The Philadelphia Orchestra has been targeted by angry protests and harsh criticism ever since announcing their coming tour in Israel. Protesters have wrongly claimed that opposition to the tour is reasonable advocacy for the rights of Palestinians. In fact, their intent and strategy is dishonest and damaging – both to resolving the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to the cherished belief that cultural engagement can build bridges and promote understanding.
Let us be clear: Anyone has a right to criticize the State of Israel for its policies, just as it is fair to criticize the policies of the United States, France, or India. However, we strongly disagree with these activists' demonization of all things Israel, and their spurious, one-sided presentation of a complicated situation. An honest accounting reveals that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extremely complex, challenging, and heartbreaking on all sides. To claim that Israel is the sole cause of the conflict belies this fact, and to advocate for an international boycott of the Jewish state actively undermines any productive efforts to end the conflict.
Indeed, the entire premise of the protest – that the Philadelphia Orchestra should not go to Israel, not perform in Israel, not meet with Israelis because doing so would serve as an endorsement of all Israeli policies – is not only extreme but ultimately counterproductive. Cultural exchange is essential for bridging divides between people. After all, it was ping-pong, of all things, that represented the thawing of decades of frozen relations between the United States and China.
The orchestra's trip to Israel enables its musicians and supporters to engage with the complex realities of Israel. They will hear a variety of perspectives from the local musicians they meet, and through their on-the-ground interactions gain insight into the politics and realities of the place. They are not endorsing policies; they are bringing and sharing their American approaches and attitudes.
It is also important to note that some who have been calling on the orchestra to cancel the trip have crossed the line from advocacy into overt anti-Semitism.
Let's consider the April 6 protest at the Kimmel Center. People at the protest reported to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that they heard phrases that the ADL would clearly classify as anti-Semitic. There is no mistaking hate speech for thoughtful criticism of Israeli policy, nor is it strong advocacy for the rights of Palestinians. It is bigotry, plain and simple, and must be rejected as such.
A number of years ago, British cultural figures published an open letter calling for cultural bridges, not boycotts, to bring about Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. As these luminaries, including Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, wrote: "Open dialogue and interaction promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance, and it is through such understanding and acceptance that movement can be made towards a resolution of the conflict. … Cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change."
The cultural institutions of the City of Brotherly Love should be not about boycott, but about engagement, awareness, and building foundations for peace.