In 2001, conductor Daniel Barenboim violated a long-standing taboo in Israeli society by leading selections from notoriously anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” before a Jerusalem festival audience. For that brazen move, he was greeted with cries of “Fascist!” by some in attendance and was subsequently censured by a Knesset committee. Recent evidence that Theodor Herzl, father of political Zionism, was so (privately and shamefacedly) devoted to Wagner that he wrote significant portions of “Der Judenstaat” while attending performances of the latter’s opera “Tannhäuser,” was likewise greeted as a scandal in Israel. Where Palestine and Zionism are concerned, high art and politics are not easily disentangled.
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) protested the Haifa Symphony Orchestra’s (HSO) presence on our campus precisely because we cannot do as Herzl did; we cannot regard culture as “antiseptically quarantined from its worldly affiliations” (to paraphrase Edward Said). There is an indissoluble connection between the orchestra’s tour and the state that sponsors it. Indeed, a major Israeli banking institution that facilitates and profits from the colonization of the West Bank is one of the chief benefactors of the HSO.
Israel was born of the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians and has been a tremendous force of violence in the region from the moment of its inception. Its grisly track record of cruelty and abuse continues unabated today. John Dugard, distinguished South African jurist and U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine, describes the status quo in the occupied Palestinian territories as “worse than apartheid.” In 2013 alone, more than 25 Palestinians were killed, upward of 1,000 were displaced by housing demolitions, 4,000 arrests were reported and settlement construction projects exploiting cheap Palestinian labor sharply rose (with at least 2,000 housing units surfacing in place of leveled Palestinian homes).
To this catalogue of horrors, add a Byzantine system of humiliating checkpoints in the West Bank, routine prisoner abuse, widespread educational restrictions and the imposition of a starvation diet on 1.5 million people in the Gaza Strip, a giant open-air prison occasionally repurposed as a shooting range for the Israeli Defense Forces. Since 2002, we have witnessed the erection of a 300-mile wall that bisects the West Bank, securing Israel territories it is determined to retain in any final settlement and reinforcing Palestinian segregation. All of this is widely reported upon, for those who care to know.
Seemingly benign cultural exchanges like the orchestra’s visit last week effectively whitewash Israel’s violent history and its ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people. But it is not just the HSO that poses a problem. The dominant, sanitized narrative on this campus conceals these unpleasant realities. Its purveyors insist we view Israel through the rosy lenses of a birthright tourist: Zionism is a Mediterranean theme park, complete with kayaking, camel rides and hospitable Negev Bedouin. Groups like Binghamton University Zionist Organization (BUZO) want students to stand with them alongside “victimized” Israel. They attempted to disrupt our peaceful protest. Some aggressively threw our pamphlets away while a few tried to engage us in verbal fights. One wished “shame” upon us as he recorded us on his cell phone, as if this would be a record of some sort of crime. Some unsympathetic attendees were also none too happy: One woman screamed in our faces, and another man hit an activist with his cane. But we did our best to communicate our indignation peacefully. Their attempts to stymie our action were fruitless, because justice and humanity are on our side.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a response to the Palestinian plea for justice. BDS calls for economic and academic sanctions against Israel to thwart settlement-based industry and the continued annexation of Palestinian land, a tactic endorsed by an impressive collection of artistic, intellectual and moral luminaries. Our organization is against all forms of oppression and racism, including anti-Semitism. We denounce all complicity with the Israeli state’s imperialist and racist practices. Our only goal is freedom for the Palestinians, and we feel that this goal can be best met by challenging Zionist orthodoxy on campus and participating in the BDS movement. When we spontaneously chanted at the event, our voices formed a counter-hegemonic chorus that rang dissonant in the ears of the oppressors. The unjust always wince at the cry of freedom. SJP wants peace in both means and ends.
— Jon Lohnes is a first-year doctoral candidate in the Modern Middle East and Ottoman History program.
Steve Knauss is a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the sociology program.
Julie Quinn is a senior majoring in history.
Joe Tannenbaum is a senior majoring in computer science.