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No, says the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra conductor; the most music can offer is common ground.

Question: Have you had any political difficulties playing withrn the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra? 

Leon Botstein: rnI’ve experienced several kinds of criticism. Number one, when we were onrn tour last year, there was a threatened protest at the University of rnMichigan because we are the radio orchestra of the State of Israel, so rnthere is a growing sentiment on American campuses which is anti-Israel. rnThere are talks of boycotts. There is a lot of anti-Israel sentiment. rnAnd we picked up a little bit of that. In addition, the extremely rnarticulate anti-Zionist, anti-Israel intellectual group views me as a rnkind of apparatchik for the Zionist state. 

So they’re very rnsuspicious of me for taking this position, which I have had for seven rnyears, which I do, by the way, without compensation. I take no fee. I dorn it, I give my fee back to the orchestra. So there is a little bit of rnpushback. On the other side, since Bard has the only dual-degree programrn between an American university and a Palestinian, we have a cooperationrn with Al-Quds University on the West Bank for a Master’s degree program rntraining teachers, an honors college and we’re building two high rnschools. I’ve been attacked by the Zionist right for being too rncooperative with the Arab population and being in favor of a two-state rnsolution, and so the Israeli right doesn’t share my point of view. 

Andrn so this cooperation between an American university and a Palestinian rnhas not earned me some friends on the right. So I’ve been attacked from rnboth sides as a result of my involvement in Israel. But the problem is rnthat I would have liked to see the Jerusalem Symphony reach out to all rnof the residents in Jerusalem, including the residents of East rnJerusalem. But it’s very hard. It’s a very polarized situation. I’m not arn citizen of the State of Israel, so I’m there as a foreigner and as a rnguest. So I try to stay away from politics as much as possible. So, by rnand large we’ve had good luck but there’s been some criticism, not as rnmuch as I might have expected. 

Question: Can music be rnan instrument of peace? 

Leon Botstein: No, I don’t rnthink music can be an instrument of peace. It is an instrument that can rnbe a common ground. You know, there’s a lot of talk about music being a rnuniversal language. But it is, in other words it’s fascinating to see rndifferent cultures want to play the same repertoire and the same music. Arn Chinese orchestra, Japanese orchestra, Venezuelan orchestra. rnVietnamese, there are three classical orchestras in Hanoi. So it is rnperfectly compatible with multiple identities. You can be a nationalist,rn Chinese nationalist, and love Beethoven, but you can also be a Nazi andrn love Beethoven. You can be a freedom fighter, anti-fascist and love rnBeethoven. 

So everybody owns it and nobody owns classical music.rn It’s a common ground. But it is not itself a builder of peace. One rnwould hope that our sense of being musical, that you’re musical and thatrn I’m musical and that we both enjoy music, we might enjoy the same rnmusic, would lead us to respect each other. But that hasn’t happened rnwith language. You know, we’ve killed people who speak the same languagern we do for other reasons. The color of the skin was different, their rnreligion was different, their political views were different, their rngender was different, their sexual preference was different, but they rnspeak the same language. Somehow the fact that you and I speak the same rnlanguage is not enough for me in the larger sense to respect the rnsanctity of your own life. 

So I’m going to go to war against yourn even though we speak the same language, nominally. So music is much thern same thing. It’s an illusion to think that it is an instrument of rnpeace. 
Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman