The wall of sound describes the music produced by Phil Spector in the 1960s and the Grateful Dead in the 1970s. It has been given new meaning in the 21st century by the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performing in the State of Israel.
Sandy Tolan in his book, Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land, describes the Ramallah Orchestra’s journey in 2011 to the French Church of St. Anne in the Old City of Jerusalem to play Beethoven’s Symphony no. 4 in B-flat Major. The orchestra is made up of Palestinian musicians in their teens and 20s with 15 visiting teachers and performers from Europe and the United States. They stopped as required at the Qalandia checkpoint in front of the massive “soundproof” wall that separates Jerusalem from the West Bank. All the Palestinians except one with lighter skin who passed for a Westerner were ordered off the bus by soldiers carrying M-16s. Five of the musicians do not have the proper permits and are sent back out the way they came. The separation wall has given rise to an enterprising Palestinian business of transporting people across who have been turned away at the checkpoint. After agreeing on a price the five are taken to a place where it is safe to scale the wall by ladder using a knotted rope to drop down on the other side. The Ramallah Orchestra is finally reunited in time to play its scheduled performance, but not without risk and danger. The separation barrier has created a new wall of sound (an unfortunate classical version of the old rock and roll technique) whose purpose is to keep Israelis from listening to Palestinians and vice versa.
It is in this hard land that the Philadelphia Orchestra has chosen to play. They will play for the 70th Anniversary of Israeli Independence or what the Palestinians call the Nakba or catastrophe when 750,000 of their own fled or were driven into exile. The orchestra’s celebration of Israel’s independence is also, though separated by a wall of sound, the silent marking of Palestinian catastrophe.
On Monday, March 19 over 100 musicians, artists, scholars, and human-rights activists, clergy, together with 35 social justice organizations sent a letter to co-presidents Ryan Fleur and Matthew Loden of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin asking the orchestra’s leadership to cancel its trip to Israel. The letter began “It troubles us that one of Philadelphia’s most celebrated cultural institutions will participate in the Israeli government’s “Brand Israel” propaganda strategy.” Brand Israel, showing “Israel’s prettier face so we are not thought of purely in the context of war,” Tolan argues, is in part a response to the isolation of Israel by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The Gaza protests only increased this isolation. An Inquirer article on May16 describing global criticism reported “In Geneva, U.N. human-rights spokesman Rupert Colville denounced what he called the ‘appalling deadly violence’ by Israeli forces.”
The March 19 letter concludes, “Performing in Israel with the blessing of the Israeli government conveys the Orchestra’s tacit approval for Israel’s systemic denial of Palestinian rights. It has now been over 50 years since Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been subject to a regime of military occupation and colonization, and 70 years that Palestinians have lived inside Israel as second-class citizens, subject to over 60 discriminatory laws, or as refugees in the diaspora, denied their right of return to their homes as guaranteed by international law. We urge you not to lend your good name to covering up Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.” The response to this letter was muted. One signer of this letter (signed also by three Episcopal clergy) Richard Falk, Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University, wrote in the Forward to the new study guide Why Palestine Matters: The Struggle to End Colonialism, that Israel has “fragmented Palestinians in the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, as well as separating residents of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza from one another…. This pattern of fragmenting and exercising domination over the totality of the Palestinian people is a violation of the 1973 International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.” The letter included the words of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “People who are denied their dignity and their rights deserve the solidarity of their fellow human beings. If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor…” The organization that rose up to challenge the Orchestra’s trip to Israel called itself “Philly Don’t Orchestrate Apartheid.”
The grassroots Great March of Return began on March 30, Good Friday. Two dozen Palestinians were shot and killed and hundreds more wounded at the Gaza border. A week later, four dozen protesters stood in witness at the Kimmel Center to oppose the Philadelphia Orchestra’s trip to Israel. It had been two weeks since the letter was sent to the Orchestra. Irish composer Raymond Deane, a signer of that letter, said in an email to The Philadelphia Inquirer “that the presence of foreign artists in Israel is meant to ‘normalize’ the abnormal, ‘which is to say the oppression of Palestinians…. If the Philadelphia Orchestra goes to Israel in violation of the Palestinian boycott call, it will be thumbing its collective nose at the oppressed.’”
As with the Great March of Return, the Kimmel Center demonstrations were held weekly though on different days. They were not intended as an uncrossable union picket line. They were not a request that loyal followers of the orchestra stop attending concerts. Rather their purpose was to encourage supporters of the orchestra to tell their leaders that playing in Israel is morally wrong. Jewish Voice for Peace, Philadelphia member Marta Guttenberg writes, “The protest asks audience members to call on the Orchestra that they love, and want to support, to DO THE RIGHT THING and skip the propaganda trip to Israel. Let management HEAR from loyal patrons that they are OUTRAGED by the trip!!”
On Thursday, April 26 Susan Abulhawa, Palestinian novelist and human-rights activist, wrote an op-ed for Philly.com, the digital home of the Inquirer, entitled: “By touring Israel, Philadelphia Orchestra ignored crimes against Palestinians.” She noted that, “based on their press release, the orchestra’s tour is in celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary, which marks the year when 80 percent of the indigenous non-Jewish population was forcibly evicted and had their properties, homes, and heritage stolen by recent European Jewish immigrants with no direct ancestral ties to the land.” Abulhawa concluded, “The orchestra’s tour is ultimately a collaboration with an apartheid state that oppresses millions through the use of color-coded IDs denoting one’s ethnicity, color-coded license plates, segregated roads, segregated buses, and a two-tiered legal system (harsh military orders and courts for occupied Palestinians and a civilian justice system for Israelis).
Naomi Adler, the CEO of the Jewish Federation, was unable to secure agreement from the Inquirer not to publish Abulhawa’s article in print, but she did convince them to run a rebuttal piece alongside by Nancy Baron-Baer, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. Baron-Baer asserts “that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extremely complex, challenging, and heartbreaking on all sides.” The words “on all sides” lead to a normalization of the conflict. One side is as guilty as the other, disregarding the huge imbalance of power and loss of life. And the words “extremely complex” implies that efforts to correct injustice are simplistic and do not address the core issues. Such efforts are thus invalidated and discounted. Jamie Stern-Weiner, editor of Moment of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine’s Toughest Questions, writes: “The world is replete with morally difficult conflicts and complex ethical dilemmas. Gaza is not one of them.”
Five days after Abulhawa’s op-ed and the rebuttal piece were published, Inquirer columnist Stu Bykofsky took aim at the Orchestra demonstrators. He argued that the more than 20 percent of Israelis who are Arab have full rights. There is no apartheid in Israel. The “occupied territories” have a “separation wall, some separate roads (to thwart attacks) for Jews, and different license plates for Jews and Arabs.” But that is not apartheid in Israel because the occupied West Bank and Gaza are not Israel, though he adds somewhat ominously “some parts may be, eventually.” He ends with the common charge of antisemitism for those who criticize the Israeli state. The letter of March 19 belied Bykofsky’s claims.
Both Naomi Adler and Dan Segal of the Jewish Community Relations Council, not finished with the Inquirer, wrote to insist that its reporters and staff attend a BDS training session for members of the media planned for May 3. They also requested an Inquirer editorial board meeting.
The ADL organized a petition drive, “Support the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Right to Travel to Israel.” The petition says: “The Philadelphia orchestra recently announced that it will be traveling to Israel as part of its 2018 tour. This elicited protest and pressure from anti-Israel activists, demanding that the orchestra revise its itinerary to avoid Israel. These demands and type of pressure, especially in response to a trip intended to build bridges and undertaken in the spirit of cultural exchange, is anti-Semitic and we must speak out.” The trouble is that this petition is making an assertion that is not true. No one is claiming that the Orchestra doesn’t have the right to travel to Israel. It is the Orchestra’s right to play wherever it pleases. The question is whether it is morally right and wise. As would be made clear at the University of Pennsylvania teach-in on May 5 it is far from evident how “a trip intended to build bridges” by the Orchestra is going to be able to do any such thing.
At this presentation on boycott, divestment, and sanctions at Penn, Dr. Lawrence Davidson, retired professor of Middle East history at West Chester University argued that the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performing in Israel would have little if any positive impact on the political situation in Israel. In fact such performances sustain U.S. approval of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians. Performing classical music in Israel does nothing to convince anyone in Israel that killing people on their southern border is wrong. On May 14, protesting the inauguration of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, at least 61 Palestinians including a fourteen-year-old boy were killed by Israeli gunfire during mass demonstrations along the Gaza border. More than 2700 were wounded. It was the deadliest single day of protests since the Palestinians on March 30 began staging weekly border demonstrations against the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
In Philadelphia on the 14th, a few hundred gathered at the rally in front of the Kimmel Center where the Orchestra performs. The police closed off streets so that protesters could march and chant from City Hall down Broad Street to the Kimmel Center. A helicopter flew noisily overhead. Members of Christian-Jewish Allies for a Just Peace in Israel-Palestine were interviewed by Channel 6 News briefly at the start.
The last rally at the Kimmel Center took place five days later on Saturday, May 19. It was the eve of Pentecost. Ramadan had begun three days earlier. The Philadelphia Orchestra was about to give a stunning performance of Tosca. The audience was seated. The lights went down, and Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin ascended the podium. Two protesters entered the stage dressed as musicians. Before the orchestra could sound its first note, the protesters turned on a pre-recorded message that could be heard throughout the Hall. It began “You’re playing Tosca when you don’t even know what it means. We don’t know what it means to oppose power. We don’t know what it means to be powerless, what it means to have no voice in the world; to be slaughtered year after year by the thousands, and then have people like the Philadelphia Orchestra go and celebrate your oppressors…” The recording went on for two minutes. Yannick threw down his baton and left the stage followed by some twenty of the orchestra. Some in the audience reacted with vituperative shouts, all appeared disturbed. One member of the audience suggested that the orchestra itself brought this on by scheduling such a trip at such a time but clearly this was a minority view.
On Monday, May 21 the Philadelphia Orchestra sent a “Bon Voyage” email touting that the Orchestra will be sharing the “renowned ‘Philadelphia Sound’… in important musical cities in Europe.” In addition, the Orchestra will perform in Israel creating a “wall of sound.” No other American Orchestra has gone there since 1996. The Bon Voyage referenced the May 1 article in the Inquirer by Ryan Fleur: “Despite controversy, orchestra’s Israel tour will foster diplomacy.” The email did not reference the boycott called for by Palestinians or the protest outside and eventually inside the Kimmel Center.