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Jessica Duchen
Tuesday 30th March 2010
Wigmore: Jerusalem Quartet Heckled

Ugly scenes in the most unlikely place yesterday: the Jerusalem Quartet's lunchtime concert was being broadcast live when pro-Palestinian hecklers in the hall began to shout at them. Other audience members duly began to shout at the protestors and fisticuffs were narrowly averted by some efficient security. The concert was taken off air.

Fellow-blogger Boulezian was there and has provided a detailed account of the occasion, here. Classical Music Magazine has a response from Wigmore chief John Gilhooly.

Tony Greenstein has also blogged about this and was one of the protestors, a good number of whom were Jewish themselves.

It's not the first time the JQ has faced such protests, which have followed them to Edinburgh and Australia, among other places. The problem appears to be that they're promoted as 'cultural ambassadors' for Israel and Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Music Centre's website declares: "The four members of the Quartet joined the Israeli Defense Forces in March 1997 and are serving as Distinguished Musicians."

That means they're regarded wherever they go as representatives of the Israeli government, the IDF and their policies, such as the dropping of phosphorus on Gaza, the building of the 9-metre-high "separation wall" and the continued building/enlarging of settlements that according to international law are not legal. Because of that association - albeit inspired by PR material rather than the individuals themselves - I'm afraid they do by default become fair game for the hecklers. That doesn't mean they're not great musicians. It's a horrible dilemma if you love their playing but hate what their government is doing ostensibly in the name of our relations who were victims of the Holocaust.

My first reaction to the targeting of small cultural groups such as the quartet, or the Choir of Clare College Cambridge which was bombarded with angry correspondence when planning a tour to Israel, and so on, is that it's a deeply distateful form of bullying: they're easy targets. And in the end it's not going to make a blind bit of difference and will simply reflect badly on everybody concerned. It would be much more difficult to hit where the difference would really be made: heckling Mr Obama about the billions that the US gives Israel every year. 

Like a great many Israelis, several of the quartet are originally from elsewhere. The first violinist, Alexander Pavlovsky, and second violinist, Sergei Bresler, were both born in Ukraine. Only violist Amihai Grosz is a native. And to what extent the members share their government's attitudes is not immediately clear. Tony Greenstein's blog plays up the group's association with the IDF, but cellist Kyril Zlotnikov, from Minsk, Belorus, has played with Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; in an article in the Australian newspaper The Age, he's quoted as saying: "I am a musician and am against all aggression."(Please note that military service is compulsory in Israel and even Maxim Vengerov had to do time there when he immigrated to the country. It relies on conscription, and it would be a brave individual indeed who refuses as a conscientious objector.)

Here's a question. With hindsight and many years on, most of us have (I think) forgiven Wilhelm Furtwangler for staying in Germany during the Second World War. Yehudi Menuhin was the first Jewish musician to visit in Berlin after it was all over, performing in 1947 with the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwanger - a gesture of reconciliation.

To both these artists, two of the century's greatest in their fields, music was a transcendent force that could rise above all else and appeal to the better sides of humanity, building bridges as it does so. 

So what do we do with it now?

Just to clarify: I do NOT approve of or agree with the actions of these protestors.

UPDATE: Wednesday 4.30pm. There's been a good number of reports and responses to this incident, but here's a particularly pertinent one from violinist and MusBook founder Simon Hewitt Jones.

UPDATE: Thursday morning. Feature in today's Independent which contains a robust response from the Quartet itself

However, as the Quartet point out in a statement, the protesters should have been certain of the facts. Only one of the four is a native Israeli, while one lives in Portugal and another in Berlin. Not only did all four serve in the army as musicians and not in combat, but two are also regular performers with Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings Arab and Israeli musicians together.

"As Israeli citizens, we were required to, and did, perform our national service when we were aged 18. As it happens, none of us was in a combat unit. We served our conscription as musicians playing for our fellow citizens. To identify our conscription, particularly since it was so long ago, with support for government policies is irrational. The demonstrators were ignorant of the fact that two of us are regular members of Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, composed of Israeli and Arab musicians. It is destructive of our attempts to foster Israel-Arab relations for us to be the subject of demonstrations of the kind we suffered yesterday.

"We no more represent the Government of Israel than the audience at the Wigmore Hall represented the Government of the United Kingdom."



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April 27th, 2010
3:04 PM
@Anonymous: Mishkenot Sha'ananim where the Jerusalem Music Centre is located, is in West Jerusalem, with in the pre-1967 armistice lines. Hardly a West Bank settlement. For goodness' sake!

April 6th, 2010
12:04 PM
An excellent letter appeared in the Independent yesterday, Why we protested at Wigmore Hall As Jewish participants in the protest against the Jerusalem Quartet concert, we reject the suggestion by Elisa Bray and Kim Sengupta (1 April) that the JQ were targeted because their members had served in the Israeli army. Although those brave Israeli high school students, the Shministim, do refuse to serve and suffer repeated imprisonment as a result, this was not the reason for our protest. The Jerusalem Quartet has repeatedly gone out of its way to identify with Israel's military. According to the Jerusalem Music Centre, which helped to found and support the JQ, and which is itself based in the illegal West Bank settlement of Mishkenot Sha'ananim, the JQ serve in the army as Distinguished Musicians. Far from having no responsibility for the Israeli state, the Quartet's foreign tours have been repeatedly sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and each member of the JQ has been given generous support by the American Israel Cultural Foundation, whose purpose is "supporting the next generation of Israel's cultural ambassadors". It is untrue that we campaign against the "excesses of the Jewish State". Our disagreement is far more fundamental. A Jewish state means a state where Jews receive privileges as against Arabs, for example access to state land in Israel, a segregated education system and a society where over 75 per cent believe that Arabs and Jews should not share apartment blocks, and 60 per cent would refuse to allow an Arab to visit their own apartment. Despite their well-documented role with Israel's army and as Israel's cultural ambassadors, the Jerusalem Quartet has not once condemned discrimination or the repression of the Palestinians. John Gilhooly, the director of the Wigmore Hall, states that music transcends politics. We disagree. This was the argument used in the days of the sporting boycotts against South African apartheid. And, contrary to Elisa Bray's article, Deborah Fink is a trained professional classical singer. Tony Greenstein, Deborah Fink Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, Brighton

April 5th, 2010
11:04 AM
Politics and music really should be separated. Yet... Even though I agree with this statement, I acknowledge that I just can't. Can you honestly listen to Elly Ney's Beethoven performances thinking "oh it's just Beethoven, nothing more...." ? I can't. I disapprove strongly what is going on in Israel, and if a string quartet is a sign-plate of that regime, I would be corrupt to listen to their Beethoven performance without feeling even the slightest piece of guilt... But, as Norman Lebrecht tries to point in his second essay over this incident, rather then making the concert hall the arena, isn't it better just no to go to the Jerusalem quartet, if you feel guilty about their (supposed) advocacy of Jerusalem politics? You don't have to buy their CD's! I don't think you can fully separate music from politics; it's your own conscience that drives if you go to a concert / buy a CD or not!

sd goh
April 3rd, 2010
2:04 PM
Yet again,another instance of politics interfering with music-making. Years ago, Melvyn Tan, the famed Singapore pianist (now resident in the UK and like Nigel Kennedy, former student at the Menuhin music school) 'excused' himself from the compulsory military service of the island republic and could only return to the island republic on pain of being arrested and charged with evading national service. He (hardly the type to be seen in military kit brandishing an M16!) did the only thing he thought best for himself. He stayed back in Britain. Do the members of this quartet have that much choice?

Jessica Duchen
April 2nd, 2010
10:04 AM
@ Leslie Michaels: the protestors in Edinburgh were arrested and charged with 'breach of the Peace' which was later changed to 'racially aggravated conduct'. The judgment is expected next week.

The Bochur
April 1st, 2010
8:04 PM
Your attempts to claim even-handedness are surprising. Yes, your 'first reaction' is to feel that this is bullying, but you subsequently compare the position of the Jerusalem Quartet with that of Furtwangler. Following your strange remark that Furtwangler has been 'forgiven', you excuse his flirtation with the Nazis on the basis of the'transcendent' nature of music. The argument here is that the Jerusalem Quartet's relationship with Israel is to be compared with that of Furtwangler and Nazi Germany. Like Furtwangler though, it is best to leave them alone because of their 'transcendent' music. Your inclusion of the risible argument that the Jerusalem Quartet are spokespersons for the use of white phosphorus, made by protesters such as Tony Greenstein whose blog you cite (with his crude threats "And that's why we are putting you bastards in the front line of the Boycott campaign"), are not signs of even-handedness. They are merely symptoms of your wish to throw in as many anti-Israel crude arguments as possible. Your comment 'Just to clarify: I do NOT approve of or agree with the actions of these protestors' is both unconvincing and begs the obvious question-why do you need to 'clarify'?.

Leslie Michaels
April 1st, 2010
4:04 PM
We had hoped for a relaxing afternoon in preparation for spending Seder with the family, celebrating our freedom from slavery and the universalist message it brings. However, it was not to be. Outside the Hall were protesters handing out leaflets encouraging the boycott of Israel and Israeli products. The audience knew that the concert, by one of the world’s finest quartets, was being broadcast live. After about ten minutes a member of the audience started singing loudly in protest in order to disrupt the concert. She was ejected by the Stewards and the police. The concert restarted and about five minutes later another member of the audience started screaming anti Israeli slogans, forcing the players to stop again. This happened five times in all. The protestors yelled hatefully. It was very frightening. The Quartet resumed playing, but by the end of the concert the tension was palpable, and everyone was pleased it finished without further incident. At the end of the performance we went backstage to meet the players, who were clearly very upset. They explained that in all their travels they had only been disrupted once before, at the Edinburgh Festival. None of the protesters yesterday were charged and they have nothing on their record as they each left the Hall peaceably. They can repeat this type of behaviour with impunity. It was a very frightening and upsetting experience. How have we reached the stage where concerts in Britain can be disrupted by protesters? These are the same people who lead the calls for boycotting Israeli products we are now seeing outside chains and supermarkets; and persuading venerable institutions to boycott Israeli doctors and academics. This protest was organised by Brighton PSC and J-Big (Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods). As PSC explains in their blog of the protest it is important to have Jews participating in these protests to avoid the charge of anti-Semitism!

Alexander Melea...
April 1st, 2010
3:04 PM
This quote though, does suggest you are not necessarily against the protestors' behaviour: "It would be much more difficult to hit where the difference would really be made: heckling Mr Obama about the billions that the US gives Israel every year." not sure how much of a difference that would really make. should we also complain about the money the US gives to Palestinians? and what about the Egyptian blockade? any protests being planned against Egyptian officials, or heckles about that you would like to formulate next time Obama comes here? this type of protest is not only stupid, but dangerous - it feeds into the obsence levels of anti Israeli sentiment that this country has already reached. Protest Israel if you like, but assuming that everyone who is Israeli automatically deserves abuse stinks of something much more sinister to me. the quartet may have been part of the IDF, but the organisers of the protest would have done this even if they were not

Jessica Duchen
April 1st, 2010
10:04 AM
@The Bochur - I wanted to show why the protestors would consider them fair game, in order to give a balanced picture (thanks @ Harry Jacques for noticing), but that doesn't mean I like what occurred. Can't see the problem, really.

The Bochur
April 1st, 2010
9:04 AM
You are quoted yesterday in the Independent "That means they're regarded wherever they go as representatives of the Israeli government, the IDF and their policies, such as the dropping of phosphorus on Gaza, the building of the 9-metre-high separation wall and the continued building/enlarging of settlements that, according to international law, are not legal. I'm afraid they do become fair game for the hecklers' Now you claim that you do not agree or approve of the actions of the protesters. So according to you they are'fair game' but on the other hand you disapprove of the protests. Perhaps you should come out with one opinion as opposed to your fudging and double-speak

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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