Friday, September 2, 2011

800 Words: Israel/Palestine infects the Proms. Now it's personal.

(Something I've been working on all night at the expense of packing for my trip to Northern Wisconsin tomorrow. I may or may not send this to every music and Middle East pundit in Britain after I get to the hotel.)

Dear Music and/or Middle East commentator,

I am writing to tell you that I am uncertain about God. And I do not believe in the Torah. But I believe in the Proms. And I write to you today about how distressed I was at the reception of the Israel Philharmonic at the Proms concerts in Royal Albert Hall.

In July 2004, I was a music composition student from an American university little known for its music program; abroad in London for the summer on a work-internship. I was perpetually broke in the world’s high culture capital and I didn’t even have the money to get pissed with other American students. Then the Proms concerts started, and for the first time in a year, I remembered why I wanted to be a musician.

The Proms is the greatest assemblage of musical performances of any genre, any era or any place. Has there ever been another example in human history of a music festival which lasts two months of every year? With over six thousand people able to attend any concert? With standing room in the front and seating in the back? With front row seats for as little as four quid? With the concerts preserved online a week afterward in perfect sound for people to listen from any part of the world?

Whether classical or pop, the Proms concerts are the de-facto standard for how all concerts should be produced. Whatever qualms music lovers have about The Proms, they are a monument to civilization without precedent. No other musical genre ever produced anything remotely like it. And this monument has now lasted for 116 seasons. Regardless of genre or type, it is not just the world’s greatest classical music festival -- would that rock, or jazz, or folk, or rap had anything remotely like the Proms. It’s the world’s greatest music festival. Period.

In June 2006, I was a recently graduated music student living with my uncle and his family in Tel Aviv. A year before, I booked a return flight to America on June 30th 2006. The morning I left, we learned that Israel launched a second military front in their attempt to rescue captured Israeli soldiers. Regardless of the wisdom behind the Israeli government’s actions, Israelis yet again had no idea if they faced a small conflict or one that might turn into another war for survival. My uncle, his family and millions of others -- both Jew and Muslim -- could yet again be a Qossam rocket or mortar shell away from the same tragedy that befell thousands upon thousands, Israelis and Palestinians alike.

With a bit less fervor than I believe in the Proms, I believe in Israel. For 2000 years, the world did everything within its power to prove that Jews are still less safe when they cannot govern themselves. Israel was founded to be a haven for Jews whom even the greatest civilizations refused to protect. Its reward for doing that which no other nation would is to become a Jew among nations -- held to a standard of moral accountability to which no other nation in the history of the world has ever been held, let alone a nation in Israel’s circumstances.

By no means do I believe everything which Israel does to be morally justifiable -- but it is worth remembering that Israel is a country full of human beings who bleed, laugh and avenge like any other. The only difference between Israel and any other country in duress is in how many billions of people wish for its existence to cease. All too few people venture opinions about the prospects for democide in Sudan, Ethiopia, Chad, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Kenya, Burundi... Yet the world’s interest in the Israeli government’s moral failures is unending, and at times borders on pornographic. Israel’s actions have ranged from wise to horrible, as have its leaders. But what has Israel done to merit such greater sanction than governments who’ve murdered so many millions more? If Israel ceases to exist, the world will cry all the same tears which they once cried after my father lost his older sister, his grandmother, two aunts and their families in The Holocaust. But no lake of tears can revive yet another six million Jews from their graves.

Israelis and Jews alike are as human as any other people and deserve the same respect. So it was with a particular level of heartbreak that I heard the disruption by political protesters of the Israel Philharmonic’s concert on a live Proms relay -- a disruption repeated so frequently that the worldwide broadcast had to cease. I've listened to roughly 90% of every Proms broadcast since the 2005 season. But this was the first time in my experience that a Proms broadcast was ever disrupted mid-concert. I later read that Israel Philharmonic’s concert was disrupted six times. Even if Israel’s conduct were as heinous as these protesters allege: then why are Israeli musicians not deserving of all the same respect which listeners accorded to musicians from countries with the very worst governments of the 20th century? Why did no one in England disrupt the performances of musicians hailing from Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in the very same Royal Albert Hall?

I treasure the Proms as I do very few things in my life. But how can I continue to treasure a concert series that cannot make the homeland of my family feel welcome? Whether one agrees or disagrees with the policies of the Israeli government, something must be done to say that we cannot live in another era that allows Jewish musicians to live in fear of thugs. One day, broadcasts of these disrupted concerts may be released to a world without Israel, and they will be remembered with all the chilling foresight of Carl Schuricht’s live 1939 recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra -- during which a woman arose at the end of the last movement’s plaintive oboe solo to declare “Deutschland ├╝ber alles, Herr Schuricht.”

If you disagree with the importance of preventing similar outbursts in our concert halls, I would merely ask why. But if you don’t, then I would ask that you issue an immediate and public denunciation of this action. You don’t have to like Israel, you don’t even have to like classical music. But I plead, I implore you to take a stand against this practice. Europe does not need yet another period in which Jewish musicians are prevented from playing in concert halls. Today, they came for the Israel Philharmonic. Tomorrow, for whom shall they come?

Evan Tucker
Baltimore, MD

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