Art and apartheid: worlds apart

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am an MA student in Jewish Studies. A few weeks ago students taking Hebrew were encouraged to book tickets for Habima Theatre’s Hebrew-language performance of The Merchant of Venice as part of the ‘Globe to Globe’ Shakespeare festival.

During my undergraduate years (as a student of English literature) I practically lived at the Globe, developing incredible calf muscles as I stood through half of Shakespeare’s repertoire. The opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays presented in Hebrew by a theatre company intimately acquainted with Jewish history and heritage could have been a strong incentive to make a return trip (and maybe even invest in a seat this time).

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The least of these: a reflection on a bad choice

It was only half-eight in the morning, but it was already too warm for comfort. I could feel the acrid salty heat rising from the tarmac as I headed up the hill. The chapel was going to feel like an oven. Once again I caught myself fantasising about air conditioning, which not many people have in Palestine. Just imagine walking into a building and being met by a beautiful blast of cold air, and getting some iced grapefruit juice, and…

Stop!”

The order was issued in an American accent and preceded by an earsplitting whistle. I didn’t stop for the whistle. I never do. If people want to talk to me, they can start by addressing me as though I’m a person too and not an errant sheepdog who needs to be brought to heel. At “Stop!” I reluctantly obeyed. I hadn’t eaten any breakfast yet, and you don’t pick fights with M16-wielding men without at least having had a cup of tea beforehand.

The entrance to Bethlehem, viewed from inside the checkpoint complex.

He was not a soldier, but a civilian employee from the company that has been contracted to manage this particular checkpoint. (Military occupation is big business.) The sun glinted on his dark glasses and the barrel of his rifle. Behind him was a female guard who was gazing up at him adoringly from beneath her baseball cap. I know that look, and it’s never pretty. The way some guys start parading around the checkpoint like peacocks in flak jackets if there happens to be a female colleague anywhere in the vicinity is like something out of a David Attenborough zoological documentary on mating rituals. And what better way to demonstrate power, manliness, and general desirability than by harassing the odd passer-by? Frankly I don’t know how the female soldiers and guards manage to keep their legs together.

“I don’t want to go through the machsom,” I called out wearily, resigning myself to the game. I tried to step forward so that I could talk to him in my normal voice, but he gave another shrill blast of the whistle (ow) and held up the palm of his hand.

“Where are you going?”

“To church.” I pointed at the road that sloped off to my right, skirting the separation wall. The guard turned away and said something to his colleague. I took this as permission to move. I was wrong. The resulting whistle was loud enough to make my heart jump skittishly. “Wait!”

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Time to face the music

A child in the Gaza Strip plays the cello in a music school for under-12s. Photograph by Jehan al-Farra.

During BBC Proms last night, the BBC was compelled to pull the performance of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra off the air. Peace and justice activists entered the Royal Albert Hall and staged a performance of their own, beginning with a modern choral rendition of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ (“Israel, end your occupation / There’s no peace on stolen land…”) followed by a more experimental form of music, slogan-shouting. The BBC decided that chants of ‘The IPO – are instrumental – in an illegal occupation’ didn’t add to the listening experience, so it had protesters expelled from the Royal Albert Hall and ‘regretfully’ stopped the radio broadcast of the IPO’s performance. Today it’s become one of the most talked-about aspects of the Proms.

A few weeks ago, I joined other supporters of justice for Palestine in asking the BBC to revoke their invitation to the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. In my own letter, I wrote, “This orchestra routinely entertains troops in the Occupied Territories, adding a sham veneer of culture to occupation’s misery. Music should be for everyone. Until such time as Palestinians can enjoy concerts too (which means they have to be able to move about freely, for a start), don’t promote the IPO.”

The response we got was that the invitation was ‘purely about music’; there was no political element to it of any kind. Today, I have seen many people making that argument, describing music as ‘apolitical’. Others ask what on earth the Israeli Philharmonic has to do with Israeli government policy. Some take it a step further and declare that music brings  people of all races together, meaning that a boycott of an orchestral performance is a counterproductive step.

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