Page last updated at 12:40 GMT, Monday, 21 December 2009

Jerusalem Diary: Choir caught in disharmony

Clare College Choir
The choir's director had been keen to show his students the West Bank barrier

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem


It should be a time of unalloyed joy for Tim Brown. The director of one of Britain's most well-regarded choirs is beginning a six-concert tour of Israel this week.

The choir of Clare College, Cambridge, will be singing Bach's Christmas Oratorio with the Israel Camerata Orchestra. But the singers have not, as a choir, been able to perform in East Jerusalem or Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, after a Palestinian protest against the choir's tour of Israel.

The choir has been caught in the passionate arguments over whether Israel should be boycotted.

Tim Brown says he is very disappointed. He had been hoping that the choir could precede its tour of Israel with a visit to St George's Cathedral in East Jerusalem, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. They had been invited to sing in both locations by the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem.

But that was before the London-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign swung into action. The campaign wrote a letter, signed by more than 200 people, asking that the choir cancel its tour of Israel or risk, in their words, "appearing indifferent to Palestinian suffering".

The Palestinian Authority joined in.

According to one of those involved, the PA asked the Bishop of Jerusalem to withdraw the invitation for the choir to sing in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The choir was informed that it would not be welcome in Bethlehem, should its members try to come in, en masse, as part of the bishop's pilgrimage.

The choir's director says his frustration is borne of what he describes as his own pro-Palestinian stance: he has taught and performed with Palestinian musicians. Mr Brown was very keen for his students to see the West Bank barrier and, as he put it, the "privations" caused by the Israeli occupation.

Betty Hunter, the general secretary of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, says that desire to travel to the West Bank does not excuse the choir's tour of Israel. That tour, she says, is "surprising and shocking" - something which, in her words, "promotes Israel as a normal state rather than one which represses Palestinians".

The issue of whether Israel should be boycotted has gained publicity in recent months with campaigns led by British trades unions. Separately, some Israeli MPs reacted angrily to the British government issuing guidelines over the labelling of produce imported from Israeli settlements in the West Bank. British officials are keen to stress that their move has nothing to do with a boycott.

But Betty Hunter says that these are but the opening skirmishes of a whole new boycott campaign that she says will open up over the next few months.

Here is a selection of your thoughts on Tim Franks' diary:

The issue should be taken seriously! People in Gaza are starving and suffering because of the Israeli boycott, and with the help of Egyptians. While Israelis enjoy all they need. I have been affected by the comments of (Thomas Eisner, London), the Jewish commenter! We must practice our humanity for all parties.
Ahmad Zahed-AlKadri, Damascus, Syria

The PA would be far more justified in boycotting the choir if it stated as its reason that the choir comes from a country co-responsible for 100'000 civilian deaths in Iraq. Betty Hunter may also consider starting a "boycott Britain" campaign if she wished to remain morally consistent. Singing on both sides of a fence is a welcome contribution towards raising the morale of all those concerned. Bravo, Tim Brown and the Clare College Choir, for at least trying to show that you can be pro-Palestinian without being anti-Israel!
Jossy Sayir, London & Cambridge

Israel, supported by the international community, is the one practicing the severest form of boycott against the Palestinians. This choir would not be able to perform in Gaza even if they wanted to. Israel would not allow them in. They do not allow musicians, politicians or government representatives to enter Gaza. They don't even allow food, medicine or humanitarian support. So yes please boycott Israel politically, economically and culturally until it ends the illegal occupation and stats behaving like normal countries do.
Elias Joueh, Ramallah Palestine

Even though I might not agree with the full boycott of the choir in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, this has certainly brought attention to the case of boycotting Israeli products and events. This issue has great value to the Palestinian case because in addition to the occupation, injustice and humiliation Israel inflicts daily, Israel also has the means to garnish all of the above in the form of cultural tolerance and understanding while Palestinians don't have the capacity to match this.
Leen Alami, Amman, Jordan

Israel is fighting Palestinian terrorism with the greatest care possible for the civilian population. Wherever possible roadblocks are removed. The Palestinians, even in the Gaza strip, receive water, food, electricity and medicine from Israel. With all due respect to the British choir, no Israeli would let them perform at the price of risking suicide bombers and rocket attacks. Nor will we do so in order to remove any other ban. The point of these bans isn't to promote peace or to force Israel to concessions. It's simply to hurt Israel, nothing more.
Gal, Jerusalem, Israel

I am a professional member of a famous orchestra and coming from a "Holocaust" background - half my family met untimely deaths in the gas chamber - I feel I am well qualified to comment on this.

Having visited and performed in the West Bank I saw the reality of what Israel has done to the Palestinians. Just as my family had no say in being born Jewish in Nazi Germany nor do the Palestinians born in the Occupied Territories that Israel control. They are daily humiliated by the Israeli soldiers and settlers. It is remarkable how they keep their spirits up. If a professional British orchestra were to consider performing in Israel there would be enormous resistance. We just wouldn't do it, in the same way that musicians with integrity refused to go to South Africa under Apartheid. Tim Brown for the sake of humanity and in the spirit of Christmas should immediately cancel the tour of Israel.
Thomas Eisner, London

At least someone is doing something about the people of Palestine. If you want to have a tour in Israel, you cannot come to Palestine...Yes that's the idea! Do you know why? If you visit Palestine, you will notice how empty and meaningless the word "peace" is. Anyone who uses this word clearly has no idea how things work in the land of deceit, oppression and humiliation. Yes, we are that angry not only at Israel but at the whole world who is watching and judging from its brain-washed perspective.
Wissam, Ramallah

It is time for the British people and media to open their eyes. For too long Israel is portrayed as something it is not. The truth is that whenever we reached out to Palestinians, we got bitten. It's time for the Palestinians to take responsibility for their future, to stop saying `NO!` and to start building their state in real steps towards Israel. Meanwhile, hypocrites will clear their so-called conscience, with calls to boycott Israel.
Guy Gilad, Tel Aviv, Israel

I am not surprised at UK's anti-Israeli sentiments, especially by the unions who, instead of minding their own house put their foot in waters they know little or nothing about. Having said that, the UK has been anti-Israel ever since I can remember and I am 61. The only non-Jewish Brit who supported Zionism was Winston Churchill.
Larry Jacobson, Vancouver, Canada

What nonsense! Arabs living under Israeli rule have it so good that their leaders are afraid to negotiate a change. In fact, ask any Arab storekeeper if he preferred the old military rule or the PLO! And they really want another Gaza or Iraq (without oil)!
Israel, Emanuel, Israel

I'm delighted that the choir will not be visiting East Jerusalem or Bethlehem. In my view it should not be singing in Israel at all. I agree with Betty Hunter, the general secretary of the Palestine Solidarity campaign, that the tour promotes Israel as a normal state rather than one that severely oppresses Palestinians.
Paulina Palmer, Dr., Cambridge, UK

I think it's terrible that the PA and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign are burning bridges instead of building them. The choir has no political affiliations and wanted to play in both Israel and the West Bank. Groups like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign can't continue to blur the line between non-partisan groups and their own cause. If a UK tourist is to visit just Israel, should he or she automatically be vilified in their everyday life? This is ridiculous, Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
Dan, Ottawa, Canada

I blame the organisers for involving young people in this ugly situation, they knew the sensitivities involved. Saying that Israel is a better place to live than Palestine shows your lack of knowledge Mr Guy. The economic situation in Palestine is the direct result of your government's blockade on the Palestinians.

Solomon, Cape Town ,South Africa

Regardless of political views, what happened to "music" without politics? Let all Palestinians, and Israelis hear this beautiful music from those who sing for the love of songs. Maybe these fine young people can help bring peace to this part of world.
Stephen Sax, California, USA

This is just another example of the extreme pro-Palestinain lobby in the UK trying to stop other points of view and shut down debate.
Dan, Liverpool

Who does Betty Hunter think she is! This is a legitimate cultural visit and until she stuck her nose in was also part of a religious pilgrimage. I am sickened by those who jump on the anti-Israel bandwagon yet close their eyes to the repression in the Arab world. How many of them will eat Tunisian dates this Christmas, or fruit and veg. from Egypt?
Matthew Humphries, Cardiff, UK

Thank you Mr Brown for your courage to bring the problem to the forefront. In my view, the Palestinian supporters (ie Betty Hunter) have done a disservice to the Palestinian cause by condemning the choir's tour altogether. It would have been better to make sure the choir does visit the two sites on Palestinian territory as well as getting to see 'the wall' and have a chance to discuss, when back home, the horrific situation of Palestinian people with first-hand knowledge. What happens now is exactly what was intended by the Israeli hosts: a visit to Israel - only.
Wolfgang, Yarmouth, ME / USA

So you're not welcome in the PA unless you boycott Israel. This is the idea of peace seeking and engagement of the PA - a "normal place" as opposed to Israel. Ask any "Palestinian" living is Israel if they would prefer to move to the PA and the answer is NO, because apart from economic reasons, the PA has much worse human rights record than Israel and it represses its own people.
Peter, Dublin, Ireland

I guess the choir will have to do with a tour of Lebanon instead to see a country that really oppresses Palestinians.
David Guy, Rehovot, Israel

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