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.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.