columnBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

Notes of triumph: Music outplays BDS

Despite soccer headlines, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s tour of Israel gave a textbook example of how to defeat those who seek to intimidate friends of the Jewish state.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, prepares to perform Mahler’s 8th Symphony at Verizon Hall on March 10, 2016. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, prepares to perform Mahler’s 8th Symphony at Verizon Hall on March 10, 2016. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Israelis are understandably upset about the cancellation of a soccer game between their national team and the star-studded squad from Argentina. As JNS columnist Ben Cohen wrote, part of the problem was the way the Israeli government mishandled the whole situation. Political incompetence, as well as some other more practical reasons, may have led to the decision, but there’s no denying that it provided a rare triumph for the BDS movement—and the Palestinians.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, prepares to perform Mahler’s 8th Symphony at Verizon Hall on March 10, 2016. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Soccer-obsessed Israelis will take a long time getting over this embarrassment. But the truth about the BDS movement is that it is a colossal failure if we judge it by how successful it has been in isolating Israel. While some celebrities have succumbed to pressure from Israel’s enemies, the notion that commerce or cultural exchanges are dwindling or even significantly affected by the BDS campaign is ridiculous.

BDS has had virtually no impact on Israel’s booming economy. Trade with Europe and the rest of the world continues despite the agitation. A hotbed of high-tech innovation and development, Israel’s reputation as the “startup nation” makes it the envy of the world. Indeed, while anti-Semites push for bans on Israeli hummus, it’s not likely that any of them would choose to deny themselves any of the many life-saving devices, medical technology and scientific advancements created in the Jewish state.

Nor is Israel’s thriving cultural life much affected by the desire of its foes to make it into a pariah along the lines of apartheid-era South Africa.

As it happens, during the same week that the kerfuffle over the soccer game made headlines, one of the world’s great orchestras toured Israel—frantic efforts of BDS advocates notwithstanding. The story of the BDS failure to stop the Philadelphia Orchestra’s successful visit to Israel is a textbook example of not only the ineffectiveness of the campaign to boycott Israel, but just how antithetical it is to the cause of peace.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has long been acclaimed as one of the big five in the United States, and also among the most well-regarded symphonic ensembles in the world. That status has been enhanced in recent years by the star power of its music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who is also taking on the same post at the Metropolitan Opera this year, making him among the most influential classical artists on the planet right now. That made efforts to stop the orchestra from traveling on to Israel for concerts a priority for the BDS movement.

While musicians like to speak of themselves as apolitical, it’s no secret that the world of the arts tilts distinctly to the left. While that accounts for an atmosphere in which left-wing politics is taken as a given, it also potentially makes artists vulnerable to fashionable if tendentious ideas like intersectionality, which depict the struggles of minority communities in the United States with those of Third World, such as the Palestinian war against Israel’s existence. As such, arts organizations are wary not merely of any political stance that would be interpreted as “right-wing,” but also becoming increasingly insensitive to anti-Semitism. The willingness of the Metropolitan Opera to stage a piece like “The Death of Klinghoffer” in 2014—an account of the 1985 murder of an American Jew by Palestinian terrorists that put a human face on anti-Semitism—was an example of this trend.

Yet efforts to isolate Israeli artists or to prevent others from visiting Israel have generally fallen flat. In the case of the Philadelphians, the close ties between the orchestra, and the local Jewish federation and its leading donors, made the plan to visit as part of Israel’s 70th-birthday celebrations a natural fit. But that didn’t stop local BDS groups from targeting the orchestra in the weeks and months prior to their visit.

Demonstrators plagued it during some of its subscription concerts this spring, with BDS activists actually disrupting at least one concert. Articles in local newspapers alleged that the musicians would be cooperating with the Israeli military, and by implication, equally guilty of the specious charges of war crimes that have been lodged against it for having the temerity to defend Jews against terror. But while some individual pop artists have cracked under this kind of pressure, the orchestra never wavered in its determination to bring its music to Israel.

More to the point, what happened during their visit proved—both to the musicians involved and anyone else who cared to notice—that efforts to curb cultural exchanges like these are antithetical to the cause of coexistence. While in Israel, in addition to its performances at main venues in Haifa and Tel Aviv, the orchestra also made pop-up appearances at schools and places like Neve Shalom—the “Oasis of Peace,” where it played and taught young audiences of Jews and Arabs. Sadly, some of its plans to appear at Arab venues, such as one in eastern Jerusalem, were canceled because of pressure from BDS supporters. But throughout its stay, the orchestra reached out to all sectors with a universal message of music. Though the storm of criticism that rained down on the musicians and Nezet-Seguin created difficulties, the ultimate impact was minimal.

As is the case with BDS campaigns in general, the real targets of this campaign weren’t Israelis, but the Philadelphia Jewish community. In some limited arenas—like on college campuses, where intersectional politics and academic bias are influential—BDS can intimidate powerless young people who don’t have all the facts at hand and create an atmosphere in which anti-Semitism thrives. But when such conflicts play out in the public square, as was the case with the attempt to pressure Philadelphia’s leading arts organization to shun Israel, the impotence and marginal nature of BDS supporters was clearly demonstrated.

Israel’s enemies are many, and their voices can be loud. But notwithstanding occasional successes like the Argentine soccer team, BDS is still losing badly as the Jewish state continues to go from strength to strength in its 70th year.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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