When the scale of Hamas’s barbarous onslaught on Israel became apparent, musicians in Amsterdam began raising money for Israelis by organizing a benefit concert for peace at the Netherlands’ most prestigious concert hall, the fabled Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam.
On November 1, the organizers achieved their goal with an event that featured both Jewish and Muslim world-renowned artists, who moved hundreds of spectators with a message of hope and compassion that reverberated through the Dutch cultural scene and media.
There was, however, a crucial twist.
According to a stipulation allegedly introduced by the Concertgebouw, half of the proceeds needed to go to civilians in Gaza in addition to the organizers’ selected beneficiary, the ZAKA Jewish emergency service. So the organizers brought in a co-recipient aiding Gazans: The Norwegian Refugee Council.
But the involvement of that aid group, which has been accused of anti-Israel bias and of hiring at least one alleged Hamas operative as recently as 2018, provoked an outcry. This made ZAKA disavow the event and spurn the money. The show exposed the limits of tolerance for support of Israel in the Netherlands, and it underlined Jewish community disagreements on how to negotiate those limitations.
The event’s initiator, world-renowned cellist Maya Fridman, has experience in organizing benefits. A Moscow-born Jew living in the Netherlands, she has raised upwards of a million euros for Ukraine at concerts featuring Russian and Ukrainian musicians following Russia’s brutal 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
“I was really just very shaken by what happened on October 7,” Fridman, 34, told The Times of Israel. Some 3,000 Hamas terrorists invaded Israel, murdered more than 1,200 people and abducted another 240, among other war crimes and atrocities. “I was crying for days,” said Fridman, adding that she’d decided to “create a space for empathy, for solidarity for the victims.”
Amid preparations, many new casualties entered the picture. Israel launched a massive military operation in Gaza to topple Hamas, reportedly killing thousands of Palestinians.
In the Netherlands and beyond, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets with anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations — some of them violent — amid a surge in antisemitic hate crimes.
Barry Mehler, a New York-born musician who has been living in Amsterdam since 1989, helped Fridman organize the event. The Concertgebouw declined his request to hold a benefit for Israel. Management told Mehler that such an event “would need to encompass all civilian victims, and not just Israelis,” said Mehler, who heads the Jewish Music Concerts Foundation.
The Concertgebouw, which did not reply to questions by The Times of Israel, last year hosted one of Fridman’s concerts for Ukraine. In advertising that event, the Concertgebouw did not indicate proceeds would be shared with Russian recipients.
At the November 1 concert, an ensemble performed Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2, after which Fridman walked on stage, introduced herself and said: “I am a musician, I am Jewish, and I am human.”
Farid Sheek, an Iran-born pianist, followed suit, replacing “Jewish” for “Muslim.” The musicians played the Kol Nidre prayer composed by Mohammed Fairouz, an American composer of Palestinian descent.
One of the soloists, Lidor Ram Mesika, dedicated “Shir LaShalom,” a Hebrew-language song whose title means “A Song for Peace,” to his cousin who was murdered by Hamas terrorists on October 7.
The message resonated and inspired Ronit Palache, a well-known Dutch-Jewish writer, who was one of many Jews in attendance.
“It was beautiful,” Palache said, “there is always a time for humanity and for underlining what connects us as people, and that’s what we experienced at the concert.”
Other Dutch Jews objected to the Norwegian group’s involvement, which they argued “blurred the difference between victims and aggressors,” as Herman Loonstein, a prominent Dutch-Jewish lawyer and community activist, phrased it. In a letter addressed to the Concertgebouw ahead of the concert, he called the event an “outrage.”
In 2018, Israeli troops killed, during a riot in the Gaza Strip, a man, Yasser Murtaja, whom the Norwegian Refugee Council had hired to document protests. Israeli officials said Murtaja was a Hamas operative.
The Norwegian Refugee Council dismissed the allegation, telling The Times of Israel it has not received evidence to support it.
The Norwegian group is a vocal critic of Israel. On November 10, Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, accused Israel in an interview of conducting “a forcible transfer of people from all of northern Gaza, which according to the Geneva Convention is a war crime,” he said. NGO Monitor, an Israeli group, says the Council has a bias against Israel.
A spokesperson for the Council told The Times of Israel that the Council is “neutral, independent and impartial.”
“Of the options we had, this was the least problematic,” Mehler said of the Norwegian group. Its IRS 501(c)3 charity status in the United States puts it under considerable scrutiny by authorities, which would have revealed any ties to terrorism, he argued.
Mehler said he had received complaint letters from Loonstein and three of his relatives ahead of the concert. Several Arab musicians who initially agreed to participate in the project dropped out of it following pressure from their families, Mehler also said.
Following criticism, ZAKA on November 9 decided to disassociate from the event. Zaka had been “unaware of the issues” surrounding the Norwegian Refugee Council, Moti Bokchin, ZAKA’s top spokesperson, told The Times of Israel. A local ZAKA volunteer “did insufficient research” before agreeing to get involved in the concert, Bokchin said, but ZAKA is “not interested in and will not take” the proceeds, he said.
Mehler suggested that ZAKA, which is also 501(c)3 registered in the US, cannot legally decline the money because it is “required to receive donations without prejudice,” Mehler said. US laws on donations are complicated and jurisprudence on them depends on the amount and circumstances, according to a 2006 analysis by Gene Takagi, a lawyer at the California-based NEO Law Group.
Multiple venues and prestigious ensembles in Europe and beyond have hosted charity concerts uniquely for Israel in the wake of the October 7 onslaught. The Hamburg Orchestra held a concert earlier this month at the city’s prestigious Laeiszhalle venue, which was built in 1908 and has 2,000 seats.
In Paris, a benefit concert for Israel featuring jazz virtuosos Donald Kontomanou and Jonathan Orlandwas was held at the ECUJE Jewish community center, which is one of Europe’s oldest and is located on the iconic Rue La Fayette.
Holding such a concert outside the Concertgebouw would have been easy, Mehler said. “But the Concertgebouw is an asset. It exposes audiences who would never otherwise go to a pro-Israel event to our thoughts and sentiments right now. In the cultural scene, it starts a conversation in ways no other venue can,” he said.
Indeed, the Concertgebouw is not just another venue. Its neoclassical façade adorned with intricate sculptures hints at the rich history within. Since 1888, this iconic concert hall, which in 2013 became a royal monument, has resonated with the harmonies of renowned orchestras, captivating audiences with its acoustical brilliance.
Yet by conceding to Concertgebouw’s alleged conditions, the organizers undermined the integrity of their mission, according to Leon de Winter, a prominent Dutch-Jewish writer and pundit. “If the objective was to support Israel and terror victims, then it was hopelessly subverted in this case. As an organizer, I would have pulled the plug on the whole thing,” de Winter told The Times of Israel.
The Concertgebouw’s neutrality may stem also from fear of a backlash at a time when hundreds of thousands protest against Israel on the street, de Winter opined.
The perceived proliferation of antisemitism and anti-Israeli sentiment in the Netherlands, which is widely thought to be tied to the arrival of about one million Muslims from the 1970s onward, is polarizing Dutch Jews in ways that appear to have played out also in the Concertgebouw controversy.
Loonstein and de Winter belong to the hawkish contingent of Dutch Jewry, a small community of 40,000 who used to number 140,000 before the Holocaust.
Another contingent “is seeking a connection, doing everything possible not to exacerbate the situation here in the Netherlands,” said Chaim Benistant, a 36-year-old communal lobbyist and entrepreneur from the Amsterdam area.
Benistant understands the doves, but still think the October 7 assault means that “right now, we need to take an unambiguous stance and support Israel and her people,” he said. There are too many unanswered questions about the Norwegian Refugee Council for it to be a legitimate partner at the event, he added.
Mehler is pleased with the outcome of the concert.
“With all of the [sometimes] violent protests on the street, this was our intellectual form of protesting for peace,” he said.
Ticket sales produced about $10,000 in revenue, which will be given to ZAKA — apparently despite its wishes — along with the Norwegian Refugee Council, Mehler said.
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