The United Nations recently designated the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of musicians from Israel, the Palestinian territories, and other parts of the Middle East, as a Global Advocate for Cultural Understanding.
“Every performance is a testimony to the power of music to break down barriers, to promote cultural understanding and to build bridges between communities,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.
Certainly, artistic collaboration promotes cultural understanding among the participants and serves as a symbol of hope for the public. By seeking to prevent such associations, the cultural Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel does the entire world a terrible disservice.
The elephant in the room, however, is the orchestra’s co-founder, the late academic and source of much of the anti-Israel propaganda that circulates today, Prof. Edward Said.
The work of Said, which is required reading in hundreds of college classrooms across the United States, has papered Israel with Europe’s sin of colonialism. It serves as the root of much of the delegitimization campaign that flourishes across college campuses and has been a scourge upon a peace process in desperate need for leadership.
Was it hypocritical for the professor to build a bridge for peace while simultaneously fanning the flames for its destruction? Unquestionably.
Did he create the organization as a sort of reputation management, or did he delude himself into thinking his hate mongering was consistent with coexistence? I would guess the former.
Boycott proponents claim that cultural exchange whitewashes Israel’s alleged misdeeds. If we denounce this anointment by the U.N. because it serves as a cover-up for a legacy of destruction, are we echoing the boycott argument?
When people we perceive to have harmed the world have also done some good, do we cheer or do we jeer?
Rabbi Spike Anderson of Temple Emanu-el in Atlanta questions Said’s motives in creating the orchestra, saying, “He sought to gain legitimacy with a ‘bridge’ only to further his own agenda which clearly was the destruction of Israel. It was for the sake of appearance—that’s it.”
“Those who believe [his motives] as genuine have been fooled by him,” said Anderson. “There is nothing to celebrate with him. If his efforts yielded some understanding, celebrate the effort, not his effort.”
For Rabbi Mordechai Finley of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Los Angeles, “It’s a question of measurement. We measure the degree of harm against the benefit.”
Although overshadowed by the vast hatred promoted by Said’s work, the orchestra’s message of hope and co-existence through music is a good thing.
The naming of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra as an advocate for cultural understanding “does not validate Said’s rhetoric,” according to Rabbi Finley.
Sadly, the disciples of the late professor who support the cultural boycott of Israel are working to undermine his single enduring contribution to peace—the Divan Orchestra.
Edward Said’s work helped lay the seed for the present-day cultural BDS effort against Israel, but ultimately nothing he wrote or said remotely justifies it.
Other anti-Israel torchbearers, like Profs. Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, have openly denounced the boycott. As Chomsky recently told Al-Jazeera, “I mean, you might as well boycott the United States.”
Although that may not give pause to the ill-intended, it may to the misguided.
And that is something to cheer about.
Lana Melman is the CEO of Liberate Art Inc. (www.LiberateArt.net), a leading expert and commentator on the cultural boycott effort against Israel, and a professional speaker.