Barenboim: My Israeli/Palestinian Orchestra Found Common Ground. We Need To Move Forward

Music is one way to bring people together – we are all equal human beings who deserve peace, freedom and happiness.

Events in Israel and Gaza have deeply shocked us all. There is no justification for Hamas’s barbaric terrorist acts against civilians, including children and babies. We must acknowledge this, and pause. And we must urge Israel to uphold international law as it prepares to invade Gaza. But then the next step is to ask: what now? Do we surrender to this terrible violence and let our striving for peace die – or do we insist that there must and can be peace? I am convinced that we have to move on and keep the larger context of the conflict in mind.

In 1999, I formed the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with my friend Edward Said, so that young musicians from across the Middle East could gather, talk and perform together. Today, our musicians in the West-Eastern Divan and our students in the Barenboim-Said Academy are almost all directly affected by the conflict. Many of the musicians live in the region, while others have many ties to their homeland. This strengthens my conviction that there can only be one solution to this conflict: one based on humanism, justice and equality, and without armed force and occupation.

Our message of peace must be louder than ever. The greatest danger is that all of the people who so ardently desire peace will be drowned out by extremists and violence. But any analysis, any moral equation we might draw up, must have at its core this basic understanding: there are people on both sides. Humanity is universal, and the recognition of this truth is the only way. The suffering of innocent people on either side is absolutely unbearable.

The images of the devastating terrorist attacks by Hamas break our hearts. This impulse to empathise with the situation of others is essential. Of course, and especially now, one must also allow for emotions such as fear, despair and anger – but the moment this leads us to deny each other humanity, we are lost. Every single person can make a difference and pass something on. This is how we change things on a small scale. On a large scale, it is up to politics.

We have to offer other perspectives to those who are attracted to extremism. After all, those who find a home there are usually people who are completely without prospects, who are desperate, who devote themselves to murderous ideologies. Education and information are equally essential, because there are so many positions based on absolute misinformation.

To reiterate quite clearly: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a political conflict between two states over borders, water, oil or other resources. It is a deeply human conflict between two peoples who have known suffering and persecution. The persecution of the Jewish people over 20 centuries culminated in the Nazi ideology that murdered six million Jews.

The Jewish people cherished a dream: a land of their own, a homeland for all Jews. But from this dream followed a deeply problematic – because it was fundamentally false – assumption: a land without a people for a people without a land. In reality, the Jewish population of Palestine was only 8% by the end of the first world war. Therefore, 92% of the population was not Jewish, but Palestinian – a population grown over centuries. The country could hardly be called a “land without a people”, and the Palestinian population saw no reason to give up their land. The conflict was thus inevitable, and the fronts have only hardened further over generations. I am convinced Israelis will have security when Palestinians can feel hope – that is, justice. Both sides must recognise their enemies as human beings and try to empathise with their point of view, their pain and their hardship. Israelis must also accept that the occupation of Palestine is incompatible with this.

For my understanding of this more than 70-year-old conflict, my friendship with Said has been key. We found in each other a counterpart who could take us further, help us to see the supposed other more clearly, and understand them better. We recognised and found each other in our common humanity. For me, our joint work with the West-Eastern Divan, which finds its logical continuation and perhaps even its culmination in the Barenboim-Said Academy, is probably the most important activity of my life.

In the current situation, I naturally ask myself about the significance of our joint work in the orchestra and the academy. It may seem little – but the mere fact that Arab and Israeli musicians share a podium at every concert and make music together is of immense value. Over the years, through this commonality of music-making, but also through our countless, sometimes heated discussions, we have learned to better understand the supposed other, to approach them and to find common ground. We start and end all discussions, no matter how controversial, with the fundamental understanding that we are all equal human beings who deserve peace, freedom and happiness.

This may sound naive, but it is not: for it is this understanding that seems to be completely lost in the conflict on both sides today. Our experience shows that this message has reached many people in the region and around the world. We must, want and will continue to believe in our shared humanity. Music is one way to bring us closer together.

  • Daniel Barenboim is a classical pianist and conductor and co-founder, with Edward Said, of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

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