I’ve been writing for a few days about the cancellation of the Marcel Khalife concert at the Joan Kroc Theater in San Diego. Right about now I feel like the Jack in the Box’s wagging head after it jumps out of the box. At first, I was outraged on behalf of the concert organizers by the way the Salvation Army treated them. Then, after talking to the Salvation Army, I felt their explanation sounded plausible and largely reasonable. But now, after talking to Dr. Manal Swairjo of Al Awda, the concert hosting group, I’ve come back mostly to where I was originally.
According to Manal and contrary to what Capt. John Van Cleef of the Army told me, she met with Kroc Theater representatives in February and put down a deposit for the hall at that time. There never was an individual, as Van Cleef claimed to me, who was originally to host the concert. The presenter was always going to be Al Awda and the Army knew this from the beginning. Kroc staff never told Swairjo that Al Awda had to complete an application before the rental would be approved. She was told the group had to get an insurance certificate and then the contract would be finalized. They did get that certificate and scheduled a meeting to sign the contract in August.
Then a Kroc representative asked Al Awda to fill out an application saying this was a formality needed before signing the contract. Two days before the contract signing meeting, a Kroc staffer sent Al Awda a terse e mail notifying the group the concert was cancelled. They were given no explanation for the decision. This is especially outrageous considering the “hundreds of hours” of volunteer efforts Dr. Swairjo told me she exerted to arrange and publicize the concert at the Kroc Theater. After the cancellation, she basically had to start all over again.
Afterward, Al Awda spoke several times with Capt. Van Cleef who explained that renting to the group would’ve contravened the guidelines and mission of the Kroc Center. According to Swairjo, he specifically mentioned that he could not rent the theater unless there would be an Israeli musician on stage with Khalife. Keep in mind, that I quizzed Van Cleef about this and he claimed to me that he had not said this and that Al Awda was “misrepresenting the facts,” which I thought was a pretty strong statement considering he couldn’t prove they were lying but was claiming so. His claim was that he was talking in generalities about the type of concert that WOULD fit the venues guidelines, but not specifically saying Khalife would need to perform with an Israeli in order to play on their stage.
Swairjo also added a most illuminating aspect of her conversation with Van Cleef. He said that he could not rent the hall to Al Awda because it would offend the Jewish community. Now, neither Drs. Damuni nor Swairjo know for certain that Van Cleef spoke with anyone in the Jewish community before making his decision. We can be generous if we wish and presume that no one urged the Army to cancel. Nevertheless, this would mean that the group was doing the equivalent of self-censoring by anticipating the firestorm that might erupt IF they rented to Al Awda. It pre-empted controversy it feared without even knowing whether there might be any.
This is precisely what happened in the case of the New York Theater Workshop’s decision to delay its production of My Name is Rachel Corrie. No one in the Jewish community was up in arms about the play and screamed that they shouldn’t produce it. The Workshop’s director feared what might happen and decided that withdrawing from controversy before it arrived was a better idea than embracing it and moving forward.
This is the pernicious influence of the Israeli-Arab conflict and 9/11 on our society. We have become so afraid of “the other” and so traumatized by acts of terror that we can no longer behave like rational human beings. We can no longer look at a subject and say: “this may be controversial, but let’s think creatively how we can present this to our community in a way that will advance tolerance and political debate, rather than raise the level of rancor.” Instead, we try to cut our losses and retreat into our shell.
My sharpest criticism of the Salvation Army’s behavior is its peremptory decision to cancel a concert for which it had taken a deposit without so much as a word of explanation. Why couldn’t the Army have tried to think creatively how this concert could’ve satisfied their guidelines by negotiation with Al Awda and the Arab community? Why couldn’t the Kroc people have asked that Al Awda not engage in political speeches or leafleting and focus solely on the music? Or why couldn’t they have asked Al Awda to bring in CAIR or a different local Arab group that had a more moderate agenda as the main sponsor? Van Cleef admitted to me that he hadn’t done this because, so he claimed, “by then it was too late.” In my experience, when someone tells you they decided not to do something because it was too late to change an outcome, it usually means they didn’t want to do so, not that it really was too late. And that’s what I believe happened here. Van Cleef simply wanted no part of Al Awda or the concert and so he never attempted to negotiate.
The Captain also claimed that his staff had helped Al Awda find a new venue to host the concert. Dr. Swairjo told me the only help that the Kroc personnel provided was to offer a website link which listed other San Diego venues. That’s all. Van Cleef’s claim of help seems pathetic in this context.
Finally, I want to reiterate something I wrote in my last post about Al Awda. Personally, I do find Al Awda a sectarian organization because it does not recognize a Jewish right of national self-determination. In other words, it is anti-Zionist. Such a view is not one I share though it is a valid response by Arab and Palestinian Americans to the suffering their people has endured. But I can sympathize with the bind the Army found itself in. Al Awda tried to argue that it was purely a human rights organization and what could be wrong with that? In my view, this is either politically naive or disingenuous. Anti-Zionism may not be a fringe position within the Palestinian community but it is within greater American society. Al Awda’s affiliation with this concert might very well have caused bad feeling with some elements of the Jewish community to host this concert (though it might also have caused none and gone unnoticed). But that doesn’t mean the Army should’ve cut and run as they did. They should’ve tried to work with Al Awda to come up with a compromise that would satisfy both sides instead of cutting them loose.
Marcel Khalife will perform in San Diego on Sunday evening, October 14th at the Birch North Park Theater. Click here for ticket information. The Seattle concert will be on Sunday, October 7th at 8PM at Town Hall. For tickets click here.