Ghada Karmi



Ghada Karmi


I attended an unusual musical event here in London on August 22. As part of the famous Promenade concerts season, which takes place each summer in the English capital, last Friday’s concert featured the West-Eastern Divan orchestra. This is an 80-member group with an unusual cast: half are Israelis and the other are Arabs. These are young people between the ages of 15 and 25, brought together and trained by the world famous Israeli pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim. They were making their first appearance on the London concert stage to play a ‘concert for peace’. The Arab members came from different Arab countries, including Jordan, Syria and Egypt. Their names were withheld for ‘sensitive, political reasons’; only the pianists, soloists in Mozart’s concert for three pianos, were revealed as Shai Wosner, an Israeli Jew, and Saleem Abboud-Ashkar, an Israeli Arab. 


It appears that the West-Eastern Divan orchestra was set up five years ago to use music to bring Arabs and Israelis closer together. The initiative seems to have been the brainchild of Barenboim and Edward Said, culminating in the performance we heard that night. In a pre-concert talk, sadly missing Edward Said, whom many of us had gone to hear, Barenboim explained something of the rationale behind creating the orchestra. He had no illusions, he said, that his music peace campaign would solve the Middle East problem, but he was clearly enthusiastic about it. Though creating Israel had been a just and moral act, he insisted, its true cost to others had to be recognised; there could be no military solution to the conflict, and so the two sides would have to establish contact on a human level. This, then, was the context for the initiative.


Watching the youthful players along with a packed audience at London’s Royal Albert Hall that night, I felt strangely moved but also uneasy, wishing that I could have expressed that unease to Edward Said. They looked surprisingly alike, these Arabs and Jews, blonde and dark, playing their hearts out as Barenboim conducted them like a proud parent. At the end, the audience stood to applaud them wildly, entreating them to play two encores. In that enthusiasm could be detected something more than musical appreciation, I thought. People were applauding the project, what looked like the reconciliation of enemies, forgiveness and a future without conflict. Articles in praise of the concert appeared in the British press and, two days later, a similarly enthusiastic audience received the players in Morocco, the first Arab country to host them And therein lay my unease.


Though we were led to think otherwise, was this concert and this orchestra actually anything more the sum of its parts? That is, any more than a group of well meaning young musicians brought together by a well meaning conductor who had decided to overcome their differences and make friends? And are not such people to be found everywhere, across the divide of every conflict? Indeed, musicians have contributed to the peace effort in many different settings: in Northern Ireland, in Jamaica with Bob Marley, Belgrade with Nigel Kennedy, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.


Pondering this, I could not get out of my head the image of the five Israeli missiles that smashed into the car of Ismail Abu Shanab in Gaza on the day before this concert, or of the Palestinian suicide bomber who blew up a Jerusalem bus three days before; or the almost daily Israeli assassinations of Palestinians; or indeed of the total degradation, subjugation and starvation of a whole people, cooped up behind barriers and checkpoints, their most elementary human rights traduced and their lives reduced to a daily cycle of deprivation, humiliation and hardship. Thinking this, I wondered what they would have made of the genteel concert that purported to be helping the peace effort on that balmy summer’s night we were all enjoying in the security of London, faraway from the horror and filth of their own lives. Might they even have thought it was a betrayal of their struggle to consort like this, however innocently, with their enemies?


This is not to detract from Barenboim’s achievement. While he remains a liberal Zionist who believes in a pre-1967 Jewish state with a Palestinian state alongside, he has visited Ramallah, at much personal risk, twice since the start of the intifada to perform concerts there and train young Palestinian musicians. His outspoken opposition to Israel’s current policy towards the Palestinians has earned him few friends in Israel and there is no doubt that he is committed and sincere.  Nor is it to denigrate the achievement of creating an Arab-Israeli orchestra in the current circumstances and one that performs so admirably. Far better, surely, to create a peaceful interaction between the two sides than stand by while they kill each other.


Many might concur with this, but the issue in my view is not so straightforward. For decades now, there have been two main schools of thought among Arabs on how to deal with Israel. The first maintained that the correct way was to isolate the Israelis, to deprive them of every form of recognition, to make their lives as intolerable as possible, including by military means. And the second said that Israelis thrive on external hostility and so the proper way was to engage with them, make peace, open the borders, welcome their citizens and address their insecurities. In this way, they would mix with the Arabs and be subsumed in time into the Arab world. A half-way position held that there were certain enlightened elements within Israeli and Jewish society to work with. Joint initiatives with such people, this argument went, could lead to an effective political movement It is the last two positions that have been dominant amongst Arabs, encouraged by a minority of Jews and Israelis, since the early 1980s. The formal peace treaties with Israel aside, scores of dialogue groups, cultural exchanges, collaborative projects, political parties and personal friendships have sprung up on the back of this thinking in the last ten years. If the West-Eastern Divan orchestra is not a self-contained initiative then in my view it fits into the last category.


A logical case can be made for each of the above positions, but none has succeeded in reducing Israel’s expansionist aggression. The fact is that none of them has been pursued with the necessary rigour, persistence or unity of purpose. Once the military option was no longer viable for Arabs, the alternatives, of working together with their enemies, appeared promising. But the problem with this approach is that it is upside down: it offers Israelis the rewards of peace when there is no peace. Reconciliation and togetherness are consequences of a settlement, not antecedents to it. The audience at the Prom was celebrating something that has not happened yet and may never do so.


Moreover, these activities have the effect, however unintendedly, of rehabilitating Israel, of making it acceptable just when the Western world had begun to disapprove and reduce its traditional support. Despite the wealth and power that Israelis enjoy, they always craved one thing: Arab legitimation and acceptance without having to pay the price. What better than this shortcut to the affections of those whom they have abused and dispossessed?  It is no wonder that so many liberal Zionist are engaged in ‘good works’ with Palestinians.


For, the most serious problem with the reconciliation approach is that it fails to distinguish between Zionists and those against Zionism. Joint struggle on the basis of a shared political ideology, even when the partners originate from opposing camps, and working towards a common goal is a time-honoured method of opposition. A collaboration between like-minded Arabs and Jews, whether Israelis or not, in the struggle against Zionism is the only acceptable basis for such an enterprise. Working with a Zionist for Arab liberation is a contradiction in terms and the only beneficiaries are those who hold all the cards. For those who understand the true nature of Zionism, to think otherwise is fantasy and wishful thinking.


August 2003