culturally corrupt occupation. Young Palestinians are smart in a way that Israelis will never understand or appreciate, because they have had so many obstacles put in their way, they have developed the kind of fortitude and ingeniousness that the resistance networks in WWII displayed. It is heartbreaking to see an 18-year-old being incarcerated and no doubt abused for simply standing up for his principles. Gestures like his expose the routine, petty-minded bureaucratic vindictiveness of the Israeli state, a state dedicated to not only robbing Palestinians of their land, but determined to crush their identity, culture and history. Which is why they take the action they do against people such as Omar, a young person who any state in its right mind would celebrate and champion. But no, the hatred runs too deep. This is the same week that Bibi could only grudgingly praise Mandela in a coded way against Palestinians, trying to sell us the stale old cliche, like a few useful idiots here, about ‘where is the Palestinian Mandela?’ Well, here is a young man prepared to go to jail for his beliefs, who declares his principles without fear or rancour, or prejudice, and is a moral leader – all the things on the crazed demagogue’s checklist. Omar may be no Mandela (who is?), but he displays all the qualities supposedly valued by the hypocrites who jail him. That, in my book, makes him heroic. And there are plenty more.

  9. annie
    December 13, 2013, 4:03 pm

    this is so sad. i wonder how long they will keep him in prison.

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