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Conflicting freedoms in cultural boycott debate

A Debate on Cultural Boycott: Methods, Aims and Effectiveness

Newsletter, BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine)
December 2011

In July 2011, PACBI noted that the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) had been invited to perform at the BBC Proms in London. PACBI sent a letter to the organizers stressing “the IPO’s complicity in whitewashing Israel’s persistent violations of international law and human rights”.

They mentioned specifically the IPO’s services to the Israeli army: “the IPO proudly announces its partnership with the army under a scheme whereby special concerts for Israeli soldiers are organized at their army outposts”.  PACBI called on the BBC to withdraw its invitation to the IPO  and BRICUP also called for the BBC to cancel the invitation

But the concert went ahead on September 1st. However, the protesters went further than requesting cancellation. They bought over 40 tickets to the concert, gained entry perfectly legitimately and then protested  loudly and repeatedly as described in the September edition of this Newsletter and as discussed by Rachel Giora below. The BBC suspended its live transmission on Radio 3. The protesters all left peacefully when requested to do so by security officers and there were no arrests.

This was certainly the most extensively reported UK boycott action against the Israeli treatment of the Palestinian people to date. It was also the most audacious, giving rise to both positive and negative reactions, sometimes of considerable intensity. In this article we present an analysis of some of those reactions by three supporters of the BDS movement against Israel.


Rachel Giora of Tel Aviv University, a leading member of Boycott from Within, started this debate by asking BRICUP whether an action that requires relaxation of principles can be effective. She argued that the demonstration inside the Hall did indeed involve the relaxation of an important principle – the freedom of expression. This is certainly an interesting question: here is Rachel’s argument

Protesting the performance of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) was a major event, and, in various respects, historical and unprecedented. As a member of the global BDS movement I am taking the liberty here to share my thoughts (for future sake) on a very touchy topic: Is it possible that some of the actions, so carefully crafted, reaching high levels of ingenuity, might have curbed, if not violated freedom of expression?

Jonathan Rosenhead has implicitly answered that question in the negative arguing that “there were no interruptions to any of the four concert items”. However there were three “interventions”. The first was during the Webern when protesters “stood up in their choir seats, holding individual letters spelling out FREE PALESTINE and blended their retextualised version of Ode to Joy with the Webern composition”. Later on, “as the conductor Zubin Mehta raised his baton preparatory to launching the Bruch concerto, a group of four broke into chants of ‘Free Free Palestine’” while displaying the Palestinian flag… Then, “as the orchestra started up the Bruch, the strains of ‘Free Free Palestine’ from the last protestor could still be heard. Finally, as the conductor’s baton was raised, six groups “popped up one after the other round the auditorium” chanting slogans that were critical of Israeli policy.  Indeed, at no point was the concert interrupted. Still, freedom of expression was curtailed. The concert was repeatedly disturbed. And although the orchestra kept on playing, it did so “louder” than before it was disturbed, in an attempt to be heard despite the disruptions.

We should admit it: we, boycott supporters, violated freedom of expression. How did we deal with it? One protestor used a line of argument that is used by many Israeli boycott supporters: he was “very hesitant about disrupting a concert in such a hallowed venue” but thought that “voicing a peaceful protest during their concert would be nothing compared to the bombing of innocent civilians and the slow but steady genocide inflicted on the Palestinians by the state of Israel”. I agree. But do we want our actions to be weighed against those of Israel? More importantly, since almost anything pales compared with Israel’s injustices, should we use Israel’s policies to legitimize questionable acts? The fact that Israel conducts criminal practices should not legitimize bending our rules or compromising our principles.

Another protestor said that “this precious talk about the purity of music ignores the toxic nature of Israel’s suppression of the Palestinian people”. I agree, but not because music is pure; even foul music (or disputable ideas or repugnant opinions for that matter) should enjoy freedom of expression.

Another, and maybe the most popular argument, deals with the impact of the protests inside the concert hall. Indeed, it is only thanks to these actions, disturbing the concert, that the BBC stopped its live transmission, allowing, as a result, the protest to enjoy a huge amount of exposure. The news about the protest and its message travelled to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of media channels on every continent: they made public the idea that that “there are things more important than music”. The disruption of the concert was therefore conceived of as very effective, at least in the short run.

But is that right? Can one, trying to bring on justice, be effective without being right? Won’t such actions eventually be counterproductive? We should be very careful not to cross this thin line between being just and unjust, or our acts may end up being dismissed and thus be ineffective. Note that the Palestinians asked us to support their call to the BBC to withdraw its invitation to the IPO, but did not ask us to disrupt the concert. It is commendable that some campaigners, including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, protested the decision of the BBC outside the hall rather than inside it.

But even inside a concert hall protests can be held without disrupting a concert. Banners can be displayed during the break, chanting and booing can be practiced during applause; a choir could perform in the foyer and so on. Without being familiar with interior of the Albert Hall I am pretty sure other alternatives could have been considered, which is a crucial point here: It’s not like we didn’t have a choice.

According to Jonathan Rosenhead, the protests were not intended to affect Israeli government policies. Why not? I can understand why one may assume that a single occasional act might look ineffective. But the pressure on Israel is mounting precisely because of the quantity of such single “symbolic” protests: they can be carried out peacefully by citizens everywhere, exerting pressure on Israel to change its policies. Voices about Israel’s international isolation are heard everywhere here in Israel and the “threat of delegitimisation” is now so palpable that even “Defence” Minister Ehud Barak can ignore it no longer.

We, members of the global BDS movement, should not (if possible) relax our principles; nor do we need to. It is not because of protests like this one that the boycott movement is so successful: it is because the Palestinians are SO right. The nonviolent BDS actions against Israel, called for by the Palestinian people, have won the Palestinians a sweeping success. Because of their just call they have won widespread support, leaving Israel so isolated. Let us try to make our support of their call effective in ways that will not challenge their cause.

Mike Cushman has written a response to Rachel that emphasizes the widely and strongly held view that “this was not simply a concert: it was part of a massive and well-funded ‘Brand Israel’ campaign”.

Rachel asks, “Can one, trying to bring on justice, be effective without being right? Won’t such actions eventually be counterproductive? We should be very careful not to cross this thin line between being just and unjust.” These are important questions and, as Jonathan Rosenhead described, they gave rise to much discussion amongst the protestors. The issue that confronted us, which I feel that Rachel does not adequately address, was that this was not simply a concert: it was part of a massive and well-funded ‘Brand Israel’ campaign; an exercise in normalisation; a concert fitted into the Israel Philharmonic’s schedule of morale boosting performances for Israeli army units in the occupied territories. This was a political event disguised as a concert: a political event that deserved, and got, a vibrant political response. To pose it as crushed crochets versus cracked heads is not the best measure nor is it a question of the direct effect on Netanyahu’s proclivity for demolishing Palestinian homes – if only it were that easy. The Albert Hall disruption was part of a long strategy to raise the salience of Israel’s aggression against Palestinians amongst people in Britain in order to create a political climate here that makes knee-jerk support for Israel less possible for British politicians of all the major parties.

Political, economic and trade support for Israel from Europe and America is an absolute necessity for the continuance of the Zionist project. The London action was part of a pattern of actions across Europe promoted by groups supporting Palestinian rights coordinated through EPACBI and elsewhere. The growing success of these groups in highlighting the realities on the ground in European popular opinion alarms the Israeli government and their think-tanks. They regard it as a major area of struggle and one they think they are steadily losing: in the Albert Hall; outside Ahava; on the quays of Sete. To cite an analogy: attitudes to Wagner’s music depend upon artistic taste and judgment; attitudes to the use of his music to promote racial exclusivity depend upon moral and political judgment. Action is not determined by the music per se, but by the circumstances of its performance and the project that is being supported.

Reflecting upon the IPO protest: the usual suspects among our friends applauded; the usual suspects among our opponents deplored; between these two camps a surprising number of uncommitted people came to a judgment that our intervention, even if unwelcome, was proportionate and appropriate. It is not enough to provide comfort and encouragement to Palestinians, although clearly we achieved that; it is not enough to provoke discomfort among Israel and its apologists, although we achieved that as well. It is necessary to produce a discernable, if small, change in the attitude of those Europeans and Americans who are passive and unreflective supporters of Israel; there is evidence we have done that as well.

BDS is a political project of non-violent civil society resistance. It will not always be pretty, even if in this case our choir was extremely musical, but it is necessary.


Jonathan Rosenhead responds by addressing the problem of conflicts between freedoms.

Rachel Giora’s comments on the IPO demonstrations are clearly comradely, and her criticisms of the actions on September 1st in the Albert Hall need to be digested carefully, and responded to in the same positive tone. First, I would express complete agreement with her refutation of the argument that anything we do in the Albert Hall (or elsewhere) is OK because the Israelis do far worse. That licence to behave, if we choose to, almost as badly as the Israelis, is intellectually and morally degenerate. It is also liable to provide the Israeli state with an obvious advantage in how it represents the legitimacy of BDS actions in the UK and elsewhere.

However Rachel’s view on the IPO protests seems to be based strongly on the idea of the primacy of the right to freedom of expression. But to many people this right is not absolute. Radical forces within the student movement in the UK long ago established a policy of “no platform for racists and fascists”, and that has broadly persisted across the nation’s campuses for the past 20 years. Secondly, UK law does not allow complete freedom of expression, having criminalised incitement to racial hatred since the 1970s. This does not mean that students, or the law, do not value free expression. What it represents is the recognition that there can be conflicts of principles.

This manifests itself at the personal level (eg. to be honest may also be unkind), and at the political level. It seems to me that those who are thinking about more contestational acts in support of BDS do not need simply to ask “would this violate free expression?” and abandon the idea if the answer is “yes”. Rather, if the answer is “yes” then the next question to ask is something like – “is the arguable support for this action based on some other principle(s) sufficient to justify the significance of the violation we are proposing to the right to free expression?” The countervailing principle, if there is one, must be to do with the effects of the action being considered on the balance of forces which, for the past 44 or 63 years, has enabled Israel to occupy lands by force of arms and to exclude its expelled or fled population from return. The principle of eroding that ability is a very strong one, which I am sure unites all BDS supporters. Why else are we doing it? It may make us feel better to do something, and BDS is something which we can do. But if we did not feel that by our actions and those of others round the world we are weakening Israel’s ability to go on saying ‘No’, then few of us would be as active as we are.

Rachel’s alternatives to the Albert Hall action (banners during the break; chanting during the applause) would have been largely ineffective. The target of the action was never formulated as the 5000 people in the hall – it was the radio audience of millions. To that audience such protest would have been both invisible and inaudible. I doubt that the residual local impact would have justified the effort needed to bring it off. So it comes down to a calculation, simple but complex. Do our methods of pursuing BDS violate undoubted rights (to free expression, to conduct business…) to extents which seem excessive relative to their likely impact (inevitably over the longer term) on the maintenance of Israel’s settler and apartheid form of state. That impact will not be direct – that is, the Israeli government will not say, “Oh dear, cultural BDS is too strong for us, so we will evacuate the West Bank”. The impact will operate through the purchasing decisions of individuals, the investment decisions of companies, and eventually the calculations of political realities by our local and national representatives. Rachel says “the boycott movement is so successful [..] because the Palestinians are SO right”. I would put it another way. It is because the Palestinians are SO right that BDS supporters are willing to go the extra mile. The success or otherwise of the movement depends however not on the rightness of the Palestinian cause, but on our ability to appropriately divine the opportunities for and limitations on our actions if we wish to serve that cause effectively.

This is very much not to say that the Albert Hall demonstrators got the balance of conflicting principles right. When we get it wrong, it shows up in the negative public reactions to our efforts. This particular action provoked extraordinary enthusiasm among supporters of the cause, and outrage among some (apolitical, or pro-Israeli) music lovers. We don’t yet know how it has played with other sections of the listening and media reading public round the world. We do know it reached them in unprecedented numbers for a BDS action. We don’t yet know how far it will encourage other BDS groups to execute comparably bold manifestations. We need to go on observing and thinking about this, and to be ready as a result to adapt our tactics and strategies if it seems appropriate.


David  Pegg, Newsletter editor

It is clear that the detail of the protest inside the Royal Albert Hall on September 1st was not arrived at casually: there was a great deal of detailed and careful discussion. In their contributions to this Newsletter  Mike and Jonathan have presented distinct arguments that tend to support the action that was taken: that the concert was an Israeli  rebranding exercise that called for and got a vibrant political response; that freedom of expression is not absolute but may be overridden when it conflicts with other and more important freedoms. I would go further and argue that the concept of freedom of expression simply does not apply to musical performances, the purpose of which is entertainment, not the communication of ideas and political actions. Certainly there is also a right to enjoy music undisturbed but that right is far less insistent than freedom of speech or the freedom of the Palestinian people to enjoy basic human rights.

To override the right to quiet enjoyment of music is not automatically wrong: sometimes it is a necessary consequence of the relative importance of the two rights.

Another  crucial questions that has been considered here is, “Who are the protesters trying to reach?” I take it that nobody was expecting this action to convince the audience of 5000 ticket-purchasing music-lovers! Jonathan focussed on the huge radio audience; Mike focused on the unreflective European and American supporters of Israel. Those are all fine but for me the ultimate target was the BBC and, as Rachel has said, the Israeli Government and the people who elect it.

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