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Musicians suspended over Israel Proms row

The London Philharmonic Orchestra management has some serious question to answer.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra has suspended four of its musicians for up to nine months for putting their names to a letter, published in the Independent, that called for the BBC to cancel a concert by the Israel Philharmonic.

For expressing support for the Palestinian boycott call, these individuals have received what has been called "the most severe penalty inflicted on London orchestral musicians in memory".

Plenty of people have been disturbed by the LPO management's response, including those who disagree with the views expressed by the four musicians. Classical music journalist Gavin Dixon, for example, has written that "the efforts by the LPO management to distance themselves from the views of these players has clearly been an over-reaction".

Norman Geras, someone who thinks that boycotting Israel is "contemptible", has written of his concern about "whether a nine-month suspension from one's job for writing a letter to a newspaper isn't rather excessive". Geras also raises the legitimate questions about LPO internal disciplinary policy, and asks:

Why should members of an orchestra not be free to signal their professional affiliation when publicly expressing their views? Academics do it as a matter of course, and no one assumes that the University of Edinburgh, or Oxford, or Birmingham, or wherever, is implicated in the views that their members have publicly espoused.

There are many unanswered questions here.

First: the letter appeared in the Independent on 30 August. On 2 September, in what seems like the first official public response to enquiries, LPO chief executive Timothy Walker told the Jerusalem Post:

The views expressed by four members of the LPO concerning the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Proms are the views of the individuals and not the company.

A reasonable (and rather obvious) clarification statement - but no indication that the musicians were liable to face internal disciplinary action, let alone the severity of a 9-month suspension. What happened between 2 September and the decision to mete out the punishment?

Second: On 8 September, the Jewish Chronicle reported that an LPO violinist had been suspended for launching "an anti-Israel tirade at a question and answer session". The article said that "LPO chief executive Timothy Walker confirmed she had been suspended indefinitely" and that "the LPO board will decide on what disciplinary action to take". But the recent confirmation of four suspensions by LPO is reported as because of signing the letter -- not for "an anti-Israel tirade". Which is it?

Third: On announcing the suspension, the official LPO management statement said "the board's decision in this matter will send a strong and clear message". This indicates that the severity of the punishment is motivated by deterrence, rather than being an appropriate response guided by established practice or policy.

Ben White is a freelance journalist specialising in Israel/Palestine.