The Philadelphia Orchestra’s planned tour of Israel, in partnership with the Jewish Federation, is set to begin June 1.
By performing in Israel, the orchestra will provide musical accompaniment to the world’s last settler-colonial state, at a time when other artists are canceling appearances there following the Palestinian call for a global boycott (BDS) of Israel, modeled after the South African anti-apartheid boycott.
Among the strategies Israel has launched to combat BDS is “Brand Israel,” a propaganda initiative that seeks to exploit culture to divert attention from Israeli crimes. Arye Mekel, Israeli deputy director general for cultural affairs, explained it as the “way you show Israel’s prettier face.”
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s trip to Israel is part of this strategy.
More than 100 musicians, artists, scholars, and human-rights activists, together with 35 social justice organizations, sent a letter to the orchestra’s leadership calling on it to cancel the trip. We asked for the chance to further discuss the issues in person.
Believing we could appeal to orchestra leaders’ sense of morality, we quoted the words of Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu: “People who are denied their dignity and their rights deserve the solidarity of their fellow human beings. … I have witnessed the systematic humiliation of Palestinian[s]… familiar to all black South Africans.”
The orchestra’s co-presidents, Ryan Fleur and Matthew Loden, sent a short response that I can only describe as dismissive, patronizing, and micro-aggressive. We followed up with another letter to reiterate our desire to meet, but received no answer.
One of the things mentioned in our letters was a scheduled dinner with Miri Regev, a politician who once referred to African asylum-seekers as “a cancer” and later apologized to cancer patients for the association. She said, “Heaven forbid … I did not compare them [Africans] to human beings.”
The itinerary (open to orchestra members and patrons joining the trip) boasts multiple visits with military personnel, including a “VIP visit to an IDF [military] base.” This is the same military that has killed 40 Palestinians and wounded 5,000 more in the span of just four weeks. A video of snipers celebrating after shooting an unarmed Palestinian man in December was leaked and immediately went viral. In response, Israel reprimanded the person who filmed the shooting and is seeking to criminalize future videos of crimes against Palestinians.
Fleur and Loden claim neutrality, invoking lofty verbiage like “cultural diplomacy,” “brotherly and sisterly love,” and “peace and tolerance.”
But 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 were forcibly evicted and had their properties, homes, and heritage stolen by recent European Jewish immigrants with no direct ancestral ties to the land.
Unwilling to let such ignominy pass unnoticed, concerned Philadelphians began weekly protests outside the Kimmel Center and will continue to do so.
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).
It is morally indefensible for Philadelphia’s world-renowned orchestra to participate in Israel’s propaganda, particularly as Israel is murdering and maiming thousands of defenseless human beings now before our eyes.
Susan Abulhawa is an international bestselling author and human-rights activist living in Bucks County. @sjabulhawa