Palestinian Violinist Tugs Zionist Conscience
- Israel shocked by image of soldiers forcing violinist to play at
By Chris McGreal in Jerusalem
29 November 2004
Of all the revelations that have rocked the Israeli army over the
past week, perhaps none disturbed the public so much as the video
footage of soldiers forcing a Palestinian man to play his violin.
The incident was not as shocking as the recording of an Israeli
officer pumping the body of a 13-year-old girl full of bullets and
then saying he would have shot her even if she had been three years
Nor was it as nauseating as the pictures in an Israeli newspaper of
ultra-orthodox soldiers mocking Palestinian corpses by impaling a
man's head on a pole and sticking a cigarette in his mouth.
But the matter of the violin touched on something deeper about the
way Israelis see themselves, and their conflict with the
The violinist, Wissam Tayem, was on his way to a music lesson near
Nablus when he said an Israeli officer ordered him to "play
something sad" while soldiers made fun of him. After several
minutes, he was told he could pass.
It may be that the soldiers wanted Mr Tayem to prove he was indeed a
musician walking to a lesson because, as a man under 30, he would
not normally have been permitted through the checkpoint.
But after the incident was videotaped by Jewish women peace
activists, it prompted revulsion among Israelis not normally
perturbed about the treatment of Arabs.
The rightwing Army Radio commentator Uri Orbach found the incident
disturbingly reminiscent of Jewish musicians forced to provide
background music to mass murder. "What about Majdanek?" he asked,
referring to the Nazi extermination camp.
The critics were not drawing a parallel between an Israeli roadblock
and a Nazi camp. Their concern was that Jewish suffering had been
diminished by the humiliation of Mr Tayem.
Yoram Kaniuk, author of a book about a Jewish violinist forced to
play for a concentration camp commander, wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth
newspaper that the soldiers responsible should be put on trial "not
for abusing Arabs but for disgracing the Holocaust".
"Of all the terrible things done at the roadblocks, this story is
one which negates the very possibility of the existence of Israel as
a Jewish state. If [the military] does not put these soldiers on
trial we will have no moral right to speak of ourselves as a state
that rose from the Holocaust," he wrote.
"If we allow Jewish soldiers to put an Arab violinist at a roadblock
and laugh at him, we have succeeded in arriving at the lowest moral
point possible. Our entire existence in this Arab region was
justified, and is still justified, by our suffering; by Jewish
violinists in the camps."
Others took a broader view by drawing a link between the routine
dehumanising treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints, the
desecration of dead bodies and what looks very much like the murder
of a terrified 13-year-old Palestinian girl by an army officer in
Israelis put great store in a belief that their army is "the most
moral in the world" because it says it adheres to a code of "the
purity of arms". There is rarely much public questioning of the
army's routine explanation that Palestinian civilians who have been
killed had been "caught in crossfire", or that children are shot
because they are used as cover by fighters.
But the public's confidence has been shaken by the revelations of
the past week. The audio recording of the shooting of the
13-year-old, Iman al-Hams, prompted much soul searching, although
the revulsion appears to be as much at the Israeli officer firing a
stream of bullets into her lifeless body as the killing itself. Some
soldiers told Israeli papers that their mothers had sought
assurances that they did not do that kind of thing.
One Israeli peace group, the Arik Institute, took out large
newspaper adverts to plead for "Jewish patriots" to "open your eyes
and look around" at the suffering of Palestinians.
The incidents prompted the army to call in all commanders from the
rank of lieutenant-colonel to emphasise the importance of
maintaining the "purity of arms" code.
The army's critics say the real problem is not the behaviour of
soldiers on the ground but the climate of impunity that emanates
from the top.
While the officer responsible for killing Iman al-Hams has been
charged with relatively minor offences, and the soldiers who forced
the violinist to play were ticked off for being "insensitive", the
only troops who were swiftly punished for violating regulations last
week were some who posed naked in the snow for a photograph. They
were dismissed from their unit.
Last week the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem criticised what it
described as a "culture of impunity" within the army. The group says
at least 1,656 Palestinian non-combatants have been killed during
the intifada, including 529 children.
"To date, one soldier has been convicted of causing the death of a
Palestinian," it said.
"The combination of rules of engagement that encourage a
trigger-happy attitude among soldiers together with the climate of
impunity results in a clear and very troubling message about the
value the Israeli military places on Palestinian life."
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