Heckling of Israeli Orchestra in London spews hatred, not solutions

For the record: I cannot stand the disruption of public speeches, forums, performances and events by hecklers. There’s something about the screaming face of the heckler, the flapping arms and confused camera angles trying to find the source, that I find repulsive. I hate watching the discomfort of the speaker, performer, or politician, I hate the audience’s non-comprehending wonder or its shame on behalf of the performers.

I don’t think I risk any street cred; my active opposition to Israeli policies are open and available for anyone to read. I often try to ground my arguments in sober analysis – sorry if it gets boring sometimes – so that rational people who don’t agree with me might consider listening.

And I feel that the hecklers undo all of our work.

So when the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra was heckled on Friday in London, shutting down the BBC’s broadcast of the performance, I felt all sorts of prickly anger. Not toward my usual target: the self-destructive and often immoral Israeli policies and the occupation – but toward the hecklers. But I wondered if distaste is a legitimate reason to oppose this tactic; after all the hecklers may be striving for this very result, to jar us out of putative complacency.

The main arguments I have encountered in favor of heckling are: Raise awareness of Palestinian grievances by shocking people. Make the attendees at any given performance into a captive audience symbolizing the captivity experienced by Palestinians under occupation. Make the people of the international community pressure their governments to pressure Israel. Stop the Israeli (politician, ambassador, cultural institution) from being a normal part of the world, when Israel denies normal life to Palestinians.

Sam Ahmad, an Arab-American childhood friend, wrote on facebook:

What do you want us to do? This is a huge victory for us. I know it’s pathetic that closing down a show in another country is a victory, but it’s all we have…”

But after examining my irritation, I found hard and valid reasons to oppose heckling:

1. Non-effectiveness/counterproductive. It’s not true that this is “all we have.” Newsflash: Palestine is on the agenda! There are unprecedented non-violent political, diplomatic, grassroots, and communications campaigns both in the region and abroad that have been extremely effective. The Palestinian issue has rarely been so prominent in international thinking – and with a favorable bent – as now.  Anyone who has not thought about it at this point is probably generally non-political. If shrill heckling is a person’s first encounter with the Palestinian cause, he or she is far more likely to turn against it – especially after spending lots of money on a concert ticket.

2. Freedom of choice. The BDS movement makes a passionate case for why people should boycott institutions that benefit from, or are silently complicit in the occupation – my very conflicted feelings about this would fill a separate post. What is clear is that there’s no justification for forcing others (i.e., the audience) to boycott – or even get politically involved – against their will. I thank my colleague Stuart Brown for raising this vital point so concisely on facebook:

Is it that hard to see a difference between deciding to boycott something for yourself (by not buying a product, not attending a performance, etc.) and deciding that you will use physical action (heckling, harassment, etc.) to impose your choice on other people?

That’s right. And I would go further.

3. Non-Violent – really? It was always easy to vaporize the old argument that terrorism is tragically effective at putting things on the agenda. It is simply wrong to forcibly take away someone else’s choice to be involved or not, just as it was wrong to occupy the Palestinian people in the first place.

Imposing a political agenda and opinions on a captive audience makes that audience look trapped, helpless and humiliated, and that’s part of what disgusts me. If not actual violence it is definitely a violation. Yes it’s different – I’d choose it over violence any day – but I still think it’s wrong.

People everywhere have a right to take action if and as they wish. Maybe these audience members are actively fighting Israeli policies every other day of the year, how do you know? It is deeply condescending and disrespectful to reject people’s decision either to stay out of it – or to be active in their own way – by forcing your approach on them.

4. Trivializing the debate. I oppose heckling even those who are directly responsible for or represent Israeli policy. Audiences have the right to hear all the information from everyone, so they can be informed and not ignorant.

Wake up: listening is not complicity and we can listen to arm ourselves for opposition just as much as to support what we’re hearing.  The inability to grasp this – or worse, the assault on people’s attempt to be knowledgeable, makes me doubt how informed the hecklers themselves are. It is frighteningly clear that a cheap, one-sided reduction of the conflict to a message of “hate all things Israeli” will lead to dangerously reductionist solutions.

If you want to change their minds, don’t force them – convince them.