A lunchtime concert in central London by a renowned classical quartet became a platform for protests against Israel in the latest manifestation of how culture has become enmeshed in the bitter politics of the Middle East.
Within the first 10 minutes of the performance by the Jerusalem Quartet at the Wigmore Hall a woman stood up to "sing out" her condemnation of Israeli policy, setting the pattern for interruptions by people strategically positioned among the audience.
The result was that BBC Radio 3's live recording of the concert had to be broken off under extraordinary scenes with the musicians engaged in a debate on stage with the protesters over the conduct of Israel in the Occupied Territories.
Campaigners against the perceived excesses of the Jewish state have been increasingly using education and the arts as means of exerting pressure, and calling for boycotts which have led to heated debates. The Jerusalem Quartet has been at the receiving end of this going back to 2008, when five members of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign faced charges for disrupting a performance in Edinburgh.
Bloggers described yesterday's protests. One 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. '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".
Protesters claim the ensemble is tied with the Israeli state and point to the Jerusalem Music Centre's website which states: "The four members of the Quartet joined the Israeli Defence Forces in March 1997 and are serving as distinguished musicians."
Military service is compulsory for any Israeli citizen at the age of 18 and people such as the violin virtuoso Maxim Vengerov have served their time with the Israeli Defence Forces. However, as Jessica Duchen, the classical music writer, noted: "That means they're regarded wherever they go as representatives of the Israeli government, the IDF and their policies, such as the dropping of phosphorus on Gaza, the building of the 9-metre-high separation wall and the continued building/enlarging of settlements that, according to international law, are not legal. I'm afraid they do become fair game for the hecklers... It's a horrible dilemma if you love their playing but hate what their government is doing."
The Quartet pointed out that only one of their four is now a native Israeli, with one living in Portugal and another in Berlin. All four did serve in the army, but as musicians and not in combat. Two are also regular performers with Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings Arab and Israeli musicians together for classical concerts.
The director of the Wigmore Hall, John Gilhooly, said: "The protesters completely take away the meaning of an artistic event, which is something which transcends politics."
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