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Israel’s siege on Palestinian music

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If you love music as much as I do, your heart stopped when you read the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision to keep young musicians from leaving Gaza for the West Bank.

Last Thursday, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition by two 16-year old musicians against the Israeli occupation’s barring them from participating in an international professional musical workshop that involves a tour in Jordan, Palestine (Ramallah) and Israel. (Official document in Hebrew*.).

The music students in question are from Gaza: Tzafia Radwan and Raslan Ashur. The respondents at court were Israeli Defense Minister, Coordinator of Government activities in the [Occupied] Territories (COGAT), Directorate of Coordination to Gaza Strip, and the Military Commander in the West Bank Area.

The court noted that the workshop would take place from yesterday (1st of August) to the 15th August, and that the participants were merely hoping to cross first to Jordan and then to Ramallah in order to take part in the workshop and performances. The Israeli destination is not even mentioned.

The court asserted that although the state first responded saying that there is government policy in such cases, and thus it is not obliged to provide such a permit, it nonetheless made an extraordinary concession – to allow the participants to cross over to Jordan, but only to Jordan – cutting them off from the rest of the workshop and performances.

Suhail Khoury of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music

The court noted the plea by Suhail Khoury, executive director of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (one of the initiators of the project) as well as that of the Palestinian Authority to appeal the state’s decision.  

Nonetheless, the court headed by judges Solberg, Meltzer and Mazoz, opined that there were no grounds for the court interfering, especially in view of the state’s extraordinary granting of permission for the musicians to take part in the portion of the tour that was in Jordan, and noted finally, that:

“[M]usical development, about which Mr. Souil [sic] spoke, is not necessarily bound by location”.

Let’s take a moment to digest that. The state allows, in its exceptional demonstration of generosity,for  the Gazan students to exit Gaza – but only to go to Jordan. Why not Ramallah? After all, Jordan is a whole other state over which Israel does not assert effective control – while Ramallah is a Palestinian Bantustan encircled by Israeli control. Israel could easily have managed to allow them at least Ramallah. But no. They should be so happy. The court finds this satisfactory, as the state is demonstrating ‘generosity’ which it is not at all obliged to.

Finally, the court plays the know-it-all musical expert: Music can be done anywhere, so you can practice it in the world’s biggest outdoor prison (or concentration camp as Israeli journalist Amira Hass called it), and it wouldn’t matter.

Why on earth leave?

As I have noted before, Israel practices aggressive boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) – against Gaza. It does it in all areas, including art and culture. The irony of Israel’s outcry against BDS, including cultural boycott, seems to pass under the radar of many people.

In his superb article written exactly two years ago, ‘Israel vs the Violin’, Tom Suarez, like myself a violinist, wrote:

For Palestinian musicians, Israel’s draconian control over civilian life means that they can only collaborate with colleagues in the same Israeli-created Bantustan; that reliable planning is impossible; that your child’s music teacher may suddenly be expelled; and that on the day of the concert your child has worked all year to prepare for, s/he may be stopped from reaching the hall. Imagine a national music competition in which a foreign country blocks participants: In last year’s Palestine National Music Competition, the Conservatory had to establish video links to circumvent Israeli interference and enable all Palestinian applicants to audition. Some winners were forced to present their celebratory concert “live” by video link set up on the concert hall stage.

All Palestinians live with the fear of violence from the occupying military. In the West Bank, one talented teenage violinist I have coached and known for years was accused (wrongly, though the issue is irrelevant) by IDF soldiers of throwing stones; he denied it, and they smashed his violin. Another young musician similarly accused was, like so many other Palestinians, arbitrarily imprisoned and forced to sign a “confession”. In the most extreme case known to me, a Palestinian contrabass student (now a colleague) returning from a lesson was stopped by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint. They tied him to a wall and called in several new IDF recruits. “We caught this terrorist”, the soldiers told the new recruits. “What do we do with terrorists?” He awoke the next day in a hospital. His bass bow, broken in two, was all that was found with him.

One experience of mine is representative of the more mundane day-to-day obstacles confronting musical life in Palestine. The premiere of my string quartet Peregrinations was to have taken place in April 2014 at Bethlehem’s Peace Center, next to the traditional site of Christ’s birth, in a performance by the NCM String Quartet, under the auspices of the John Paul II Foundation and with the support of Bethlehem Municipality. It had been well-advertised and was to be broadcast live by Radio Mawwal. Two weeks before the performance, Israel prevented the quartet’s first violinist from reaching the West Bank. Diplomatic efforts to stop Israeli interference failed, forcing the cancellation of the concert. Within the space of one year, Israel thwarted three concerts of mine alone.”    

These are the things we hear less about, because a concert that cannot be performed doesn’t make much sound, and cannot compete with the noise of blazing guns and the outrage over ‘terror’.

This matter is very, very close to me. I am not a religious man, but my connection with music is, I would say, somewhat spiritual. When either playing or conducting, I often feel I am in a sphere that is somewhat removed from this world. Even if I am expressing very tangible human feelings, it is a heaven of sorts that heals me from so many mundane worries. When I perform Bach’s mass in B minor, reaching the section ‘Et in Terra Pax’ (‘and Peace on Earth’), there is an elation wherein I am delivered elsewhere, where politics and wars do not exist.

This is an elation that so many people share, musicians as well as those who experience the music. This is also the value of music for Gazans. It’s part of an elevation above and beyond the nearly uninhabitable reality.

So I understand that it is natural, especially for those who feel strongly about music and art in general, to want to steer away from the sphere of politics, to not ‘entangle’ that heavenly means of expression with the mundane.

Alas, such idealism fails us when we observe the reality of Israel’s oppression, and how it applies that oppression upon Palestinian culture in a systematic and cruel way, in so many forms.

Imagine if we applied the Israeli Supreme Court’s arrogant and chauvinist final note more broadly than its Gaza target–

“[M]usical development…is not necessarily bound by location”.

Right – Israelis don’t need international musicians to visit them, they’ll do just fine with the local ones. Israeli musicians don’t need to travel abroad, they’ll develop just fine in Israel.

And suddenly, when you apply the notion of the Israeli Supreme Court to Israelis, you’ll get so many Israel-apologists crying ‘anti-Semitism!’.

But actually, it’s a serious business. Real people are besieged and prevented from even the most benign of experiences. Israel is demanding that the whole world single it out and permit it to continue this horrible oppression of Palestinians. But that’s just not how the music should play.

*Thanks to Ofer Neiman for the court document. And thanks to Dylan Anderson, director of studies at the conservatory, for corrections of the Israeli Supreme Court document’s renderings of Palestinian institutions and individuals. This post originally took the names from the court document. It has been updated. 

About Jonathan Ofir

Israeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.

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10 Responses

  1. RoHa
    August 3, 2017, 5:55 am

    Look, it all looks harmless at the start. Just a flute and a piano. But soon they’ve got a string quartet as well. Then a couple of horns arrive, and an oboe or two, and next thing you know you’re facing an entire symphony orchestra!

    No, better for Israel to nip it the bud.

  2. Ossinev
    August 3, 2017, 6:52 am

    Shouldn`t Thom Yorke be told. That`s the same Thom Yorke who said in response to criticism of Radiohead`s Israel gig:
    “Music, art and academia is about crossing borders not building them, about open minds and not closed ones, about shared humanity, dialogue and freedom of expression”

    No forget it. A waste of time on a waste of space

    • Paranam Kid
      Paranam Kid
      August 4, 2017, 9:04 am

      Yorke & his gang just follow the money.

    • Talkback
      August 4, 2017, 3:00 pm

      So what borders did Radiohead enable to be crossed by whom through their music? Whose minds did it open? What humanity did it manage to be shared between who? Whose freedom did it allow to be expressed?

      Yorke is so disappointing as a human being. I think that a lot of people and even those who wanted him to play in Israel thought that he off all musicians would not do it. He’s just fake.

      This is the Alicia Key’s version:
      “Music is a universal language that is meant to unify audiences in peace and love, and that is the spirit of our show.”

      Yeah, product X makes my skin smooth … la la la … I use it every day …

  3. Citizen
    August 3, 2017, 8:15 am

    Zionism’s light to the World…

  4. Paranam Kid
    Paranam Kid
    August 3, 2017, 9:43 am

    This proves, once again, that Israel’s judiciary is anything but independent, therefore the country is NOT a democracy.

  5. Elizabeth Block
    Elizabeth Block
    August 3, 2017, 10:05 am

    “Israeli musicians don’t need to travel abroad, they’ll develop just fine in Israel.”
    Let’s hear it for cultural (and academic) boycott.

  6. Misterioso
    August 3, 2017, 8:44 pm


    What an entirely screwed up “country.”
    Thankfully, it is digging its own grave.

  7. JosephA
    August 4, 2017, 10:34 am

    Israeli “supreme” court defends Jewish Supremacy with racist legal opinion.

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