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A number of groups campaigning for Palestinian human rights has called on academics and musicians to boycott a forthcoming conference on Israeli music, and threatened to picket it.
The conference is entitled “Art Musics of Israel: Identities, Ideologies, Influences” and is being organised by the Jewish Music Institute (JMI), based at SOAS, University of London, where some of the events are taking place.
“We don’t have a problem with Israeli music, and certainly not with Jewish music”, said Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-BIG). “The problem is that this conference is apparently accepting money from the Israeli state.”
Other organisations behind the boycott call are the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) and the Boycott Israel Network (BIN), which is about to hold its third conference.
According to the publicity leaflet, the conference is “supported” by the British Israeli Arts Training Scheme (BI ARTS), “a British Council initiative in partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture and Sport in Israel”; and also by the Israeli Embassy, London.
BRICUP, BIN and J-BIG are in the process of writing to all those taking part, whether as speakers, session chairs or performers. Their letter says:
“This official sponsorship places the event clearly in a category which has been targeted for boycott by organisations representing the overwhelming majority of Palestine’s civil society…. In the light of this call, and of the manifold injustices of Israeli treatment of the rights of the Palestinians, we are asking you to examine your consciences in this matter.”
The letter goes on to ask rhetorically, “Just consider – could an equivalent conference on Palestinian music be held?” It points out that such a conference would be “inconceivable” because no musical instruments are allowed into Gaza; no permissions are granted for musicians to travel out of Gaza; West Bank musical life “is crippled by the road blocks and settlement building that fragments the residual Palestinian territory”; and East Jerusalem musicians are unable to leave without losing their residency permits.
Reem Kelani, Palestinian singer and musician, is supporting the boycott. She said:
“When the Soviet Union used its artists as tools of its propaganda effort, there was a chorus of denunciation from the Western world, but when Israel’s Foreign Ministry recruits musicians in its hasbara (propaganda) campaign, many people simply ignore or find excuses for its subversion of art. It is a stain on SOAS’
stature as an institution of academic excellence to host a conference which seeks to deny the existence of a Palestinian cultural narrative and whose primary purpose is to present a politically shaped Israeli musical history.”
Composer Raymond Deane, who is also supporting the boycott call, said:
“As a composer, I believe that music is indeed above politics but not – alas – above exploitation by those whose politics negate humanistic values. The Israeli state must not be allowed to exploit the art of music or any other form of cultural expression in order to disguise the reality of its expansionist and racist character. I am deeply disappointed that SOAS is proceeding with this Conference; it must be boycotted by all who care about justice and human rights
– and about the art of music.”
The SOAS Students’ Union passed a motion at its Union General Meeting on 24th January which stated the Union’s belief that “SOAS has no place participating in or facilitating a conference that is affiliated with official Israeli state institutions” and demanding that the college withdraw from the conference, in particular calling for Paul Webley, Director of SOAS, to “cancel his speech and not collaborate in this event”. Webley is due to give the opening address.
A student letter currently circulating on the SOAS Music Dept discussion list says:
“Israel is a racist, expansionist apartheid state. The term ‘Art Music of Israel’ is a code phrase for the dominant music of that apartheid state. The whole event is an attempt to sanitise the image of that state in the West. … The brutal facts of killings, torture, imprisonments and land expropriations by Israel continue, day by day. Decent people should take a stand against these horrors.
“… Within the Student Union, and also in the outside world (the various Palestine solidarity campaigns), there is a solid opinion that no part of this conference or its concerts should be allowed to take place on SOAS property. That opinion is certain to translate into action during the coming weeks.
“From that point of view, it would seem advisable that events which are scheduled to take place on SOAS property should be removed elsewhere.”
The organisations calling for boycott are planning further action.
“If the organisers do not dissociate themselves from official Israeli sponsorship and refuse any funding from the Israeli state, we will be protesting outside the event – and perhaps inside it too,” said Prof. Jonathan Rosenhead of BRICUP.