Jerusalem youth use music to break down walls
JERUSALEM – We need a cultural revolution. We have waited far too long for governments and armies to bring us peace and security. Fear and mistrust of the other side define our reality. Good, peace-loving Israelis and Palestinians are convinced they have no partner for peace. Most are unaware of the fact that every Israeli and every Palestinian holds so much power to shape his or her future. Artists, as well as those involved in media, have tremendous power to help build trust and create human connections despite the political and social barriers that currently divide us. For the sake of our future, we must eliminate the separation that has kept us apart for far too long. This is our power.
If we could use the power of music, I thought, to connect young Israeli and Palestinian musicians in the context of the greater community, we could succeed in building trust among the masses. A year ago, under a fellowship from MTV and the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright Award, I created a project called Heartbeat: Jerusalem. The goal was to explore the power of music to build trust between Israelis and Palestinians by forming an ensemble of Israeli and Palestinian teenage musicians.
Over the course of two months, I met with every conservatory director and high school principal I could find. Most of them enthusiastically supported the project, but a few Palestinian educators roundly objected to having Palestinian and Israeli youth sit side by side, as supposed equals. These Palestinian elders were afraid that sitting with “the enemy” would signify that the current situation was fine. Insisting that these programs would do far more harm than good, they told me that “brainwashing” their children to love their enemy would harm their national struggle and normalise the Occupation. But the contrary is true; to continue fighting and hating is “normalisation”. To end the Occupation, to end terrorism, and for all the people of this land to live with security, justice and freedom, people on both sides will have to trust each other. Without mutual trust, the only option is chronic strife.
In December of 2007, I auditioned over fifty Israeli and Palestinian teen aged musicians for Heartbeat and from this, selected twelve students based on their musicianship and their desire to engage with the other side and be a voice for their communities. From January until June 2008, the ensemble met weekly at a rehearsal studio in Jerusalem. With some help from professional Israeli and Palestinian artists, the students created a unique blend of rock, hip-hop, jazz, reggae, and classical Eastern music. Also, with the assistance of two experienced Israeli and Palestinian facilitators, we worked to strike a balance between simply letting the music guide the process, and using more traditional, verbal dialogue to add depth and understanding to their experience. Some students questioned, “Why talk politics? Nothing ever changes and we just end up going home angry at each other.” They adamantly insisted on maintaining focus on the music.
During the escalation of violence in Gaza, Sderot and the neighbouring communities, Heartbeat met at my apartment. The polarising effects of the events were evident as only six of the students attended our weekly rehearsal. Sitting on my staircase, drawn there by the resonant acoustics, Ron, Sameera, and Fouad, were crafting a song without lyrics, the dijeridoo leading the trio in an aboriginal, Middle-Eastern trance jam around the theme of creation. Listening to each other improvising on a song that follows the human experience through three movements – creation, war, and peace – these three teenagers tore down every barrier. Here they began to make their impact. The unique power of a music-dialogue project is that music can reach far beyond the room where it is first created. The group would only gauge its potential impact by extending their experience into the community through a public performance or song on the radio.
After struggling for months to find a mutually agreeable date for our first concert, we decided on the 21st of September, the UN’s International Day of Peace. On this fitting date, Heartbeat Jerusalem held its debut performance at the International YMCA in Jerusalem. The event was sponsored by the US Consulate in Jerusalem and gathered together over 300 Israelis, Palestinians, and international residents of Jerusalem. The performers brought a mixture of jubilance, nervous excitement, pain, frustration, and tremendous hope to the crowd. After the show, the Heartbeat students were joined onstage by overjoyed, grateful audience members as well as local and international media. One thing was clear to me: this is just the beginning.
* Aaron Shneyer is a guitarist, bassist, singer-songwriter and the founding director of Heartbeat: Jerusalem. For more information on Heartbeat: Jerusalem, please visit www.heartbeatjerusalem.org. This article is part of a special series on art and conflict written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 October 2008, www.commongroundnews.org.
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