From Leonard Bernstein to . . . Alan Gilbert?
In February, the New York Philharmonic announced its 2012–13 season, the orchestra’s fourth under the leadership of Alan Gilbert, whose appointment as music director was the source of much favorable press when it was announced in 2007. No such reaction greeted the news that the Philharmonic would be offering its audiences, among other things, a four-concert Bach series, the symphonies and concertos of Brahms, and a concert version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. Outside of the usual pro forma story in the New York Times, the silence was deafening.
Even more surprising was the unenthusiastic reaction of Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic for the Times and one of Gilbert’s staunchest advocates. “I am somewhat disappointed,” he wrote. “Too many programs plug new works or novelties into unremarkable groupings of standard repertory….Unleashing your imagination is the whole point of being a music director.”
Tommasini’s response contrasted sharply with the enthusiasm with which he and his colleagues greeted Gilbert’s appointment as the orchestra’s first New York–born music director. Virtually every music critic in town was delighted to hear that the Philharmonic would be led by a relatively young man—Gilbert was born in 1967—who was known for his performances of contemporary music. It was taken for granted that under his baton, the New York Philharmonic would—in the words of Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker—“put its virtuosity in the service of ideas,” and the public would be electrified by the results.
Cooler heads wondered why the Philharmonic had chosen to engage an artist who was mostly unknown to American concertgoers and who, so far as could be judged from out-of-town reviews, appeared to lack the star quality of such legendary Philharmonic conductors of the past as Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, and Bruno Walter.
Since then, Gilbert has received his fair share of favorable reviews, and most critics agree that the orchestra is playing well for him. Moreover, he has delivered on his promise to modernize the Philharmonic’s programming, presenting such novelties as Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi and a concert version of György Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. But what he has failed to do, at least so far, is make any significant impression on the public at large. He remains today what he was five years ago, an artist who is respected by his colleagues but largely unknown save to modern-music buffs.
There is no understating the importance of the identity and comportment of the New York Philharmonic’s music master—who, by virtue of his placement in the cultural capital of the United States, has in the past served not only as a conductor of his own crew but more generally as the ambassador of symphonic music to the American people. So did the Philharmonic drop the ball with the selection of a comparatively untested and uncharismatic conductor?
Perhaps—though to call Alan Gilbert untested is to misrepresent his professional achievements. He began conducting as a student at Harvard, spent two years as an assistant conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, and became chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in 2000, leaving that post to take over the New York Philharmonic. During his time in Stockholm, he spent three seasons doubling as music director of the Santa Fe Opera, one of America’s top regional companies.
Be that as it may, Gilbert was in no way comparable in professional stature to the vast majority of his illustrious predecessors at the Philharmonic. At the time of his appointment, the press widely reported that it made sense for the orchestra to engage a younger conductor in order to bolster its appeal to younger audiences. Indeed, other top-tier symphony orchestras were and are grappling with the same problem. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is now led by Gustavo Dudamel, who at the astonishing age of 31 is 14 years younger than Gilbert.
But it was also true—and just as widely written—that no conductor with an international reputation was willing to lead the New York Philharmonic, which has a well-deserved reputation for being an exceedingly tough group to handle (Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti had already turned down the job).
It would thus appear that the Philharmonic’s management decided both to make the best of a bad situation and to put the best possible public face on its decision to hire Gilbert, emphasizing his youth and the fact that he is a native New Yorker as well as the son of two Philharmonic violinists, Michael Gilbert and Yoko Takebe. In the carefully chosen words of Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s president: “Every time he’s come here, it’s been better than the prior time. We’ve watched him grow. He’s a good musician. He’s approaching the prime of his career. He’s young and a New Yorker, and he has family in the orchestra.”
All true—but it is also true that Gilbert is not, and at present seems unlikely to become, a superstar of the podium. He has a bland, unassuming presence and a clear but undemonstrative stick technique, and he is not, in Alex Ross’s words, “the sort of conductor who slathers his personality over the music.” He is, rather, a skilled craftsman whose interpretations of the standard repertoire, while admirably tasteful and serious, tend as a rule not to be strongly individual in tone, much less interpretatively idiosyncratic.
Above all, Gilbert lacks the personal magnetism that nearly every major conductor of the past has had in hyper-abundance. Even his admirers admit as much. Tommasini, for instance, has described him in terms that were meant to be complimentary but struck an oddly left-handed note: “Mr. Gilbert is secure enough not to compete in the charisma department, to be content practicing his craft, championing living composers and connecting with audiences in New York.”
To be sure, the famously temperamental members of the Philharmonic, who have never been shy about criticizing their conductors, claim to think well of Gilbert. This is doubtless due in part to the fact that many of them have known him since he was a child, but they also admire—and rightly so—his technical prowess and musical knowledge. “This guy has everything,” says Carter Brey, the orchestra’s principal cellist. Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow agrees, calling him “a complete musician.” These views appear to be widely shared.
But orchestra players are not always the best judges of conductors. Not surprisingly, they put a high premium on musicianship and collegiality and therefore typically gravitate toward conductors who are both technically competent and personally likable. But the ability to galvanize a hundred musicians into giving a great performance—and to persuade the audience that it is hearing a great performance—entails more than mere competence. Many major conductors have had defective baton techniques, and some of them, including Serge Koussevitzky, were notoriously poor score readers. Nor is it especially advantageous to a conductor to be liked by his musicians. Few leaders of men, whether in music or in any other field of collective endeavor, have been likable, in the ordinary sense of the word.
The truth is that orchestral conducting is almost as much a dramatic art as a musical one. The violinist Carl Flesch put it well when he wrote that conducting is “the only musical activity in which a dash of charlatanism is not only harmless, but positively necessary.” And there is no reason to suppose that Alan Gilbert is in any way a charlatan. Instead, he gives every sign of being, in Anthony Tommasini’s words, “a solid, utterly professional conductor who will try to instill a collegial atmosphere within the ranks of the players rather than be their teacher.”
Solid, utterly professional, collegial—and colorless. That, it appears, is Alan Gilbert in a nutshell. Small wonder that he is finding it hard to make an impression on the general public. No doubt it is unfair to compare him with Leonard Bernstein, the most extravagantly charismatic conductor of the 20th century, but to watch the two men conducting Bernstein’s own “Candide” Overture (as one can do on YouTube) is to see at once the difference between a meticulous craftsman and a natural-born extrovert who, for all his formidable musical talent, was well aware that his histrionic gifts were an equally important part of what made him a great conductor.
The Philharmonic is making every effort to promote its youngish, biracial music director as “A Maestro for New York,” to quote the title of one of the orchestra’s promotional films about Alan Gilbert. It must be said that Gilbert does have the valuable knack of being able to talk engagingly about music, and perhaps he will also learn in time to project his personality more effectively on the podium. But even if he acquires the magnetism he now lacks, Gilbert will still be fighting an uphill battle, not merely owing to his want of glamour but because the audience for classical music is shrinking so rapidly. The National Endowment for the Arts, which conducts regular surveys of public participation in the arts, found that only 1 in 10 adults attended a classical concert in 2008—a drop of 28 percent since 1983. In the words of the arts consultant Patricia Martin, “Classical music is in hospice.”
Orchestras and opera companies across America are now grappling with this frightening new reality, in many cases unsuccessfully. Two respected regional ensembles, the New Mexico Symphony and the Syracuse Symphony, went out of business last year, while the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the world’s foremost orchestras, filed for bankruptcy protection. Even the New York Philharmonic is teetering on the edge of a fiscal abyss. Not only is the orchestra currently running seven-figure annual deficits, but it also has nearly $24 million in unfunded pension liabilities.
Gilbert continues to have the critics on his side. But he cannot count on receiving any other kind of sympathetic coverage, for the national media have withdrawn their attention from classical music. As a result, the New York Philharmonic has ceased to be a national institution, as it was in the days when Leonard Bernstein’s performances were telecast on CBS and recorded by Columbia Masterworks.
For the conductor of New York’s symphony to be sold in a parochial fashion as a “local boy makes good” offers a poignant example of the diminished standing of classical music in the United States. But it makes marketing sense, in a way, because the Philharmonic’s audience now consists almost entirely of New Yorkers. The same thing is true in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco, and the other American cities that are home to first-tier orchestras. These groups have become local ensembles, not national ones, led by conductors whose names are for the most part not widely known elsewhere.
It is doubtful that the Philharmonic will ever again be a “national” orchestra. And although its institutional survival seems fairly secure, at least for the moment, few other American orchestras can make the same claim with any degree of certainty. In this respect, our symphony orchestras are not unlike the newspapers that once supported their activities by covering them extensively. Both institutions are increasingly local rather than national in reach. Both now seek to play a more modest and fiscally sustainable role in a hostile environment whose outlines were unimaginable as recently as a quarter-century ago. And both are fighting for their lives. Even if Alan Gilbert were as charismatic a personality as Leonard Bernstein, he could not win that battle by himself.
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The Incredible Shrinking Conductor
Must-Reads from Magazine
Process for its own sake.
European Union bureaucrats love to speak of “European values,” and their media allies on both sides of the Atlantic take it for granted that the EU stands for all that is good and just on the international scene. For a certain type of journalist or NGO worker, if the EU does or says something, that act or statement must be admirable by dint of the fact that it originated in Brussels. Yet too often, the EU stands for diplomacy for its own sake, process for its own sake, bureaucracy for its own sake–even when insisting on diplomacy, process, and bureaucracy for their own sake ends up empowering murderous enemies of European values.
Nowhere is this dynamic more visible than in the bloc’s hysteric response to President Trump’s decisions to withdraw Washington from the flawed Iran deal and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. In a statement posted to her blog, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini made it clear that she views America and Israel as the Middle East’s real troublemakers. The blog post was notable for the cold tone Mogherini took with Washington. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime and Hamas, those unshakable friends of European values, came out unscathed.
Here’s Mogherini on her efforts to save the Iran deal:
On Tuesday I gathered in Brussels the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom – the three European countries that negotiated the deal together with the US, Russia and China. We decided to start working on a package of measures to protect the deal, to make sure that Iranian citizens can enjoy the benefits of it, and to safeguard our economic interests. Our goal is to maintain and deepen our economic ties–including with new projects, starting with energy and transport–while defending and incentivising small and medium enterprises investing in Iran . . . There is a metaphor [sic] that came up several times over the last few days: the deal is like a patient in intensive care, and our shared goal is to restore it to health as soon as possible.
As for the Jerusalem move and the other crises in the region, Mogherini said:
Once again the European Union is the reliable partner, and it is indispensable in such a moment of instability for the Middle East. We continue to go through dramatic events: from the clashes on the border between Israel and Syria, to the unspeakable suffering of the Yemeni people, to tens of deaths in Gaza after the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem . . . As the European Union, we won’t stop working to find a political solution to all these crises: there is no other way to reach a just and lasting peace.
From the mullahs’ nuclear-weapons program to Hamas’s calculated campaign to rush the barrier fence with Israel to the Iranian-led insurgency in Yemen, Mogherini and the EU see only diplomatic challenges to overcome. And the answer is always, always to convene a gabfest in Basel, Lausanne, Vienna or some other plush Continental city, where civilizational clashes and historic animosities and sharp moral contrasts can be dissolved in technical solutions.
Never mind that the Iranian nuclear deal on its own terms puts Tehran on the glide path to the bomb, and never mind that it fails to address the mullahs’ missile program, regional aggression, and human-rights violations. “We had a process,” say the Brussels mandarins, “and that process must be preserved at all costs.” Never mind that Hamas is constitutionally committed to the destruction of world Jewry and has been staging terror attacks and bloody stunts for decades. “We had a process,” say the mandarins, “and Trump’s embassy move disrupts the process.” In this worldview, the likes of Iran and the Palestinians can appear as friends and good guys, because they cynically embrace European process games. All the while, the U.S. and Israel are cast as the bad guys since they don’t play geopolitics the European way.
Along with Mogherini, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel epitomized this bankrupt mindset. One of the three, Obama, has already exited the world stage. The tectonic electoral shifts underway in Europe mean the other two are likely to fade sooner than later.
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A transactional theology.
To understand the liberal worldview, the contrived campaign to make Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg into some kind of a folk hero is a useful object of study. She has been the subject of a variety of hagiographical portraiture, ranging from fawning magazine profiles and sycophantic treatment in film to illustrated children’s books. She inspires her followers to get her image tattooed onto their bodies, to mimic her fitness routines, to feel as she felt and to weep as she wept.
This behavior lends itself to quite a few descriptors, but you cannot call it a cult. The cult leader is nigh infallible, but that is not Ginsburg’s role. Her relationship with the flock is transactional, and she can transgress against progressive tenets as easily as anyone. When Ginsburg called former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick “arrogant” for leading his teammates in a “dumb and disrespectful” protest against the American flag, for example, the liberal blogosphere rose up in revolt. Some went so far as to imply rather unambiguously that Ginsburg’s anachronistic lack of racial consciousness rendered her undeserving of the left’s veneration.
Identity politics is relatively shallow politics, and Ginsburg’s transgression was soon forgotten under a mountain of substance. Her value to the liberal movement as a lifetime appointee to the nation’s highest court is self-evident, but it is her unique facility for lending intellectual heft to the left’s ideological pragmatism and single-mindedness that makes her so important to Democrats and their allies in media. The reaction to Monday’s Supreme Court decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis illustrates this phenomenon.
In that decision, the Supreme Court determined that employers can appeal to the arbitration clauses in the contracts that non-union employees sign to prevent those employees from joining class-action lawsuits against them. “In the Federal Arbitration Act, Congress has instructed federal courts to enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms—including terms providing for individualized proceedings,” Justice Neal Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “This court is not free to substitute its preferred economic policies for those chosen by the people’s representatives.”
That 5-4 decision was correctly interpreted by much of the press as a blow to organized labor, but the political media was led to that conclusion by Justice Ginsburg, whose dramatic reaction to this ruling was designed to generate as much attention as possible. In an uncommon move, Ginsburg read a portion of her dissenting opinion from the bench. “Federal labor law does not countenance such isolation of employees,” she said, fretting that the Court’s “egregiously wrong” decision may lead to the “underenforcement” of other statutes protecting workers’ rights. Yet Ginsburg appeared to reinforce the majority’s logic when she noted the ambiguity of the National Labor Relations’ Act’s handling of arbitration and suggested that Congress needed to update federal labor laws. Even her Democratic allies, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, reinforced her contention that Congress should act to resolve this ambiguity.
That vagueness was hard to find in reported accounts of events in the Supreme Court on Monday. Rather than approach reporting around this issue as though it were a complex matter on which the Court carefully found grounds to rule as it did, media professionals took their cues from Ginsberg’s personal conduct. CNN’s “legal analyst and supreme court biographer,” Joan Biskupic, wrote that “the gloves are off and the collar is on.” That is, her “classic dissenting collar,” tastefully adorned with “silver crystal accents,” which Ginsburg adopts when she reads her dissents aloud. “So dire was her warning,” Biskupic continued, that Gorsuch was compelled to spend five of his 25 pages rebutting her dissent.
Indeed, Ginsburg’s perspective was the angle taken in many press accounts of this ruling, but they did not strictly adhere to her logic. Again and again, news outlets and analysts lamented the effects that this decision might have on non-unionized workers, not the vagueness of the law, in order to buttress a predetermined conclusion. NPR called the decision “a major blow to workers” that stopped them from banding “together to challenge violations of federal labor laws.” The Huffington Post insisted that this ruling meant that women “will no longer be able to band together to fight systemic sexual discrimination or harassment in court.” Quartz took this logic a step further and insisted that, though the majority opinion’s language was “coded” (read: legalistic), Gorsuch had dealt a “devastating blow to the #MeToo movement, and the fight for gender equality at work.” To come to this conclusion is to actively ignore Ginsburg, who wrote that the Court’s decision did not “place in jeopardy” anti-discrimination protections for workers.
There are limits to political media’s willingness to serve as Justice Ginsburg’s stenographers, and those limits are usually met when the “Notorious RBG” complicates the realization of liberal objectives. In July of 2016, for example, Ginsberg violated a taboo when she weighed in on presidential politics, expressing unreserved fears over how a prospective Donald Trump presidency could change the country and bench on which she sat. Democrats in the Senate castigated her for getting out “over her skis” and getting “very close to the line” that justices should not cross.
Ginsburg’s offense wasn’t having an opinion that Democrats shared, but expressing it in a way that reinforced Trump supporters’ arguments about the bias inherent in elite American institutions. Suddenly, Ginsburg was “injudicious” and had made a “mistake” by imperiling the court’s apolitical aura, and the justice was eventually compelled to withdraw her remarks. There were no such condemnations of her behavior when she boycotted Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address on similar grounds. After all, many of her fellow Democrats had done the same.
To a disturbing degree, the story that the press tells when it comes to the conduct of the Supreme Court is Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story. It is through her eyes that they interpret the logic and impact of its decisions, even if that perspective does more to obscure than to clarify the Justices’ thinking—including, ironically, her own. The theology surrounding Ginsburg is doubtlessly unhealthy in a republic of laws, but it is clearly a means to an end. That end is not jurisprudence or even the empowerment of women, but the advancement of liberal policy objectives. When she becomes an impediment to those objectives, few of her so-called allies have any compunction about throwing RBG under the bus.
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It's not scheming when we like it.
By now, those who began the Trump era convinced that the president was Vladimir Putin’s puppet are surely frustrated by the dearth of supporting evidence. Donald Trump has spent his tenure repaying the Russian Federation for its interference in the 2016 election by imposing stiff sanctions on the Kremlin and its associates, arming the regime’s opponents, and degrading the capabilities of its allies. While there are few areas where Washington and Moscow have collaborated, that is not to say that they do not exist. If there is one particularly important arena where the White House has been happy to cede turf to the Russian president, it is in Syria.
President Donald Trump has made no secret of his desire to see the United States extricate itself from its commitments in Northwestern Syria as soon as possible. In early April, the president announced that all U.S. troops in Syria would be withdrawing “like very soon”—an announcement that confused his State Department and contradicted the statements of his commanding generals, who had assured the public that the American mission in Syria has only just begun. Cooler heads might have convinced Trump not to create a power vacuum in the heart of the former ISIS caliphate on a whim, but the president seems unpersuaded that either U.S. interests or allies in the region are of much value. If America cannot simply cut ties with its partners in Syria, it seems, it will simply allow those relationships to wither on the vine.
Last week, the administration announced that it would cut off all non-humanitarian aid to groups on the ground in Northern Syria. Some $200 million in recovery funds for the region devastated in the fight against ISIS were frozen in late March, and they are not going to be restored. If the civilian infrastructure devastated in that part of Syria is going to be repaired, it won’t be with American reconstruction funds. Among the organizations that the White House has abandoned is the Syrian Civil Defense, known colloquially as the “White Helmets,” which have attracted positive attention from American lawmakers for their highly-publicized efforts to rescue civilians from collapsed buildings over the course of the seven-year Syrian civil war.
All of this will be welcome news in Moscow. Russia has alleged that the “White Helmets” staged a recent chemical weapons attack on civilians in the Damascus suburb of Daouma. Moscow-backed mercenaries and Assad regime forces have repeatedly attempted to make inroads in the territory Americans occupy east of the Euphrates, recently resulting in a bloody armed confrontation between U.S. forces and Russian contractors. A U.S. withdrawal from Northern Syria would allow Russia and Iran to flood the zone while allowing Turkey a substantial presence in the North (where it could at finally neutralize America’s Kurdish allies). More troubling still, American withdrawal could provide enough space for Islamist organizations like ISIS or the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra group to reconstitute themselves. That would serve Assad’s purposes just fine. The existence of brutal Islamist groups creates a favorable contrast with his genocidal but secular regime, and it is a contrast Assad has skillfully deployed to generate Western sympathy for his ruling cabal.
The Trump administration has long sought to enlist Russia’s help in its effort to extricate U.S. troops from that conflict, no matter the costs to U.S. interests. In early 2017, the Trump administration entertained the prospect of ceding its position in Syria as a bargaining chip that, it was thought, might convince Russia to abandon its Iranian allies. It became clear that overture failed when Russian officials began telling regional governments like Israel that Iran’s military presence in Syria was a permanent feature of the landscape.
The Trump administration’s belief that Russia could be convinced to share American aims in Syria did not abate even after the president ordered strikes on Assad regime targets. In July of last year, the Trump administration ended a CIA program that armed and trained anti-Assad regime rebels in the hopes of currying favor with Russia. The president has all but surrendered the post-war planning process to Russia, which began ironing out a power-sharing arrangement with its Turkish and Iranian partners last November.
Despite the souring of Russo-American relations, the Trump White House still appears to cling to the notion that Russian and U.S. interests can align in Syria. In truth, the only alignment is that both Washington and Moscow want to see American soldiers and their Western allies leave. Yet for both the dovish left and the isolationist right, this is the kind of collusion that raises no eyebrows. It is the sacrifice of American influence and allies that generates no calls for Trump’s resignation from the usual suspects on the left. Conservatives, too, are loath to reconcile their conclusion that the “collusion” narrative is hollow with this conspicuous display of deference toward Moscow.
If there is one thing recent history has taught us, it is that Russia is not a reliable steward of U.S. interests. Americans who rediscover their mistrust of Vladimir Putin’s goals only when it suits their partisan interests are invested in a political game. Unfortunately, the stakes are so much higher than that.
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The biggest microphone.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), an American organization founded in the 1970s as Helsinki Watch to campaign for the release of political prisoners in the Soviet Union, reinvented itself with the end of the Cold War. It is now a political lobby, selectively using human rights and international law to promote the ideological causes of its main patron, George Soros.
Israel is a favorite target for HRW and its long-time leader, Kenneth Roth. With an annual budget of $70 million, the organization produces a stream of “reports” condemning Israel for alleged war crimes and related violations, which are then cited in boycott resolutions and petitions to the International Criminal Court. Roth has stocked the Middle East and North Africa division with a number of BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) and lawfare activists, supported by a highly skilled public relations team.
Omar Shakir is one of HRW’s professional BDSers, hired in 2016 as a “researcher on Palestine.” He applied as a “foreign expert” for an Israeli work visa–routinely provided by the low-level clerks in the Interior Ministry to NGOs, including many deeply involved in propaganda wars. But by this point, the benign image of NGOs was gone, other ministries were consulted, and in early 2017, HRW received a letter denying the application and citing the organization’s track record of demonization. Sixteen years after HRW’s leading role in the infamous NGO Forum of the UN Durban Conference that launched BDS and labeled Israel an “apartheid state,” and nine years after HRW helped shape the Goldstone report fiasco, it appeared that Israel was finally taking NGO demonization seriously.
However, by sending Roth’s organization the response directly and not making it public on its own terms, Israel allowed HRW to control the story and spin the denial as another ostensibly anti-democratic move by the Netanyahu government. A flood of condemnations predictably followed (ignoring the fact that all democracies routinely deny visas on various grounds), and Israel suddenly and inexplicably reversed itself, and Shakir got a one-year visa.
If the ministries, including Strategic Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office, weighing in on NGO visas expected the reversal to cause HRW or Shakir to tone down the propaganda and seriously take up human rights violations of Hamas, they were wrong. Instead, the anti-Israel accusations and media performances (videos, press conferences, interviews, etc.) intensified. In the past year alone, HRW pushed divestment from Israeli banks, targeted Israel’s membership in FIFA (the international soccer association), called for arms embargoes and ending security cooperation, lobbied the UN to “blacklist” companies doing business in Israel, and petitioned the International Criminal Court to open prosecutions against Israeli officials. In the political theater of human rights, HRW displayed its mastery.
Shakir quickly assumed center stage. In a highly publicized May 2017 trip, he flew to Bahrain, ostensibly to push participants in a meeting of FIFA’s congress to take action against Israel. He also used Bahrain’s refusal to give him a visa to gain favorable press coverage for HRW’s campaign. On social media, he supported proposed US legislation to restrict military aid to Israel, repeating false NGO allegations on theme of systematic mistreatment of Palestinian children.
In response to the government’s apparent ineptness on this issue, an organization known as Shurat HaDin (Israel Law Center) filed suit arguing that Shakir’s activities violated a recent amendment designed to block visas for BDS activists and groups. This triggered a formal review by the ministries involved, and Shakir was informed in November 2017 that his visa was being reviewed. Shortly afterwards, in a particularly cynical move even for HRW, Deputy Director for the Middle East Eric Goldstein suddenly appeared and posted selfies of himself and Israel/Palestine Advocacy Director Sari Bashi at the site of a protest in Jerusalem demanding action to free Avera Mengistu, an Israeli who had crossed into Gaza in 2014 and was being held, along with two others also with mental health issues. Goldstein and Bashi said nothing about the two Israeli soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, killed in the 2014 war. Their bodies are still being held by Hamas, in blatant violation of all human rights norms.
HRW’s token interest in the human rights of Mengistu did not save Shakir’s visa, and he was notified that it would not be renewed. But again, the bureaucratic and political process that has no understanding of the theatrics of human rights gave HRW control over the story. For the second time, and without interference, HRW was able to sell the image of Israel as suppressing legitimate NGO criticism to sympathetic media and diplomatic audiences. Shakir, with the support of the wider NGO network, became the symbol of human rights, victimized by dark right-wing antidemocratic forces. In this role, he was embraced by the EU Delegation in Tel Aviv, including a group selfie with Shakir that described HRW as a “globally renowned” human rights organization.
Shakir and HRW then used the Israeli courts as a stage, claiming that “neither HRW – nor Shakir as its representative – advocate boycott, divestment or sanctions against companies that operate in the settlements, Israel or Israelis (sic).” The Israeli High Court rejected a stay on deportation pending legal review of the case, but Shakir got another round of media interviews and sympathetic coverage. The appeal, which can be expected to repeat the process, will be conducted without his physical presence. HRW will no create a virtual stage for Shakir, as well as sending talented proxies.
In over a year of engagements and skirmishes across many stages, Shakir and HRW emerged with their images enhanced. The Israeli government, in contrast, bumbled through every act–first in the botched handling and then reversal of HRW’s initial visa application, and then by giving HRW the basis for stage managing the decision not to renew it. While government officials belatedly recognized that HRW and soft power warfare are serious threats, their one-dimensional strategies are still blind to the crucial theatrics.
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Podcast: The confidential informant who came in from the cold.
President Donald Trump has ordered his Department of Justice to investigate the claim advanced by his political allies that Barack Obama’s FBI introduced a “spy” into his campaign in 2016. The COMMENTARY Podcast explores this claim and lays out the timelines, which so often get confused. Who was talking to the Russians and why, and what do we know about how the FBI responded to those revelations? Give a listen and find out.
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