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Two and a half years after winning the Israel Prize and being defined as an Israeli cultural icon, the Ashdod-based Israel Andalusian Orchestra fired all 50 of its musicians and lyricists Thursday and closed up shop.

Nine months ago, the orchestra members had declared a labor dispute in an effort to improve what they termed "degrading" work conditions and persuade the orchestra to sign a collective agreement. However, negotiations failed to produce satisfactory results. A few days ago, therefore, the orchestra members declared a full-scale strike and canceled scheduled concerts, hoping that someone would respond to their distress signal.

But Thursday, they were shocked to learn - from the media - that instead, they were being fired and the orchestra was being closed down.

"It's not possible to continue in this situation," said a senior official at the Ashdod municipality, which finances the orchestra jointly with the Culture Ministry. "The workers cannot make their own laws. Concerts are being canceled and the deficits are growing."

"How do they want us to continue to play?" retorted Tom Cohen, the orchestra's conductor and also chairman of its union. "These workers have no social benefits, no pension. They earn outrageous salaries. The vast majority of the orchestra's players earn starvation wages of some NIS 1,250 a month."

Violinist Leonid Litishevsky, who has been with the orchestra for five years, is a divorced father of two. He lives in a one-room apartment and supplements his salary from the orchestra by working nights as a security guard in the local industrial zone.

"I'm disappointed," he said. "When I immigrated to Israel 15 years ago, I believed that people here valued culture. When I went with the orchestra to performances in Canada, the United States and throughout Europe, my impression was that there, they respected musicians. At least there, musicians don't work nights as a guard. Here, they simply oppress us. In a particularly busy month at work, with many performances and rehearsals, I would receive a 'big' paycheck: NIS 2,500."

Nadia Nachinzon, who has been a violinist with the orchestra for 11 years, recalled how at one rehearsal, a member of the orchestra's management told the players how difficult its financial situation was. "They told us there's no money, yet we were daring to demand a collective labor agreement. No one knew that at the time, I was breaking my head over how to obtain two shekels for the bus so I could get home afterward."

The orchestra, founded in 1994, showcased the Sephardi Jewish tradition of poetry and music. Two-thirds of its members are Russian immigrants; the remainder are Sephardim whose families immigrated from Morocco. The orchestra had 6,000 regular subscribers.

"The absurdity is that a ticket to the orchestra's concerts costs NIS 130, while a musician gets NIS 120 per performance," said Dafna Cohen of the Histadrut labor federation, who has been helping the orchestra members with their negotiations.

The orchestra's director, Moti Malka, declined to comment Thursday. Off the record, however, members of the orchestra's management blamed the workers and the Histadrut for making impossible demands.

Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lasry, who originally helped found the orchestra, described its closure as "a difficult moment," but expressed hope that a way would be found to revive it.

The Culture Ministry said it would hold talks early next week on how it could help resolve the crisis, adding that it was considering asking Knesset members to serve as mediators.