West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

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The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is no ordinary musical ensemble. Founded in 1999 by Argentian/Israeli pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian author and academic Edward Said, its core consists in equal measure of Israeli and Palestinian musicians. It regularly visits the UK and readers should look out for future performances.

The concert at this year’s Proms was an excellent example of musicianship and musical diversity: three pieces representing the classical, romantic and modernist styles. Barenboim played the piano part in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano, with Israeli violinist Guy Braustein and Persian cellist Kian Soltani. Earlier, he conducted Chamber Symphony No 1 by Viennese modernist Schoenberg, and in the second half Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a supreme example of late 19th century romanticism. Technically and musically, the orchestral and solo performances were of the highest quality.

The orchestra began life at a workshop in Weimar, Germany, for musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Arab countries. The aim was “to replace ignorance with education, knowledge and understanding; to humanise the other...individuals who had only interacted with each other through the prism of war found themselves living and working together as equals.”

The orchestra’s motto is “Equal in Music”; its name derives from German poet Goethe’s poems inspired by the Persian poet Hafez, aimed at fostering dialogue and interchange between East and West. It is based in Seville, a symbol of the area’s rich medieval history of coexistence among Muslims, Jews and Christians.

However, the project does pose a problem since the promotion of dialogue and cultural interchange suggests an image of two sides of equal strength, whose conflict is based on misunderstanding.

As PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) points out, “the Orchestra’s self-definition turns occupation and colonial oppression into a mere ‘problem’ or ‘barrier’ to be discussed between ‘traditional rivals’ who hope to settle their ‘differences’ and build ‘bridges’ of understanding through music and dialogue.” It points out that 20 years of such projects in Palestine, under the rubric of “constructive engagement”, have led to a further entrenchment of Israel’s colonisation and denial of Palestinian rights.

However, PACBI recognises that not all projects that are candidates for boycott are equally objectionable and that, “given the limitations of the boycott movement’s human capacity, prioritising boycott targets becomes crucial.” Also, PACBI does not target individual Israeli artists but those representing cultural institutions that are part of the Israeli state.

The Divan orchestra is not part of the Israeli state apparatus. However, it does promote “normalisation” – pursuing “joint Arab-Israeli projects that ignore or bypass the reality of oppression.” Divan stands accused of refusing “to recognise, let alone oppose, Israel’s ethnic cleansing, occupation and system of racial discrimination as the root causes of the Arab-Israeli colonial conflict.”

Barenboim himself was recently asked whether he supported the BDS campaign. He began by saying “I think the boycott movement…is absolutely correct,” but went on to hedge, saying one had to differentiate between the government and Israelis who disagree with their government’s policies – for example, artists and writers.

Admirers of Barenboim and the Divan must campaign to persuade them to adopt an unqualified critical stance towards Israel.