February 3, 2019, New York, NY—On Sunday afternoon, seventy New York human rights advocates gathered in a noisy, musical protest in front of Carnegie Hall to demonstrate against an extravagant fundraising brunch and performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO).
The IPO, a self-proclaimed “cultural ambassador” representing the state of Israel, orchestrates a positive image of Israel to divert attention from its human rights abuses, as part of the “Brand Israel” initiative launched in 2006. An Israeli Foreign Ministry official explained Israeli government efforts to rebrand Israel through the arts in 2009, saying, “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits” to “show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” The IPO website proudly states that the Orchestra “represent[s] the State of Israel across the world.”
As concert-goers entered, they passed “No Art for ApARTheid’s Sake” posters and heard the chants of “They whitewash, we protest! Boycott, sanction, and divest!” and “IPO gets no ovation, ambassador for occupation!” Many reacted with taunts, aggressive insults, and in one case an attempt to physically rip down a banner from a protester’s hand. One told a protestor: “I’m glad they’ve got you in a cage [the pen set up for protestors by the NYPD], just like they do to the people in Gaza.”
Preceding the concert, American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra hosted a fundraising brunch to support more future Israeli government public relations campaigns, with ticket prices ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. Meanwhile, the protestors outside shared a simple “Free Brunch for a Free Palestine,” with a sampling of Palestinian mu’ajanat—za’atar, spinach and cheese pies—plus ma’moul (date cookies), olives, and fruit, highlighting the economic hardships and hunger of the Palestinian people living under Israeli military occupation, siege and apartheid. Attached to the bagged Palestinian brunches were quotes from Palestinian artists, and short explanations of the hardships they endured under Israel’s repressive rule. Protesters chanted and sang, and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra played radical hits like “Which Side Are You On,” “Bella Ciao,” and “Wein a Ramallah.”
Zak Aldridge, part of a contingent from Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) attending the protest, commented, “We came to protest the IPO because it needs to be made clear, particularly to the American public, that it is not ok to have normal relations with institutions of an apartheid state. BDS means that that line is never crossed."
Allison Brown, a member of Adalah-NY, which organized the protest, said, “Israeli artists are free to travel the world, promoting Israel as a bastion of art and free expression, while remaining silent about the plight of their Palestinian counterparts. Palestinian artists are blocked from practicing, stopped at checkpoints, have their performances shut down and their artwork banned, and sometimes are arrested and even killed by Israel. We’ll protest and boycott complicit Israeli cultural institutions like the IPO until Palestinians are free.”
Opposite the demonstration, a small group from the anti-Arab hate group the Jewish Defense League (JDL) protested in support of the IPO, Carnegie Hall, and the Israeli government. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the JDL a “radical organization that preaches a violent form of anti-Arab, Jewish nationalism.”
The IPO’s involvement in Israel’s military occupation and apartheid rule is well documented. In 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes by pre-State Zionist militias, the IPO “travelled in armored cars…raising the morale of civilians and soldiers alike.” The IPO remains closely intertwined with the Israeli military today.
Protests against the Israel Philharmonic have been held in New York in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2017, and in other cities across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.. The protests aim to support the growing international call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, to pressure the state to end its human rights abuses. The Palestinian-led BDS movement is a nonviolent campaign for Palestinian rights inspired by the international boycott campaign that helped abolish the apartheid system in South Africa.