Elitist Sounds at Israel Philharmonic Are Music to Nobody’s Ears

The orchestra must accept that multiculturalism is the only hope for saving the arts in Israel. After all, classical music has been composed in Arab countries as well as in Western Europe.

Revital Madar
Revital Madar
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Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in concert.
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in concert.Credit: Moti Kimche
Revital Madar
Revital Madar

It’s a well-known fact that feminism will also ultimately free men from the same oppression they themselves have created. Similarly, the effort by Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) to free Mizrahi men and women from Ashkenazi-Zionist oppression will also simultaneously free Ashkenazim themselves from the same oppression they have created in Israel.

Concert-goers at an IPO performance.Credit: Moti Kimche

The situation at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is an example of the need we have for equitable distribution of cultural funding among all of Israel’s sectors. That would not only benefit the Andalusian Orchestra – which has its roots in Sephardi culture – which would no longer receive mere crumbs from the government, but also improve the situation for the Israel Philharmonic itself.

Israel Philharmonic OrchestraCredit: Moti Kimche

Israel has positioned European classical music as a clear benchmark of the country’s Western character, and the standing the IPO is accorded here is part of the long-standing battle of Zionism against the Levantine nature of the Middle East.

From the beginning, the IPO has been identified with a bourgeois Zionism that made aliyah here but wasn’t prepared to forgo its self-image as being part of Western Europe (and this despite the fact that most of its descendants are actually from Eastern Europe).

In this respect, the IPO and classical music in Israel are perceived as little more than a status symbol, or art provided as a government service. These two facts can only be a nail in their respective coffins. Status is a passing phenomenon, while government-funded arts will only stagnate.

The reality is that things do not have to stay like this, and stagnation is not an inherent characteristic. It’s actually a matter of the approach and attitude of the IPO and its type of music and narrow repertoire – since there has been classical music written in Arab countries, too.

In Israel, there are three Andalusian orchestras, as well as an Arab orchestra. But the IPO’s choice of music positions it over and above these as little less than a status symbol which is immune to criticism – because it is perceived, above all, as part of the national Zionist enterprise.

And so, despite an annual budget of 75 million shekels ($19.1 million) – of which some 9 million shekels comes from the Culture and Sports Ministry – the IPO is not managing to attract a young and diverse audience.

The support the orchestra receives from the Culture Ministry is three times that which similar orchestras in Be’er Sheva, Haifa and Rishon Letzion receive. It is also three times the 3.5 million shekels that the Mediterranean Andalusian Orchestra of Ashkelon is allocated.

The Ashkenazi ‘connection’

How could things ever have been different? In 2010, when questioned about the constant fall in the number of IPO subscriptions, Avi Shoshani – who was then its director general, now its secretary general – said there was a direct correlation between the number of subscribers and the number of Ashkenazim in Israel because, as he saw it, they were the only ones who studied classical music at school.

When such a senior official at the Israel Philharmonic demonstrates such regrettable ignorance and directs his art to such a limited audience, how does the IPO have any hope of flourishing? All the more when the members of that same audience, who perhaps would be happy to see young people in attendance, relate to going to a concert as an obligation by virtue of their status.

In the limited number of times I have attended an IPO concert – in other words, when I was able to afford a ticket – I overheard men and women speculating about what they were going to hear, minutes before the concert was about to begin.

This audience doesn’t frequent the IPO out of a thirst for music, but rather, for the personal face-to-face contact with their peers.

It should come as no surprise if they view the concert itself as a burden, using it to grab a few hours of shut-eye. Add to that the looks that my father – who has accompanied me, having left the house in jeans and sandals – got and the looks I received, and you’ll understand why concert-going in Israel is recommended only for a very particular audience.

The Heart at East coalition (whose Hebrew name would actually translate as “my heart is in the East”) was established in 2009, and has been fighting ever since for an equitable distribution of the culture budget.

The group has highlighted huge disparities between what the arts that could be labeled as European receive, and what Arab, Mizrahi and Ethiopian arts get, by contrast.

There are critics who see this as an effort to eat into the already small budgets of various cultural institutions, in a country where cultural funding is among the lowest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In practice, it is only multiculturalism that can save the arts in Israel.

When art of a particular type becomes a hallmark of a small and elitist group, it ceases to interest most members of the public. And when it doesn’t interest most of the public, its funding loses any justification.

Efforts to increase cultural funding to half a percentage point of the state budget are important and appropriate. But wouldn’t it be more successful in producing results if the arts supported by the Culture Ministry related to the entire population? If the admission prices for such culture made it accessible to all? One would like to think so.

At the moment, when the arts are perceived as something that relates to a small number of people, and when most culture benefiting from the broad support of the Culture Ministry (even if only relative to the budget as a whole) is only of interest to the small groups that get the cream, it is doubtful whether the issue can garner public support.

Equitable allocation of cultural funding is in all of our interests, because, ultimately, we would all benefit from it. If the Israel Philharmonic wants to see itself surviving not only as an archaic hallmark of a yearning for the West on the part of the state and Zionist ideology, it would behoove it to learn to broaden its horizons and not be satisfied with the elitist audience it currently has – instead of expressing regret that the musicians are blinded by the whiteness of the audience.

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