The Proms attack – a reflection by a leading British cellist

The distinguished cellist Steven Isserlis sent the following letter to the Guardian newspaper after the attack on the Israel Philharmonic at the Proms. It was not published there for almost a week, so we are giving it first airing here:

The protesters who disrupted the Prom by the Israel Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta are not only guilty of cultural hooliganism, but are deeply misguided. As musicians, the Israel Philharmonic and Maestro Mehta are an apolitical ensemble; it is no way comparable to, say, a group from apartheid South Africa, because there is no barrier to members of any race or religion joining the orchestra. Although it would be an exaggeration to say that music and politics are completely separate, there is no way that the orchestra (or the Prom audience) should be made to suffer because of the political actions of their government. As a performing musician, I would find it deeply unfair were my concerts in any country to be disrupted because protesters objected to the British government’s decision to invade Iraq, for instance.

I have played many times with the Israel Philharmonic orchestra, and have found them to be the warmest, most hospitable orchestra I know. Of course, there are a wide range of political opinions within the group, and their attitudes seldom coincide with those over here who condemn Israel, at a safe remove from any threat to their own lives; but on the whole, my friends in the orchestra (and elsewhere in Israel) are united by their desire to lead a peaceful life, their disgust at any disregard of human rights emanating from their own government or from any others in the region, and their belief in the two-state solution as the only possible way forward. To wreck their very rare and special concert over here gives a terrible impression of us all – haven’t the rioters done that already?

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    • Why would you expect the Guardian to print something that even remotely hinted at being a pro-Israel type of letter? [ Anything that has the word Israel in it, and has the appearance of not being anti – will automatically be labelled unfit for printing- such is the continued tenor of the Guardian ].

    • Thankyou very much for publishing Mr. Isserlis` important comments which I am in wholehearted agreement with. Musicians are not representatives of governments, whatever the name or geographical location of their group. Concerts are not the right forum for demonstrations of this kind, however just the cause.
      Music making is bridge building activity, between audience, performer and composer. That is again why disruptive actions at such an event are so misplaced and distressing.

  • Pointing out the kind of human rights abuses waged by the Israeli occupation is hardly in any way condemning Israel and overlooking it’s safety at a safe remove from a one’s own life; it’s sticking up for the innocent lives of Palestinians, and it’s making the region safer for everyone. The Israel army with it’s behavior is not making the region more safe. When a completely non-violent ship intending to bring needed supplies to refugees in an occupied territory is assaulted by the Israeli army and 9 people killed, this isn’t overlooking Israeli safety to point out that these are war crimes. When Turkey evicts Israel’s ambassador and says it will accompany ships intending to bring supplies necessary for the lives of refuges in an occupied territory; this isn’t to overlook Israel safety, it’s to point out war crimes and help refugees. When people from other countries working as human shields so that Palestinians can cross borders to go to school or work are regularly killed, this certainly isn’t a question of safely staying at home and criticizing Israel, nor is it when those wanting to film what’s truly going on are killed by the Israeli army, and the Israeli army makes up some excuse for the attack all eye witnesses contradict, except those in the Israel army. And when at least ten times more Palestinians are killed than Israeli’s and someone tries to point this out, this isn’t overlooking the Israeli deaths. If the Palestinians were occupying Israel and treating the people there the same way, these same people would point this out because of their compassion for the human condition, not because they are safe at home removed from the conflict. In fact enough of them aren’t, having gone to Palestine as completely non violent aid workers. In fact, no one is removed from a situation which affects world politics. That said, I’m not condoning Palestinian or any military aggression; and I don’t believe that disrupting a concert is helpful. And I don’t believe that discriminating against the IPO is appropriate because of the actions of their government. And just because Israel (or anyone else) has the bigger army does not validate the need for it’s aggressive behavior, nor does it excuse it or make them the “good” guy. And when someone says about the IPO: “their attitudes seldom coincide with those over here who condemn Israel, at a safe remove from any threat to their own lives” I’m not going to assume that this objectively characterizes the IPO or the “attitudes” over here.

    • The flotillas are a sham. They have plenty of everything they need in Gaza and it’s pure grandstanding on various parties to act like they are getting vital anything to Gaza. It’s vital PR because most people don’t check facts. But Israel is dead serious about keeping out arms runners. It’s also a sham to act like there’s equal blame on both sides. There isn’t. The Palestinians while deserving of their own autonomy and self-determination as all people, they have no one to blame but themselves and leadership for their situation.

      • Actually, they have the highest population density in the world in the Gaza Strip, there’s no way everyone can be looked after. Also to Roelof Alexander Bijkerk, I don’t agree with what Israel is doing but I also don’t approve of the Palestinian response. However, this is completely beside the point which is that the Proms is NOT the correct environment to voice this protest. One protest would have got the point across amply, but four? I think there was an element of self-aggrandizing grandstanding going on there as well and bravo to the musicians for playing so well under such provocation.

        • Actually Gaza doesn’t have the highest population density in the world by a very very long stretch. Tel Aviv has a higher density as does Singapore.

          • Norman,

            Why don’t YOU just look it up? I did, and it’s true. Gaza does not have the highest population density. For instance, Cairo, Egypt is, I believe, about 7 times more populated per square mile. Washington, D.C., has a higher population density than Gaza. A Google search won’t take you very long. After you’ve confirmed that this is indeed so, you might want to wonder why the idea that Gaza has “the highest population density” fiction is so widespread. You might then wonder why this rumor has been spread, by whom, and to what end.

    • I didnt even read to the end of your post Roelof because you are clearly a very misguided individual. Try reading around the facts and then making up your mind rather than making up your mind and then chosing the half-facts that suit you best.

    • To Mr Roeloaf Alexander
      1. non violent ship???really?? check it again
      2.Israel has a bigger army because of the past wars in 67′ and 73′ and because it surrounded by quite a few
      enemies im afraid.
      3. The only reason people can film the IDF is because it is still a democratic country(unlike some other countries who surrounding Israel).
      You will not find documentries of the Hammas because they will never let you . they have a very good reason for that.

      People forget that there are two sides to the coin. there are 2 sides to the conflict .
      It;s easier to blame Israel for everything , we all know that

      If Israel wouldnt have a stronger army ,Israel would have gone a long time ago.

    • It is so PC to “blame” the strong side of the conflict – but in the Israeli-Palestinian issue it is simply stupidity. When have you EVER heard of an Israeli “terrorist” entering a Palestinian home and butchering mother and children in their sleep…? Have you EVER heard of an Israeli stopping a car with 50yrs couples on their way to a vacation, shooting them over and over again assuring their death?! you haven’t.
      This is my answer to the “two-sides” of the coin.
      and When you EVER visited Gaza…? There are hundreds of trucks crossing EVERY day the border from ISRAEL with supplies. There’s no hunger there. BUT t here are missiles towards main Israeli cities, directed towards kindergartens and schools. EVERY SINGLE DAY>
      I invite you to come to the region and see with your eyes what is happening here. You are so brain washed by the media that you have NO IDEA of what is happening here.
      And once the Israeli states disapears, what then? I’ll tell you what would happen: the Palestinians and Hamas will be so thrilled of their victory that they will focus on EUrope. I advise you to pack your bag and move to Australia…

  • While I believe Steven Isserlis’s letter was most worthy of publication, I don’t agree with its conflation of the protest at the concert with the English riots.

    In order to get their point across, and cut through barriers to the media, protests and strikes inevitably inconvenience people, often including some who may even be on the same side as the protesters, yet I still consider them to be a legitimate act.

    I would far rather have an incident like this going on to draw attention to its cause than to see hooligans looting, fireballing property, and murdering civilians, as happened in England recently.

    I very much doubt whether the protesters would for one moment, challenge Isserlis’s depiction of the Israel Philharmonic as “the warmest, most hospitable orchestra I know”. Their beef is clearly not with the orchestra at all, whose role in their minds would be merely that of a means to an end. But I would be very surprised if this action, having left a ghastly taste in the mouth of orchestra and audience alike, did not get right back to and ultimately severely embarrass those whom it sought to target.

    • Derek, I would be very surprised if in some quarters of the Israeli establishment this protest was not seen as beneficial, as it has brought the Palestinian cause into disrepute. I think that far from embarrassing those whom it sought to target, it will exasperate many of those who wish to help the Palestinians.

  • It is no sham when non-violent people try to bring needed supplies to an area where they are needed. And they don’t have plenty of “everything” in Gaza. In fact, many very well respected humanitarian organizations say supplies are needed. To say that it’s the most overpopulated area and this excuses or even prevents taking care of refugees (and preventing supplies from getting to them) is looking for excuses, I think. When people are dieing because of lack of medical supplies or facilities and when they don’t have uncontaminated water, proper nutrition or other necessities, there are vital things missing. And these supplies are there for the Palestinians but they are prevented from getting to them. Not that the Gaza strip is the only place where humanitarian supplies are needed. One cannot ignore all sorts of human rights abuses and war crimes on the Israeli side and say that the Palestinians deserve what they get as little as one can ignore it on the American, Palestinian or any other side. And to say that people pointing this out are doing it “safely removed from a threat to their own life” is untrue, ignores world politics and ignores all the people who have gone to Gaza as aids workers and the ones that have been killed there risking their lives to help refugees and promote nonviolence and compassion rather than war. None of this excuses Palestinian aggression, war crimes, or human rights abuses. As I said already, I don’t agree with the protests that disrupt a concert and I don’t think they are helpful; and I don’t agree with targeting the IPO as if discriminating against them addresses what the Israeli Military is doing. I don’t believe the Israeli military responses are helpful, I don’t believe the Palestinian military aggressions are helpful and I don’t think that disrupting a concert is helpful. And yes I applaud the IPO for making music under such a situation rather than war, the same as I applaud the nameless musician I heard of who risks his life and goes into the occupied territory to make music with the refugee children. I think that society when it tries to control people with fear and intimidation creates the very things it’s trying to prevent (on any side of a war). Were more attention given to things like music then we wouldn’t have these problems (not even with the obsessed war mongers looking for any excuse possible to act like what they are doing is fixing a problem rather than causing it).

  • Dear Roelof,

    You clearly didn’t see the BBC Panorama film on the flotilla which found that the ship in question was loaded with old, out-of-date and totally unusable supplies, and that they refused all offers from Israel and Egypt to dock away from Gaza and have the cargo, after security checks, transferred to its intended destination. And that the IHH ‘charity’, supported by Turkey, is involved in some deeply dodgy goings-on and that its members came on to the ship ready armed with knives etc. The Israeli soliders landed with paintball guns. They only drew their pistols when they were viciously attacked, as can be seen from the videos of the event. The UN has just found that the blockade is a legal and legitimate means of defence for Israel.

    I’m sure you want the best for both sides, but remember – Israel gave the Palestinians Gaza without any reciprocation. They got rockets and suicide bombs. Ditto when they pulled out of Lebanon. Had they behaved in a civilised manner they would have a state by now. Try and think about it from the point of view of an average Israeli. You live in a country the size of Wales surrounded by enemy states who have stated their desire to destroy you and your family. You take a chance and give some land to the Palestinians because you believe they should indeed have a state, they elect a group dedicated to Israel’s destruction and intensify attacks on you – only now they have Gaza they have a larger territory to attack you the more effectively. You live in the major city of Bersheva and a couple of weeks ago endured more than 100 rockets fired on your and the surrounding cities and towns in only a few days. You still want the Palestinians to have their state, but if you give them what they want, Israel will be only 9 miles wide at its narrowest point. Is that defensible? Will the Palestinians be good neighbours? Because so far they are still (the PA as well as Hamas) telling their people that everything Israeli is bad and that they want to attack. They have so far given no reason to disbelieve them.

    There are two sides to the story, and howling in a concert is not the way to debate it.

  • The Israeli Army, which killed 9 people, boarded the boats beating down people, using tasers, firing stun grenades and paint ball pellets at people’s faces; because of such a provocation a handful of people who before this were non-violent responded in a way which was considered self defense. It wasn’t the intention of the people who organized the flotilla that even such a response considered self defense would be appropriate, but yet it happened because of the provocation. There were no arms found on the ship. To me, the way that the Israel army behaves is not in a way which supports a non violent solution but it supports provoking people in order to excuse and maintain harsh measure which don’t work. The amount of Palestinian deaths is something like ten times higher than Israeli deaths. I don’t believe that those launching rockets are promoting a non violent solution either. I don’t believe that traumatizing a whole populace with military intimidation works, whether it’s the Israeli army or the rocket attacks. There is no loss in seeing that something non violent needs to be allowed on both sides. If you truly would consider that you and your “enemy” are both controlled by the fear that stopping all the excuses for violent responses would make your world unsafe; you would find out that it’s the excuses for violence on all sides which are the cause for the lack of safety, peace and understanding. And it’s a multidimensional energy. When you stop hating your enemy looking for reasons and means to assault him, this is felt whether you believe it or not. When you get involved with that, it makes change. Investing in more and more excuses for violence truly doesn’t make change towards peace, except in showing that it doesn’t create peace. Trying to control someone through intimidation and fear is against the harmony which would bring understanding and peace. It’ll never work that way. Traumatizing the “enemy” believing this will control him doesn’t work. And you haven’t discovered the reason for being here, which is to understand human nature.

    • Mr. Bijkerk,

      I’m sorry, but those are just not the facts. I’m afraid, at this point, you’re beyond help. The Palestinians don’t want peace, they want all of Israel ( as do all arabs and muslims). They’ve made this plain time after time after time. Their would be far more Israeli casualties if the IDF weren’t so well-armed and good at protecting their people. There would be far fewer Palestinian casualties if their leadership didn’t purposely put non-combatants in harms way. This is what they do, and it’s only all too well documented. In any case, number of casualties is not really a barometer of aggression. Primary indicators are things like ideology, propaganda and war objectives.
      You might also note that only 1/2 of 1 percent of M.E. arabs live in freedom, and that every last one of those is an Israeli citizen.

  • I understand that your motivations are good and doubtless the same as mine in this exchange – and if everyone engaged with such good will the solution would have been solved many years ago. But this is not simply Israel vs the Palestinians, it is, as it has always been, Israel vs the Arab states who continue to demonise Israel for domestic propaganda uses and in some cases use the Palestinians as pawns. Regarding your account of what happened on the ship, I don’t think the Israeli response was well thought-through, nor do most Israelis, but watch that Panorama prog I mentioned (you can see it on YouTube) and you’ll see that the passengers were planning and practising violence well before the Israelis landed. There was no trouble on the other boats, where everyone responded properly.

    • Yes there’s Death in the Med but there’s also The BBC Bias the Gaza Freedom Flotilla which has a different take on the documentary. Both are on youtube. I don’t pretend to know exactly what happened. I don’t believe in war. I don’t believe in punitive punishment. I believe in music. I believe the IPO, when allowed to play music, would do more than anything else to make change because it’s music, regardless of politics. On the flotilla an IHH volunteer admits that because of all the bloodshed and deaths that there were those who said “we should do to them what they did to us” to the disarmed Israeli soldiers but he convinced them this wasn’t how to respond. To me that’s a heroic act. And to want to respond with more violence which is retaliatory is never appropriate, certainly not on a non violent mission. I don’t even find it “understandable.” Fortunately, such violence was prevented which it should be regardless which “side” you are on. In fact all you have in the end would be blind retaliatory violence which solves nothing no matter how much it entertains the magic that there’s some sort of righteous debt which can only be solved with more death. And why is all this provocation going on? When someone makes a statement that the Palestinians don’t want peace (which can’t be true, everyone wants peace: to be any different is humanly impossible, something we all are) and that they (the enemy) want Israel along with all Arabs and Muslims; this is paranoia, I think. I could call it racism to make such blanket statements about a whole people, but that’s not helping to bring out the cause of such beliefs. When the other side says that if Israel exists as a county all they would do is steal our land, this is also paranoia, I think. And could also be called racism. In fact, both sides are accusing the other of the same thing because they believe they need to defend themselves from something they believe the other side will do and so they do it themselves believing this prevents the other side from doing the same. “We need to destroy the other side because the other side wants to destroy us and the other side says we are trying to destroy them, which we are but it’s because they would destroy or would have destroyed us if we didn’t destroy them which is why they are trying to destroy us.” Can’t you just laugh that you would have had such thoughts (which everyone experiences) and give up on it instead? In the mean time, there are many people on both sides not allowed a voice or a chance to show that there is a non violent way which works and reinstates the human condition for everyone. All because the other guy would do something you need to be allowed to do yourself, but have it be separate, different and excusable or even hidden. And I’m truly not trying to insult anyone saying they are paranoid; it’s something we all go through. I’m just trying to point it out that it might be considered to make a difference. You’d be happy to find out the other side had the same fears of the human condition as you did and you can let go of them together or show that it’s possible yourself which is felt on the other side. And maybe it’s the trauma that all sides go through believing violence is necessary that everyone is so scared of feeling, because they will find it’s Universal. And I believe this violence you believe is so necessary is not only not necessary but it’s completely unnatural and goes against your very thoughts, would you allow them such freedom.

      • I don’t believe that violence is necessary per se – but sometimes it regrettably, tragically, is in self-defense. And Israel is under constant attack and has been since its creation. Before it was formed the Jews were under attack around the world, as they still are in some parts even with Israel’s formation.

        Sorry, I don’t share this idea of a BBC bias towards Israel – that I’m afraid smacks of the “ZIonist control of the UK media’ conspiracy theories. The Beeb didn’t even report (or at least if they did then not for a long time) the dreadful killing by Palestinians of a family in Israel some little while ago where a baby was beheaded using a saw (it sickens me even to write that). Neither did they report the fact that two weeks ago around ONE HUNDRED rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel following Palestinian attacks on civilian vehicles that killed eight (that last bit they did report).

        There were those on the ship who stopped more bloodshed thankfully, but the captured soldiers were still stabbed. And the soldiers didn’t fire until they were viciously attacked, as can be seen clearly from the films (they came down a rope one at a time and were taken down and beaten with poles and attacked with knives and worse).

        I’m not, believe me, saying at all that all Palestinians don’t want peace, of course not, and I know Palestinians who work towards peace. I am saying that there are powerful elements in Palestinian and Arab societies who work to prevent that and they have not yet been stopped. From Israel’s point of view, it only takes one successful assault on the country for Israel to be wiped out. They have nowhere to fall back to and no room for mistakes.

        All one needs to know about the mindset of the Hamas regime is revealed by the book ‘Son of Hamas’ by Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a Hamas founder who was so revolted by what he experienced in the organisation that he turned Christian, and even started spying for Israel – not that he thinks Israel is perfect but he realised that Israelis genuinely want a peace that isn’t possible with Hamas in power. These are, after all, the people who threw their Fatah rivals off buildings and skinned them alive. Israel does not do that kind of thing. There is a difference.

        I still believe peace is possible. But both sides must be understood, not just one, both must compromise (as the Israelis well understand having already made several very generous offers and pulled out of territories already) and both must have their states secure.

        • I agree with and understand much of what you say. But, regarding this: “I am saying that there are powerful elements in Palestinian and Arab societies who work to prevent that and they have not yet been stopped. ” I would suggest the same of Israel, in my view from here. While many – most – Israelis I’m sure want peace, there is a segment who perhaps want it less or more slowly. Alas, I think this is true of most if not all societies in conflict, particularly after decades.

          • In order to have a perspective on what’s going on, in a way that gives a perspective rather than takes it away; I truly would sincerely recommend watching a video that’s also on youtube called The Money Masters. Unfortunately it’s quite long but worth it because it exposes the games that the bankers have played to gain control over world politics, in order to maintain economic control. This video is recommended by such diverse people as Milton Friedmanand the Grandson of Ghandi. Truly! If I was trying to conjure up with fantasy two such diverse sides to recommend the same thing, I would have great trouble. The bankers always gain when there is conflict, because all sides need to borrow from the banks and this creates tremendous debt. And a society which is destabilized by war makes itself dependent on the banks. Because of the nature of our minds where one simple word can conjure up a whole world, it’s only too easy to wield fear in order to “divide and conquer;” this doesn’t just happen in one nation but between two or more nations, and in whole regions. Fear can drive people completely crazy, and they do the most heinous, unthinkable things. The very idea, easily perpetuated by those who are wielding fear playing games with it, that conflict is necessary, can create the most insane associations with cause and effect. And those making money (from both sides) out of the ensuing conflict aren’t interested in anyone knowing how they are feeding the fires of the conflict, instead they want everyone to think that it’s the evil of the other side rather than the desire to make money from both sides. But just watch the video it you’re interested. If you don’t agree that’s fine too. Alberto Portugheis also has made some statements in the thread about the letter from Ari Kam, which might resonate with someone. But I truly believe that you’re doing yourself and human nature an injustice to believe that it’s as simple as that the other side is evil. Not only does this promote fundamentalism, racism and extremism, but it helps the bankers divide and conquer whole areas or the globe as they make money off of all sides to a conflict.

  • The Guardian’s refusal to print the letter is no surprise. The Guardian has repeatedly opened its pages to the worst kind of hate- filled Israel bashing. At times it seems a branch of Hamas.
    As for the barbarian disruption of the concert , well this is just another small bit of the major contribution of the Palestinians their supporters to the world i.e. Terror in all its forms

  • Nowhere did I say that “the other side is evil”. Evil is a very fraught term anyway. I said that the Palestinians have always been used as a political and propaganda tool by the Arab states, and I also believe that Hamas are playing power games in Palestinians society and that, more than this, they are ideologically motivated. People who are ideologically motivated never THINK they are evil, even if their actions are immoral. As for a worldwide conspiracy of bankers…sheesh.

  • As to whether The Money Masters video offers information as to whether the bankers are promoting war because it destabilizes whole areas, you’d have to watch the video to know what evidence it offers, I think. As I said already, Milton Friedman and Ghandi’s grandson approved the video. I think that any excuse for the kind of military violence that exists on both parts of the conflict sees the other side as being “evil” in the sense of how they are characterized rather than trying to use the methods which will nurture the kind of trust in human nature which would stop violence on both sides. When you speak of ideological motivations it’s just as easy to point out Zionism (that does exist in Israel under certain groups) as having some truly racist ideology as easy as some of the ideology in the “Arab” world has racist ideology. Because the Arab world is perhaps more overt rather than covert with such ideology doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist on both sides. And also, there are horror stories on both sides of heinous acts of violence. That’s easy enough to research. Investing in the belief that more violent force is necessary to stop such behavior is exactly what perpetuates such behavior on all sides because of the kind of hatred it breeds, and is not the kind of response that brings an end to it. To perpetuate conflict trying to defend the very belief in violence which breeds such ideology (on all sides) and then say that the existence of such ideology is separate from what you are doing to fuel it, is self defeating for all sides. I think Steve Isserlis letter is a very good letter except for the part that seems to insinuate that people who criticize Israel in England are condemning Israel and do it safe from a threat to their own lives. The situation in Israel or any conflict effects the whole world. The same, the military behavior of the US effects the whole world and people effected by it criticizing it aren’t doing it at a safe remove from it. I suggest that you consider that sticking to such one sided arguments (whatever side you’re on) very clearly shows that it’s not an issue of “internal” safety within one separate area. And it’s the people who are daring to promote a non violent solution (the true heroes that exist on all sides but aren’t given a voice) whose vision sees a humanity in everyone (in everyone regardless on judgments to their behavior or what side they are on, or even what they have done in the past or are doing) that doesn’t need to be a slave to the need for military aggression and the consequent fear, trauma, destabilization of society and a lack of nurturing towards the human condition and it’s emotional health which would prevent violence and hatred.

  • I may have made a mistake in my prior post. I’m sorry, Zionism is often referred to as an ideology that sometimes maintains that only the Jews have the right to the “promised land,” but this is maybe just a branch of Zionism. I have heard someone who is a “Zionist” clear up that it’s incorrect to say it necessarily has such ideology. And I shouldn’t have used the term “Zionist” in connection with discriminatory ideology that only the Jews have the right to one particular part of the earth which belongs to everyone. That said, I’m not taking part in discussion on this thread anymore as I see that it wouldn’t be helpful. I don’t believe there is any human being who, when allowed to, doesn’t have that spark of humanity in him which transcends all conflict. We all do have that spark. If you don’t see that (or if I don’t see that) one isn’t seeing the collusion with the kind of fear based indoctrination which caused the trauma and the emotional wounds whose behavior one is judging rather than seeing that there is a cause as clear as a chemical reaction and would have come about in anyone given the situation. The situation needs tending to.

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