Keeping hope for peace alive through music

Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Arabs and an Iranian in New York

Last week I was privileged to attend an amazing concert with my wife Amy at historic Carnegie Hall in New York City. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by the charismatic and visionary Argentine-Israeli Daniel Barenboim, featured a Jewish Israeli woman playing viola with an Iranian born cellist who grew up and lives in Germany, accompanied by an amazing orchestra comprised of young Israeli Jews, Palestinians and Arabs from other countries in the Middle East. It was an inspiring and profound musical and spiritual experience.

It appears that German, Iranian, Israeli, Palestinian and Arab young people can live in peaceful coexistence outside of the Middle East! Music brings them together to play in magnificent harmony. But this didn’t happen by accident. Rather, it is the fruit of many years of visionary and persistent leadership.

This orchestra — which was the creation of two men of peace, the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, who died in 2003—is currently on a five-city American tour. This was their New York appearance, which was extremely well received by the enthusiastic audience of nearly 2,800 people in the magnificent setting of the Isaac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall. The audience clearly came to cheer on conductor Daniel Barenboim for his tireless efforts for peace and cooperation through music. This is certainly the main reason that I went. An additional benefit was hearing great music, including the performance of Tchaikovsky’s famous Fifth symphony, by talented young people from all over the Middle East.

It was apparent from the thunderous applause after each musical rendition that this New York audience was there not only for the music but to express their yearning for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I wondered whether there isn’t more support for peace in New York than in Jerusalem. What an irony. I haven’t heard such an exhilarating applause for peace in a long time.

Why is it that there is more support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord abroad than in Israel and Palestine?

The answer, I believe, is that the so-called “leaders” on both sides have abandoned the path of peace. For a long time they have preferred to repeat the mantra “we don’t have a partner for peace” and blame the other side for the failures in “the peace process” rather than engage in creative dialogue and constructive negotiations for a pragmatic peace plan.

This orchestra does what the political echelons have been refusing to do for the last two decades. For nearly 20 years, this ambitious and forward-looking organisation seeks to foster a dialogue between the various cultures of the Middle East by way of the experience of making music together. According to the program notes for the concert:

The West -Eastern Divan Orchestra has proved time and again that music can break down barriers previously considered insurmountable. The only political aspect that prevails in the work of the orchestra is the conviction that there is no military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that the destinies of Israelis and Palestinians are inextricably linked. Through its work and existence, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra demonstrates that bridges can be built to encourage people to listen to the narrative of the other.

As someone who has devoted his professional life to building bridges between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs during the past quarter century, I was uplifted by both the vision and the music of this wonderful orchestra. And I was reminded once again that peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians (and other Arabs) is a goal that should not be abandoned, even if the politicians appear to have done so. We must continue to believe that peace is possible, despite all the obstacles and challenges of the present moment.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. Now retired, he is an independent educator, author, lecturer, writer, speaker, blogger and consultant. He is the editor of 5 books, including Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel--Voices for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). His new book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttlefield, in September 2017. He is currently working on a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine.