Utopia as Alibi: Said, Barenboim and the Divan Orchestra
by Raymond Deane
As a classical musician involved in pro-Palestinian activism, I frequently encounter the assumption that I am an unconditional admirer of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO). My reservations on this score tend to produce shocked disapproval:
How could I not enthuse about such an idealistic project, particularly since it was co-founded by the late Edward Said, a figure for whom I have frequently expressed respect and admiration?
In truth, I have always been a little wary of Said’s veneration for the eighteenth/nineteenth century canon of European classical music. I look in vain in his writings on the subject [1] for a historical and political contextualisation of music comparable of that to which he so perceptively subjected literature in his indispensable Culture and Imperialism. [2]
In his 2002 speech accepting the Principe de Asturias Prize, Said claimed that he and his friend the Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim founded the WEDO “for humanistic rather than political reasons”. This surprising dualism implies that music belongs to a utopian sphere somehow removed from the dialectical hurly-burly of hegemony and resistance.
The paradoxes of Said’s position have been ably dissected by the British musicologist Rachel Beckles Willson. [3] She quotes her colleague Ben Etherington’s critique of Said’s tendency “to assert the intrinsic value of Western elite music without really exploring how that tradition escapes mediation.”
Paraphrasing Said’s critique of literary scholars in his Humanism and Democratic Criticism [4] she convincingly claims that he “omitted to make ‘a radical examination of the ideology of the [musical performance] field itself.’” (Willson’s chain brackets).

Undoubtedly Barenboim has a less sublimated view of the classical repertoire than Said, and has been more broadminded than many of his superstar peers in his willingness to perform and advocate modern and “avant-garde” music.
He has also displayed great independence and personal courage by criticising the Israeli establishment and repeatedly flouting Israeli laws to travel to the occupied West Bank – even bringing the orchestra to Ramallah in 2005.
In 2008, Barenboim accepted honourary Palestinian “citizenship” from the Palestinian Authority. The dissident Israeli journalist Amira Hass put this in context: “It could just as well have [been] said that the PA granted Barenboim citizenship of the moon, since the PA has no authority to grant citizenship… to anyone.” [5]
She tellingly points out the broader political implications of such an action: “The PA is seen as a ’state’ with the sovereign right to grant ‘citizenship.’” The illusion of Palestinian statehood, fostered by the 1993 Oslo Accords, has served to absolve Israel from its obligations as an occupier under the 4th Geneva Convention. The gesture towards Barenboim, although empty, was pregnant with propaganda value for the Israeli state and its PA accomplices.
Barenboim’s most recent book is confusingly entitled Music Quickens Time in the US and Everything is Connected in Europe[6]. Reflecting on the fact that Hitler loved classical music, he concludes that “there is not enough thought about music, only visceral reactions almost on an animal level.” “Listening,” he tells us, “is hearing with thought.”
The idea that an analytical approach to music is potentially an antidote to its instrumentalisation by fascistic forces is a radical one, but Barenboim goes a clumsy step further by repeatedly depicting musical processes as metaphors for social and political structures. Thus the failure of the Oslo process is linked to the connection between musical content and tempo: “the relationship between content and time was erroneous.”
“The education of the ear” – or “auditory intelligence” – is important “for the functioning of society, and therefore also of governments.” “A nation’s constitution could be compared to a score, and the politicians its interpreters” and can be “challenged and adapted” in a democracy, “becoming a kind of collectively composed symphony.”
Unfortunately, while Barenboim professes faith in the axiom that “everything is connected”, the score written by Zionism is premised on “estrangement and alienation”, in the words of the anti-Zionist eco-socialist Joel Kovel. [7] Barenboim buys into the Zionist narrative all along the line.
“The Arab population of Palestine had been unsympathetic toward Jewish immigration from the very beginning”, he tells us, as if the indigenous Jewish population hadn’t been equally suspicious of Zionist colonisation – to call it by its proper name. The totalitarian “military rule” imposed by Israel on its Palestinian minority during the early years of statehood was “abominable”, admittedly, but “necessary for its self-preservation”.
The renaming of Arab streets after Israeli generals represents “at best thoughtlessness and insensitivity… and at worst an utter lack of strategy in dealing with the question of Arabs in Israel”, rather than a symbolic linchpin of Zionist conquest and dispossession.
In the midst of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead”, the onslaught on Gaza beginning in December 2008 that led to the killing of some 1400 Palestinians, Barenboim wrote a newspaper article that, while critical of the carnage, similarly repeated a number of Zionist propaganda tropes.[8] Hamas is “a terrorist organisation”, rather than a legitimate resistance movement, and must “realise that its interests are not best served by violence”, although this offensive followed the Israeli breach of a ceasefire long maintained by Hamas.
The war in Palestine is “a conflict between two peoples who are both deeply convinced of their right to live on the same very small piece of land”, not a brutal colonial assault by a powerful state on a virtually imprisoned civilian population. Of course “it is self-evident that Israel has the right to defend itself”, a truism that, except possibly for the 1973 “Yom Kippur” war, has never had any bearing on Israel’s relentlessly belligerent actions against its neighbours.
This article almost certainly played a role in causing the cancellation of Barenboim’s projected attendance at an opera performance in Ramallah in July 2009, lest it be disrupted by demonstrations. Once again Amira Hass had her finger on the pulse: “The bulk of dissent across Ramallah was not just over the performance, but over the very existence of the Barenboim-Said Foundation”. [9]
This Foundation, which provided the Children & Youth Choir and theYouth Orchestra for the opera in question, was set up by Barenboim and Said shortly before the latter’s death in 2003, when its administration passed into the capable hands of Said’s widow Mariam. Hass quotes “[a] leading activist in the Palestinian movement for a cultural boycott of Israel” (PACBI) as stating that the Foundation “does not take any position against the Israeli occupation or apartheid policies.
They talk about promoting mutual understanding and coexistence through dialogue, music, etc. This is an attempt to give a normal image to a very abnormal, colonial situation.”
Already in 2004 Barenboim stated that “[a]n hour of violin lessons in Berlin is an hour where you get people interested in music. But an hour of violin lessons in Palestine is an hour away from violence and fundamentalism…” [10] This insulting formulation led the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM) to decline any further funding from the Foundation.
The ESNCM is a department of Birzeit University with branches in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem. Without funding from the Foundation it is forced to exist on a shoestring, yet it provides a wide range of instruction in both western classical and Arabic music for young Palestinians regardless of class, creed, or gender, while running its own ensembles and an orchestra – The Palestine Youth Orchestra – which it hopes to expand to 100 members by 2010.
In her introduction to An Orchestra Without Borders, a collection of testimonies from WEDO members, Barenboim’s assistant Elena Cheah claims that “[a]n orchestra is a microcosm of society.” [11] In terms of the Middle East, it would appear that while the ESNCM strives, with explicit political determination and an almost total lack of encouragement from the West, to be a microcosm of the whole of Palestinian society, the WEDO represents the Israeli bourgeoisie and the more privileged sectors of Arab (including Palestinian) society.
Barenboim’s claim that “young musicians from the Middle East have the freedom of choice over whether or not to come to the West-Eastern Divan workshop”, as if this option were available to young musicians from Gaza or from Lebanese refugee camps, displays an almost hubristic alienation from reality.
Alas, the testimonies from Israeli WEDO members collected in the book suggest that a “utopian” emphasis on human interaction with their Arab colleagues has done little to enhance insight into the political realities surrounding them.
For Daniel Cohen, Barenboim has “the power to help Israelis understand where they are living, and to help the Arabs to accept our existence in Israel as our right…” Clearly the young violinist doesn’t see this as a somewhat lopsided combination.
Sharon Cohen describes an argument in which “The Arabs kept saying: ‘You don’t understand about the checkpoints and the humiliation,’ and the Israelis kept saying, ‘You don’t understand about being in the army.’” Similarly, oboist Meirav Kadichevski expresses her understanding of the Palestinian sense of repression by evoking her own feelings “when I was in the army – I also felt repressed.” Clearly for these former soldiers there is no incongruity in equating the oppressor’s discomfort with the horror of being at the oppressor’s mercy.
Yuval the trumpeter, whose attitudes are described as having been positively transformed by orchestra membership, opines that “Palestinians have to start feeling responsible for themselves…” instead of “always waiting for someone to recognise their pain.” A lecture from the Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah criticising the “two-state solution” provokes his sharp reaction that “…some people are saying we should make one nation, and it’s insane.”
The impression ultimately gleaned from Arabs and Israelis alike is that the real glue binding these young people together is ambition: the WEDO provides an exceptional opportunity to gain experience under Daniel Barenboim, a famous and influential conductor, and hence is a stepping-stone to professional advancement.
In itself, of course, there is nothing reprehensible about this – but it is a far cry from stylising the orchestra as an exemplary space of reconciliation and understanding.
In a letter to the New York Review of Books last October the actor Vanessa Redgrave (once a stalwart advocate of Palestinian rights), the screenwriter Martin Sherman and the artist Julian Schnabel dissociated themselves from opposition to the Toronto Film Festival’s featuring of Tel Aviv in its “city to city” section. They closed their letter as follows:
The year 2009 is the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Barenboim-Said West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. We hope that those who protest Israeli inclusion in film festivals will take note of this example of the power of art freely expressed and available to all, and reconsider their position. [12]
This is a sad and timely demonstration of how the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra can be enlisted to demobilize meaningful solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians. While it would be crass to dismiss the WEDO as merely “a bad thing”, the reality is that it offers uncommitted Western liberals, for whom an uncompromising campaign of BDS is a step too far, a peg on which to hang their sentimental belief in an unpolitical reconciliation that costs nobody anything.
Raymond Deane is a composer and political activist. This article first appeared in the Irish Left Review.
Photo Credits:
Photo 1: Daniel Barenboim talking to a member of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra during rehersals
Photo 2: Palestinians run for cover from Israeli air strikes during the Israeli assult on Gaza. (Mohamed Al-Zanon/MaanImages – Photo courtesy of Electronic Intafada).
Photo 3: Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Photos courtesy of the West-Eastern Divan website.
[1] Edward W. Said: Musical Elaborations (Columbia University Press, NY, 1991); Reflections on Exile (London, Granta Books, 2001); Music at the Limits (Columbia University Press, NY, 2007).
[2] Edward W. Said: Culture and Imperialism (Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1993; Vintage, 1994).
[3] Rachel Beckles Willson: Whose Utopia? (Music and Politics, Volume III, Number 2., accessed 7/12/09)
[4] Edward W. Said: Humanism and Democratic Criticism (PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, Hampshire and NY, 2004).
[5] Amira Hass: Honorary Citizenship of the Moon (Ha’aretz, 26th January 2009)
[6] Daniel Barenboim: Music Quickens Time (Verso, London/NY 2008); Everything is Connected (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London 2008).
[7] Joel Kovel: Overcoming Zionism (London, Pluto Press, 2007).
[8] Daniel Barenboim: The Illusion of Victory (The Guardian, 1st January 2009).
[9] Amira Hass: Palestinian anger with Barenboim forces him to cancel Ramallah visit (Ha’aretz, 17th July, 2009).
[10] Luke Harding: Conductor brings harmony to Arabs [sic] (The Guardian, 30th November, 2004).
[11] Elena Cheah: An Orchestra without Borders (Verson, London/NY, 2009).
[12] Redgrave, Schnabel, Sherman: Let Israeli Films be Shown (New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 16, 22nd October, 2009).

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