Back the boycott, kill the symphony
The JSO is an institution that celebrates collective achievement and personal brilliance. It is a bridge between Israel and the world. It is an Israel that gives much more than it takes.
Haters of Israel, take heart. Boycotters of Israel, rejoice. The Jewish state, ever wary of foreign intervention, has decided to begin boycotting Israel all by itself.
Following the example of the British academics' boycott campaign against Israeli professors and universities, an arm of our government has taken deadly aim at another Israeli institution that helps make the world a better place, and that can do a world of good for our image abroad: the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO). The Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), which oversees the JSO and funds much of its budget, plans to slash its subsidy - a move that will force the orchestra to disband.
This, despite the orchestra's unique role on Israel's cultural landscape: its efforts to reach younger audiences, for which classical music and the seriousness, verve and excellence of the musicians, come as a revelation and an inspiration; its association with public broadcasting in the United States, which has brought the orchestra's performances to millions of listeners, and its showcasing of Israeli composers, past, present and, in playing the works of a new generation, future.
This, despite the personal sacrifice and unflagging moxie of its principal conductor and its musicians, whose efforts brought an orchestra that had been mismanaged to the brink of bankruptcy, to solvency within a matter of four years.
This, despite the hard work and blind faith of musical director and main conductor Leon Botstein, who has refused a salary for those four years while revamping the orchestra's repertoire and raising funds abroad; this, despite the hardships of the musicians, many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who took a 20-percent pay cut to help keep the orchestra alive.
This, despite the fact that the cut in the orchestra's subsidy will do nothing to offset the parent IBA's colossal financial problems. The $1.6-million cut in the $3.6-million existing annual budget - already laughably puny for a symphony orchestra - represents barely two percent of the IBA's total budget. The IBA won't feel the cut. It will, however, be more than enough to kill off a great orchestra before it can celebrate its 70th anniversary next year.
The IBA decision to squeeze the orchestra is a masterwork of bureaucratic cynicism. It takes advantage of Israel's ongoing plight of permanent warfare, and a certain unstated wartime assumption that a symphony orchestra is one luxury the people of Israel can do without.
The IBA is betting that if truth is the first casualty of war, civility, and the civilizing elements of a culture, will not be far behind.
The decision reflects the IBA's hope, without it having to say so, that much of the public will have long ago dismissed the idea of an Israeli symphony orchestra, viewing it as a creature of another time and place. It hopes the public will conclude that if the orchestra is denied its meager allotment, the needs of the hungry and the homeless and the jobless and the infirm and the under-educated may then magically be addressed.
At the same time, the decision exploits and deflects the public's well-earned contempt for the IBA, the very model of modern major mismanagement.
IBA management is betting that the public will not view the orchestra's valiant battle to gain financial independence as a sterling example of public service, but as the quaintly Quixotic struggle of a freier - a sucker. The IBA, meanwhile, has long been under the thumb and the threat of muscular unions, which will not abide cuts to better-funded departments. Understandably, therefore, the IBA, with its stratospheric overhead and its elements of parasitical bureaucracy, is only too happy to sacrifice the sucker to save the leech.
The decision trusts the public to be too dazzled by the antics of the nation's suddenly rich and fleetingly fabulous, too fascinated by consumerism, or too mired in the burgeoning underclass, to appreciate the ways in which this orchestra, their orchestra, embodies values that Israel cannot afford to allow itself to relinquish.
The JSO is an institution that celebrates collective achievement and personal brilliance. It is a bridge between Israel and the world, breaching barriers of language, culture and custom. It is an Israel that gives much more than it takes. It is an Israel that comes in peace. It is an underdog that fights the good fight. It is a side that deserves to win.