As they prepared last week for their annual concert tour of Europe, members of the Israel Defense Forces band probably had little inkling of what was about to hit them.
Within hours of their departure, their comrades began striking Gaza in retaliation for months of rocket fire and their country found itself the target of protests across the continent. Palestinian militants responded by upping the barrage, sending rockets deep into Israel and triggering air raid sirens in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for the first time in two decades.
Instead of the pleasant week of music and shopping the band was likely expecting, they faced a bomb threat and several protest rallies, angry demonstrators calling them “stinking murderers” and the constant presence of police guards.
On Sunday, the band arrived for a concert in Antwerp to find more than a hundred protesters shouting “Hamas, Hamas, all the Jews to the gas” outside the venue, according to the Belgian Jewish journalist Michael Freilich, who was present. A group of neo-Nazis protested as well.
Later, as the concert was underway, someone reported to police that a powerful explosive would soon be detonated at the Provinciehuis concert hall. The crowd of 300 was evacuated and the concert brought to an abrupt end. No explosives were found.
“First the Israeli ambassador was evacuated, and then the band got out and boarded their bus as the building was emptied,” Freilich said. “I told the officer the bomb threat was an obvious hoax. He agreed but said the evacuation was protocol.”
After Antwerp, the band traveled to The Hague, where a predominantly Arab crowd of a few dozen protesters was waiting for them.
“For us, this is the frontline and this is the fire, and as Israeli soldiers, we don’t run when under fire,” an unnamed Israeli musician told the Belgian Jewish magazine Joods Actueel. “I filmed the demonstrators in Antwerp to show family and friends back home that we are also fighting for Israel.”
The European tour is a yearly affair for the IDF orchestra. Last year, protesters greeted them as well, but only a fraction of the number.
“I heard there might be protests, but I didn’t take it seriously because last year only 18 protesters showed up,” said Leo Schumer, the treasurer of B’nai B’rith Antwerp, who organized the Belgian concert with the local chapter of Christians for Israel, an international organization based in the Netherlands. “I guess they all came because of the operation in Gaza.”
Outside the Hague concert, protesters were virulent in their opposition to the Jewish state.
“There shouldn’t be a State of Israel or an Israeli army to begin with,” Zeina Khoury, a music student and member of the Palestine Youth Orchestra, told JTA. “The thought of them singing while their army is killing babies in Gaza is too crazy for words.”
Another protester, Kemal Keman, told JTA, “If I see a Jewish soldier, I don't know what I would do to them.”
Inside the hall, the scene couldn't have been more different. As two guards manned the flanks of the stage and several others kept watch nearby, a crowd of about 500 -- many of them draped in Israeli flags -- watched the band work through its repertoire, a mix of English and Hebrew songs, including a stirring rendition of the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah.”
“Part of the reason I am here is because of what happened in Antwerp,” said Kees van der Staaij, a lawmaker of the Reformed Political Party, “to show that the people of Israel have many friends here.”
The audience, which had paid $15 for tickets and donated thousands more to aid Israelis under fire from Hamas, showered the players with affection.
During a pause in the performance, a YouTube clip by Dr. Elisheva Ronen, a Dutch-born pediatrician who lives in Ashkelon, was projected on a screen. In the clip, which has become a Facebook hit, Ronen filmed rockets falling near her home as sirens wailed in the background. Ronen then took the stage and, choking back emotion, thanked the audience for their prayers.
Sara van Oordt of Christians for Israel then asked the audience to donate money for charitable projects in Israel’s South. Within 20 minutes, $15,000 had been collected.