At 1 AM last Monday morning (March 2nd), I returned to Israel from a four-day trip with ten fellow members of the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, and an additional 23 musicians from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Jews, Christians and Muslims. We were invited to Malta, within the framework of the organization known as "D’Une Seule Voix" (about which I have written in the past on this space), and under the auspices of the Foreign Ministries of Malta and of France. The last time we were together, on our French tour in May 2006, there were a hundred of us. Budgetary restrictions at this time of worldwide recession dictated the reduced numbers, and the participants this time included two students from Bethlehem University who had not been on the first tour. Moreover, of the large contingent from Gaza, only three made it to the Malta concert. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. They all survived the recent war. But it seems that the Hamas mafia that ruled Gaza is opposed to music and merry-making. They broke up the ensemble and smashed their instruments and forbade them to appear. We heard one horror story about the friend of one of the ensemble, also a musician, who defied the ban, in order to sing at a friend’s wedding. As punishment, he was arrested by Hamas militiamen, and his tongue was cut out, before the horrified eyes of the wedding guests. He was left to bleed to death, but it seems he managed to make it to the Israeli border, where Israeli soldiers took pity on him and Israeli doctors tended his wounds.
Of the three musicians from the Gaza contingent, two are now living in Sweden. The younger of the two was forced to flee, after his father (the third member of the group) was warned that the young man had been marked for execution by Hamas. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because his father had been a Fatah supporter, maybe because the Hamas brand of Islam, like that of the Taliban, just can’t tolerate music or laughter or entertainment of any kind. On our last day, at the airport, we witnessed the parting of the father and the son, the former, back to Gaza (where, presumably, he too is in danger from Hamas), the latter, to a new life in Sweden. It was heartbreaking.
We gave just one concert this time, in the Great Hall of the Auberge de Provence in Valletta, in the presence of the Maltese and French Foreign Ministers, the French ambassador and other invited guests from the government and the Diplomatic Corps and, as we did on our French tour, we finished the concert with a hymn written by a Christian Arab priest, Ya Rabbah i-Salameh (Oh Lord of Peace), sung in Arabic and Hebrew. From there, we proceeded to a champagne reception at the French Ambassador’s residence, where formality went by the board. We had already become accustomed, backstage, to mixed groups of Jews and Arabs, improvising on guitar and oud, tambourine and darbouka, discovering the common thread in our respective musical heritages, and now, in the ambassador’s lovely home, we sang for each other and for the other guests, many of them diplomats and government ministers and their wives, until the music swept up those present and turned to dance.
The following day, we were guests of honour at a reception given by the Minister of Tourism, attended also by the Maltese Prime Minister, who made a very nice speech in which he called us all "fighters for peace" – but warning that our message could only be heard by those who were willing to listen, just as even the most beautiful music can only be heard by those who are ready to listen.
Is the Arab/Muslim world in general ready to listen? Again, I don’t know. I think maybe there are now a few more Palestinians who realise that it is not we who are their enemy. Whether or not they have the power to change anything, I don’t know. We have seen what happens to those Palestinians who dare to oppose Hamas. Former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter (not, in general, one of my favourite people, since he has proven to be violently anti-Israel since leaving office) did, nevertheless, make one very true remark at the signing of the Camp David Accords. Peace has to be waged – just like war. As those of you who have been following this space closely will know, I have always maintained that Peace, if it is ever to come, will come from the ground upwards. Peace is made between peoples, not between governments – and that is where Oslo failed, because the Palestinian leadership did not educate their people towards peace. The opposite is true. They continued to stir them up and incite them and teach hatred of "the Zionist Entity" in their schools and in their Press. And they will never change, because as long as Israel exists, they have a convenient scapegoat for all the troubles that beset them, a way to divert attention from the corruption rampant, both within Abu Mazen’s Palestinian Authority and within the Hamas terrorist government of Gaza. None of us is naive enough to believe that this tour, or others like it, is going to bring peace. My only hope has been – and still remains – that this project, and others like it, will enable those of us who participated to understand that "the Other" is not so different from ourselves, that besides the "Otherness", we have so much in common. I know this has already started to happen on the Israeli side. I believe it has started to happen among the Arab participants also. But it is a slow process – and with the Iranian menace becoming daily more of a threat, I am afraid there isn’t enough time left.
So – has "D’Une Seule Voix" changed anything? On the plane back, I got hold of an Israeli newspaper, the first I had seen in several days and the first thing that met my eye was a report about a Grad rocket that had been fired from Gaza the previous day and landed on a school. Fortunately, since it had been Shabbat, the school was empty. But how long before the luck runs out? My immediate reaction was, what a pity that Operation Cast Lead had been terminated before the IDF finished the job of smashing Hamas. It would have been better for the citizens of Gaza, as well as for Israel. But I want to make one thing clear. It is Hamas that I hate, not the entire population of Gaza. The question is, would I now support a new military campaign of the same sort as Operation Cast Lead? Once again, I have to say – I don’t know. One thing I do know. When the next round takes place – as it inevitably will – I won’t find it so easy to dismiss their civilian casualties as "collateral damage". They have names now, and faces.
I would like to be able to hope that for some of them, at least, we too have become more than mere statistics. And yet, as I said, two out of the three "Gazans" in this last concert, no longer live in Gaza, but in Sweden. Since returning to Jerusalem, I have sent e-mails to both the father and the son, the one in Gaza and the other in Sweden – as well as to one of the students from the West Bank. None of them have replied. Maybe we were merely living in a bubble. Once we returned to our respective homes, the bubble burst. Maybe the reality of life in the Middle East was too strong – for them, at least. And yet – and yet –
Hope is the thing with feathers
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune — without the words,
And never stops at all.