Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Concert For Middle East peace

By Dr Cesar Chelala from New York
This commentary was published in The Gulf Times on 07/05/2011
He has been called “a real Jew hater” and a “real anti-semite” by former Israel’s minister of education Limor Livnat. However, few musicians have done as much for peace between Israelis and Palestinians as Daniel Barenboim, the noted Argentine-born Israeli orchestra conductor. It is only through efforts like his that peace can eventually be reached in the Middle East.

On May 3, Barenboim conducted a concert in the Gaza Strip. The orchestra, that had musicians from European countries such as Germany, Austria, France and Italy, played the concert “…as a sign of our solidarity and friendship with the civil society of Gaza”, said Barenboim in a statement released by the United Nations, which co-ordinated the concert.   

In 1999, together with the Palestinian-American professor Edward Said, one of the most prominent Palestinian intellectuals worldwide, Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, a youth orchestra based in Sevilla, Spain, with musicians from countries in the Middle East of Egyptian, Iranian, Syrian, Lebanese Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian background.

Talking to The Guardian about the ensemble Barenboim said: “The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know “the other”, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. 

“I am not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and I am not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to – and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward (Said) died a few years ago -…create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.” 

Barenboim is certainly no stranger to controversy. On July 7, 2001, Barenboim led the Berlin Staatskapelle in part of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem, despite the fact that Wagner’s music had been unofficially taboo in Israel’s concert halls. 

Originally, Barenboim had been scheduled to perform the first act of Die Walküre. However, facing strong opposition from Israel Festival’s Public Advisory board, which included some Holocaust survivors, Barenboim agreed to substitute Wagner’s music by music by Robert Schumann and Igor Stravinsky. 

At the end of the concert he regretted his initial decision and decided to play Wagner as an encore, inviting those who opposed it to leave the concert hall. After s strong debate, 50 attendees walked out and 1,000 remained, applauding enthusiastically after the performance. 

Barenboim has performed before in Palestinian territory. In 1999, he performed at Palestinian Birzeit University. In January of 2008, after a concert in Ramallah, Barenboim accepted honorary Palestinian citizenship, a decision strongly criticised by Israeli authorities.  

Following these events, the leader of the Shas party stated that Barenboim should be stripped of his Israeli citizenship.

Barenboim, however, declared that it was a big honour for him to have been given the Palestinian passport.

Barenboim’s visit to Gaza had been conducted in clear defiance of Israeli law, which bans Israeli citizens from visiting the Strip. With this concert, Barenboim and his orchestra had done more than bring hope to hundreds of thousands of people who felt neglected by the world. They have proved the power of music to triumph over war, the power of music to exalt life.  

Dr Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.

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