I would like to make it clear, first of all, that I never set out to be a peace activist. It is a term with which I feel vaguely uncomfortable, being associated in my mind with well-meaning left-wing women in black, demonstrating on street corners against the Israeli "occupation" of the West Bank, or with anti-Israeli students from abroad, who really understand nothing about the situation here except what they see on viciously biased CNN or BBC news reports, lying down in front of bulldozers in protest against our security fence.
When I went to France in May with my choir and with other musical ensembles from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, to take part in the concert tour known as "D’Une Seule Voix", it was with no real hope that we could make any difference. The only good that might come out of it, to my way of thinking, was that we might manage to convince one or two Palestinians taking part in the tour, that Israelis are not demons with horns and a tail. Or, as one of the Palestinians put it: "Today, we’ll say Good Morning to each other. Tomorrow, it will be How are you? and after that will come How is your family? and so on."
Relations with the Palestinians – especially the group from Gaza – were rather chilly at first, reaching their lowest point when, during the finale of one of the concerts, the Palestinians started making "V" signs, associated in our minds with the reaction in the Palestinian street to suicide bombings in Israel. But the very next evening, everything changed. During the interval between the two halves of the show, a spontaneous celebration broke out backstage, with the Palestinians playing their traditional instruments and all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims, joining in the dancing. Our own conductor, Ronen, even proved himself to be a dab hand on the darbooka. Jean-Yves, the organizer of the tour, was so delighted, that he decided to add the hafla (party, celebration) to the programme and it became part of the show’s finale.
I won’t say there was no more friction after that but what there was, was mostly focussed on the Gazans’ habit of smoking anywhere and everywhere, even back-stage and in front of signs clearly prohibiting smoking.
We tried to teach them the Israeli song "Heveinu Shalom Aleichem" (We have brought peace to you), although it seemed they could not – or would not – learn it. Until the last night, that is. At the finale of the concert, two of the girls from Gaza were spotted coming off-stage singing it. And at the apres-concert dinner at the La Coupole restaurant in Paris, I saw two little girls from the Taybeh choir (Taybeh is a village in the West Bank, near Ramallah) also singing it. And as we boarded the bus to take us to our hotel, one of the girls from Gaza jumped in after us and began spontaneously kissing the Israelis. As one of our number said later, that one moment made the whole trip worthwhile.
Back home in Israel, we found ourselves swiftly overtaken by events – first in Gaza, then on the Lebanese border. I do not know what has become of the musicians from Gaza. But in the north, one of the members of the Karawan group, a Christian Arab, Habib Awwad, fell victim to a Hezbollah rocket. Earlier this week, we travelled up to his village, the mixed Christian-Muslim village of Ibillin, to take part in a concert to honour his memory. The musical part of the concert was preceded by a prayer service (Greek Catholic) and the participants included the Melkite Metropolitan, the French Ambassador, and various other dignitaries. And then there were speeches – in three languages, Arabic, Hebrew and French. The thing that sticks in my mind, most of all, is the heartfelt cry of the mayor of Ibillin. Nothing will ever bring back Habib, he said. But we owe it to him to make our cry be heard by everyone, all the governments and all the leaders in our region, to put a stop to this madness. And then, we sang. And after we sang, after the concert was over, they invited us to supper at a local restaurant. It was 11 PM. We had a two and a half hour drive back to Jerusalem ahead of us. But we couldn’t refuse. So we went and ate with Habib’s friends and family and they welcomed us and made us feel we belonged with them.
We got back to Jerusalem at 2:15 PM. I didn’t get to bed till 3:00 AM. I had about four hours sleep before getting up at 7:00 AM, as I had to be in court at 9:00 AM. And when I got home from work and was finally able to digest what had happened, I realised that there is a kind of peace activism which has nothing to do with demonstrating on street corners or lying down in front of bulldozers. "D’Une Seule Voix" was all about building bridges – and that’s what we started to do. Slowly. Brick by brick. And I realised something else too. It isn’t the politicians and the religious leaders who will make peace. It is the People who will make peace. And they will do it step by step, slowly, painfully, with joint projects such as ours, which allowed us, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims, to see each other as people. They will do it – if the politicians and the religious leaders and the foreign powers who have a vested interest in playing off both sides against each other will let us. I only pray that, slow as the process inevitably will be, there is still time before the madness engulfs us all.