An IDF Checkpoint, A Violin and A Media Uproar

On November 9th, Wissam Tayam (sometimes spelled Tayem), a Palestinian seeking passage at an Israeli checkpoint near Nablus, was observed playing his violin. According to Horit Herman Peled, a member of Machsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch, a group that monitors Israeli soldiers’ behavior at checkpoints) who videotaped the incident, Tayam was forced to play the violin to gain passage while Israeli soldiers laughed. As a result of her statements and video, numerous articles were written in Israel and worldwide condemning the soldiers at the checkpoint, the morals of the Israeli army, and some even claimed to find in the incident echoes of the Holocaust, when Jews were forced by the Nazis to play music in concentration camps.

You can watch Peled’s video yourself at

The soldier interacting with Tayam cannot be seen or heard laughing and appears to be merely sorting through some papers. No other soldiers can be seen or heard laughing. Peled, the videographer, doesn’t appear to be close enough to the Palestinian and soldier to hear whether the soldier did or did not order the Palestinian to play. Furthermore, the video does not indicate that she witnessed the actual moment when Tayam began to play or what occurred right before.

According to a November 30th IDF statement, the soldier states that he asked Tayam to open his violin case for inspection, to make sure it didn’t contain explosives or weapons, but it was the Palestinian who chose to play the violin of his own volition and that the liaison officer had to ask the Palestinian to stop playing. Wissam Tayam, now a cause celebre, claims that he was asked to play a sad song.

According to a November 30 Haaretz report, statements by other members of the Machsom Watch group who were there make clear that NONE of them, including Horit Herman Peled, has any idea what was said by the soldier to the Palestinian, because they “did not hear the exchange between the soldiers and the violinist, and in addition, the conversation was held in Arabic, which none of the volunteers understand.”

In fact, initially another Machsom Watch volunteer, Rachel Bar-Or, gave a statement to the IDF supporting the Israeli soldier’s version of events. She wasn’t able to hear the conversation between the soldier and Tayam, but based on what she saw, “she said that until she read the violinist’s account of the incident in the press, she was more than prepared to believe the soldiers’ version of events at the checkpoint. ‘When I found out that the Palestinian was denying [their story], I had no reason to prefer the IDF’s version of events over his.’ Another volunteer, Neta Efroni, also claims that the volunteers did not hear the exchange between the Palestinian and the soldiers.” (Haaretz, Nov 30)

Got that? Based on what Rachel Bar-Or saw with her own eyes at the time of the incident, Bar-Or felt that the Israeli soldier had not done anything wrong. Only AFTER hearing Tayam’s version, did she discount what she herself saw, saying, “I had no reason to prefer the IDF’s version of events over his.”

So initially, this was a case of the Israeli soldier’s word against Horit Herman Peled’s, who it turns out, didn’t even hear (and couldn’t have understood) the Arabic conversation between the two men. None of the initial stories had any statement by Tayam himself. Apparently based on only Peled’s questionable “evidence,” many in the media went for the story, perhaps because it had an interesting visual to accompany it, even though if one actually watched the video rather than just a photo captured from it, it tends to support the soldier’s case, and contradicts Peled’s. The readiness of the media, including members of the Israeli media, to assume malice on the part of Israeli soldiers and to level inflammatory accusations against them, without solid evidence, is very troubling.

Even if the soldier had asked Tayam to play his violin for a few seconds to ensure that it didn’t contain any explosives, such a measure is not per se humiliating or evidence of malice. Nor was it illogical to fear the violin case might contain explosives. In the Sbarro Pizzeria bombing of August 2001, for example, the terrorist carried his bomb in a guitar case.   

It must be said that the IDF added unnecessary confusion to the issue. According to a November 25th BBC article, “The Israeli army says the man was asked to play the instrument he was carrying to prove it was not full of explosives. But, it said, the soldiers’ conduct at the West Bank checkpoint had been insensitive and they were reprimanded.” The IDF did not explain if such a security measure (playing the violin to make sure it didn’t have explosives taped inside it, which would affect the sound when played) would indeed be needed, and if so, why following this precaution would be “insensitive.” It is only in a statement made November 30th, as reported by AP, that an explanation of the “insensitivity” is given: “Col. Yuval said the soldiers acted insensitively only in that they did not make Tayem stop playing sooner.” Since the IDF’s Nov 30th announcement of the conclusion of their investigation says the soldier only asked Tayam to open the violin case, not to play, we see that their earlier official response was not only unclear but inaccurate.

Despite the IDF’s confusing initial response, there is no justification for media coverage that leaped to extreme charges that Israeli soldiers were seeking to humiliate Tayam rather than simply making sure his violin contained no explosives.


* Please write to one or more of the news outlets that published articles or essays about the incident. Ask that they set the record straight by informing the public that the soldier denies asking or forcing Tayam to play his violin and contrary to earlier reports, none of the Machsom Watch observers were able to verify that the soldier ordered Tayam to play since they couldn’t even hear their conversation. It should also be pointed out that the video does not show any soldiers laughing or appearing to humiliate the Palestinian.

Below are some of the news outlets that published stories about the incident, along with their contact info.

* Please write to other news organizations not listed if they also provided the public with incomplete information about the incident. For example, if your local newspaper only published the Nov 25th AP article by Karin Laub, the one that didn’t include any context, they should be asked to publish a follow-up article.

* Send a blind copy of your letter(s) to CAMERA: [email protected]

Below the list of news organizations is a poignant essay from Hillel Halkin (” Off-Key Comparison”, November 30, NY Sun) who points out how grossly inappropriate it is to compare this current allegation with Nazi atrocities.


Agence France Presse (syndicated worldwide)
“Scandal-shocked Israelis Ask If the Army Has Lost Its Way”
November 28, 2004
(extremely one-sided, does not present army’s response)

Submit a comment to AFP at their website:

BBC News, World Edition
“Israel Army Forces Violin Recital”
November 25, 2004
(It does give the army’s initial response, but inaccurately claims that “The group’s footage of the incident shows the man playing to an audience of border guards and waiting Palestinians.” The video doesn’t show an “audience” at all. No one appears to be even looking at the man.)

To submit a correction request to BBC, go to their website:

Associated Press
AP has provided to newspapers 3 stories about the incident. The first, on November 25th by Karin Laub, included a brief reference to the violin incident at the end of an article about another issue. It offered absolutely no context for the soldier’s actions. The second, also from November 25th, was a full article about the incident, written by Gavin Rabinowitz. It was balanced and included the army’s explanation. A third story on November 30th, also by Gavin Rabinowitz, was balanced and included the new information from the army. However, none of the articles mentions that the accuser, Horit Herman Peled, did not actually hear the conversation between the soldier and Tayam, even though she claims that he was “ordered” to play.

Thank AP for the balanced articles by Rabinowitz, but urge them to report on the new information, provided in the November 30 Ha’aretz article, that the witnesses from Machsom Watch couldn’t hear and wouldn’t have even understood the Arabic conversation between Tayam and the soldier, and that one volunteer initially sided with the Israeli soldier’s version. Write to the AP at: [email protected]

Voice of America
“Israeli Soldiers Force Palestinian to Play Violin at Checkpoint”
By Sonja Pace, 25 November 2004
(Very one sided, but does briefly report initial army response.)

Submit a letter to VOA:

The Guardian (London)
“Israel shocked by image of soldiers forcing violinist to play at roadblock”
by Chris McGreal
November 29, 2004
(Utterly one-sided, no rebuttal from army at all)

Write to the Guardian at: [email protected]

Ha’aretz (Israeli newspaper)
“Soldiers Force Palestinian to Play Violin at W. Bank Checkpoint”
by Akiva Eldar, November 25, 2004
(Nov 30 follow-up story, “Palestinian violinist slams claim troops didn’t force him to play,” provides more extensive context. )

Write to: [email protected]

The Washington Post
“Checkpoints take toll on Palestininians, Israeli Army”
November 29, 2004
(The violin incident was mentioned in one sentence, with no context, in a long article about other alleged abuses by Israeli soldiers.)
Write to the Washington Post at: [email protected]


The New York Sun
November 30, 2004 Op-ed
Off-Key Comparison
by Hillel Halkin

An American friend just sent me an e-mail containing an article that appeared yesterday, in the November 29 British daily the Guardian. Written by the Guardian’s Israel correspondent Chris McGreal, the article deals with an incident that took place on November 9 and was widely reported last week in the Israeli and international press. In this incident, Israeli soldiers at a West Bank check post near Nablus made a Palestinian violinist play his instrument in front of them before giving him permission to pass.

Of all the recent revelations of the “routine dehumanizing treatment” of Palestinians by the Israeli military, Mr. McGreal wrote, including an Israeli officer’s “pumping the body of a 13-year old girl with bullets” in the Gaza Strip, “none so disturbed” Israelis as this one, because of its associations with the Holocaust. As an example, the Guardian cited the Hebrew writer Yoram Kaniuk, the author of a novel about a Jewish violinist forced by the Nazis to play marches in Auschwitz as Jews were taken to the gas chambers. Mr. Kaniuk was quoted as saying:

“This story….negates the possibility of the existence of 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.”

My concerned friend asked for my opinion.

It’s a bit complicated, my opinion. It’s actually several opinions.

There is no doubt that the phenomenon of Israeli soldiers brutalizing and humiliating Palestinian civilians, let alone killing them without justification, is shameful. What is even more shameful, as Mr. McGreal rightly points out, is that in the vast majority of these cases the perpetrators have either been lightly punished or have gone scot-free Although, in the situation of extreme animosity that currently exists between Israeli and Palestinian societies it is impossible to avoid such incidents entirely, they could certainly be decreased if the higher echelons of the Israeli army were determined to prevent them. It is reprehensible that they do not seem to be.

At the same time, not every incident that is reported as a case of brutality or humiliation is one, as we know from the infamous story of Mohammed Durra, the Palestinian child whose supposed martyrdo m at the hands an Israeli sniper in the year 2000 turned him into an international icon even after clear evidence showed that he was killed by Palestinians. In itself, after all, there is nothing wrong with Israel soldiers at a checkpoint asking a young Palestinian to play his violin as a way of making sure it is not stuffed with explosives. Palestinians have been caught in the past with explosives in bags, in belts, in knapsacks, briefcases, in underwear, in what appeared to be the pregnant stomachs of women. What makes a violin above suspicion?

Nor, studying the photograph of the incident published in the Israeli press, can one identify any would-be humiliators. Neither of the two soldiers directly in front of the violinist, one talking on a cell phone and the other checking documents, is even looking at him, much less taking pleasure in the situation. Whoever it was who ordered the young man to play his instrument certainly didn’t do it as a show for their benefit.

Yet the facts of this specific case are perhaps beside the point. Are Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints often treated badly? The answer is yes. Should everything possible be done to stop this? Yes, again. Are the checkpoints nevertheless necessary? Yes, once more. (They have saved many Israeli lives, and Israelis will have to be excused for thinking that a humiliated Palestinian is better than a dead Israeli.) Is it legitimate to compare such incidents, or any other aspect of the Israeli presence in the occupied territories, to the Holocaust? Absolutely not. Under no conceivable circumstances.

Imagine, if you will, the following dispatch in The Guardian in 1943:

“As the German dehumanization of Eastern European Jews grows worse, a new height of sadism has been reached: Jewish violinists have been forced to play their violins in front of jeering German soldiers.”

Would that the Holocaust had been a matter of humiliated violinists. Would that it had been a matter of humiliated Jews. Would that it had been a matter of the occasional killing of innocent Jews by German soldiers.

But of course, it was none of these things. It was the successfully systematic murder of the Jewish people. Which is why, whenever anyone, Jew or Gentile, Israeli author or English journalist, compares Israeli actions in the occupied territories to those of the Germans or their allies in the Holocaust, something vile and intolerable has been done. The descendants of the victims of the Holocaust have been turned into the perpetrators of another one.

In order to make such a comparison, one has to be either (1) totally ignorant of what happened in the Holocaust; (2) totally ignorant of what is happening in the occupied territories; (3) totally indifferent, in one’s eagerness to bash Israel and Jews, to the historical facts in either case. Compare Israeli actions, if you will, to those of the French in Algeria. (The French were in reality a hundred times worse.) Compare them, if you must, to those of the Americans in Vietnam. (The Americans were incredibly more brutal.) Compare them to anything you want – except the Holocaust.

This isn’t because the Holocaust isn’t comparable to other things. It is. But it is comparable only to other mass exterminations: That of the Armenians by the Turks in World War I, that of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, that of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda in 1995. It is not comparable, ever, to anything Israel has done or is doing in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Any such an analogy should automatically be beyond the pale of acceptable human discourse.

That’s my opinion.

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