The Jerusalem Quartet: Should classical music really be a legitimate target for political demonstration?

The performers were heckled by anti-Israeli protesters at the Wigmore Hall this week.

The last thing you might expect to hear at a lunchtime classical concert is a political protest. But at the Wigmore Hall this week, that is precisely what the audience, who had been looking forward to a civilised programme of Mozart's String Quartet in D K575 and Ravel's String Quartet in F, experienced.

The subject of the heckling? The award-winning Jerusalem Quartet. To the surprise of the largely elderly audience, 10 minutes into the performance a female protester stood up to demonstrate against the Israeli government. Then, at 10 minute intervals, came further interruptions. With just four or five protesters strategically positioned around the hall, protesters were able to disturb the concert throughout, before being escorted from the building.

Bloggers recorded the disruption and tension caused by the commotion, which meant that Radio 3's live broadcast had to be broken off and, in a bizarre turn of events, saw the musicians having to defend their performance from the stage. One blogger, Boulezian, wrote: "A woman rose to her feet and made a noise. For a split second, I was unsure what it was; then I realised that she was singing – in a reasonably [sic] imitation of a trained voice. 'Jerusalem' was the first word, followed by 'is occupied'. She proceeded to shout out denunciations of Israel, 'an apartheid state', the attack on Gaza, the use of phosphorous, and so forth, seeming to implicate the quartet."

The Jerusalem Quartet have faced such protests before, as far as Australia. In fact, the date of this concert, 29 March, also happened to be the day when a group of protesters – five members of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign – were appearing in court for disrupting a performance by the Quartet in Edinburgh in August 2008. The problem, it seems, is a result of the group's name and their being perceived as cultural ambassadors for Israel, with Jerusalem Music Centre's website stating: "The four members of the Quartet joined the Israeli Defense Forces in March 1997 and are serving as Distinguished Musicians." Of course, military service is compulsory for any Israeli citizen at the age of 18. Even violin virtuoso Maxim Vengerov served for a short time in the IDF.

Still, as classical music writer for The Independent, Jessica Duchen, states in her blog, association with the IDF leads to inevitable presumptions. "That doesn't mean they're not great musicians. It's a horrible dilemma if you love their playing but hate what their government is doing. My first reaction to the targeting of small cultural groups such as the quartet, or the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge which was bombarded with angry correspondence when planning a tour to Israel, and so on, is that it's a deeply distasteful form of bullying: they're easy targets. And in the end it's not going to make a blind bit of difference and will simply reflect badly on everybody concerned. It would be much more difficult to hit where the difference would really be made: heckling Mr Obama about the billions that the US gives Israel every year."

However, as the Quartet point out in a statement, the protesters should have been certain of the facts. Only one of the four is a native Israeli, while one lives in Portugal and another in Berlin. Not only did all four serve in the army as musicians and not in combat, but two are also regular performers with Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings Arab and Israeli musicians together.

"As Israeli citizens, we were required to, and did, perform our national service when we were aged 18. As it happens, none of us was in a combat unit. We served our conscription as musicians playing for our fellow citizens. To identify our conscription, particularly since it was so long ago, with support for government policies is irrational. The demonstrators were ignorant of the fact that two of us are regular members of Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, composed of Israeli and Arab musicians. It is destructive of our attempts to foster Israel-Arab relations for us to be the subject of demonstrations of the kind we suffered yesterday.

"We no more represent the Government of Israel than the audience at the Wigmore Hall represented the Government of the United Kingdom."

Surely this should all become irrelevant anyway, in the setting of the classical concert. After all, the Jerusalem Quartet are musicians, and on Monday were simply entertaining people, as usual, with peaceful classical music in a respected cultural institution. The concert hall is not the place for a political debate; it is a place for high culture.

They are not the first classical group to be drawn into political debate. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra were targeted in 2007, when the group Women in Black held vigils in protest at their performances in New York and Los Angeles. The protesters explained their reasons for the action as being because the Orchestra's conductor, Zubin Mehta, had called it "Israel's flagship", and because they had performed for Israeli soldiers. Fortunately for the 2000-strong audience at Los Angeles's Disney Hall, the silent vigil spared the performance from being disturbed, although the unwanted tension, as a result of heightened security and the large signs bearing messages such as "Boycott Israel Philharmonic", would have been similar to that experienced by the audience at Wigmore Hall on Monday.

The choir of Clare College ended up missing some performances when their planned six-concert tour of Israel was opposed by protesters from the London-based Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. Joining the Israel Camerata Orchestra to sing Bach's Christmas Oratorio, the choir were unable to perform in East Jerusalem or Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

Such contentious locations were not an excuse on Monday, however. The Wigmore Hall's director, John Gilhooly, told me: "To use a lunchtime event attended by elderly people defeats any cause. We can't possibly condone any kind of disturbance to any artistic event. The protesters completely take away the meaning of an artistic event which is something which completely transcends politics.

"The Jerusalem Quartet said from the platform that in no way do they represent the state of Israel. Two of them play in Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. So what the protest was about, I've no idea.

"The Wigmore Hall is a totally non-political venue. We are just interested in music. I'm very upset for my staff who had to endure abuse, the public and the performers who very heroically played the concert. I would hate for any audience to have to go through that again. When I asked if they wanted the concert to continue, 500 people shouted back and cheered. That was the answer to the protesters."

There is only one answer to the question of bringing politics into the realm of the classical recital, summed up by the Jerusalem Quartet themselves: "We are musicians. We want our audiences to enjoy our music, whoever they may be, whatever their religion or nationality or ethnicity, without unthinking interruptions."