A passport to peace in the Middle East?

by Cesar Chelala

TUCUMAN, Argentina — Daniel Barenboim, the noted Israeli musician, is no stranger to controversy. By recently accepting Palestinian nationality, although in itself only a symbolic act, he will only fuel the controversy about his role in the Middle East process.

Barenboim joins other courageous Israelis such as Uri Avnery, Gideon Levy, the Women in Black and many others, who are able to see the conflict in its wider context.

Unlike many Israelis who see those Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation of their land as an enemy that should be crushed at all costs, Barenboim recognizes their basic human rights.

After a concert in Ramallah, in the West Bank, where for many years he has been working with both Israeli and Arab musicians, he declared, after a Beethoven piano recital, “It is a great honor to be offered a Palestinian passport. I have accepted it because I believe that the destinies of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people are inextricably linked. We are blessed — or cursed — to live with each other. And I prefer the first. The fact that an Israeli citizen can be awarded a Palestinian passport can be a sign that it is actually possible.”

His decision to accept the Palestinian citizenship has been strongly criticized by many Israelis. The leader of the Shas party went as far as demanding that Barenboim be stripped of his Israeli citizenship. His last decision on accepting Palestinian citizenship is just one in a series of actions that have provoked the ire of many Israelis, regardless of their admiration for his value as a great musician.

On July 7, 2001, Barenboim conducted the Berlin Staatskapelle performance of part of Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde” at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem. Wagner’s music had been taboo in Israeli concert halls as a result of this composer’s anti-Semitism. Although he was strongly critical of Wagner’s views with regard to the Jews, calling it “monstrous,” he said that they were not identical to the use that the Nazis made of Wagner. For many years he had opposed the ban on Wagner’s music, regarding it as a reflection of a “diaspora” mentality no longer appropriate to the State of Israel.

It is interesting to remember that then Jerusalem’s mayor, Ehud Olmert, called Barenboim’s action “brazen, arrogant, uncivilized, and insensitive” and said that the city would have to reconsider his future relations with the famous conductor.

In 2003, during an interview with the British music critic Norman Lebrecht, Barenboim said that the Israeli government was behaving in a way that was “morally abhorrent and strategically wrong, putting in danger the very existence of the State of Israel.”

In March 2008, Barenboim refused to take part in the festivities commemorating Israel’s 60th anniversary, stating, “It is 60 years of Israel’s independence, which also means that it is 60 years of suffering of the people who were here.”

He was clear about the need for both sides to understand each other, to work with each other in the common goal for peace saying, “There is no way Israel will deal with the Palestinians if the Palestinians don’t understand the suffering of the Jewish people.” But he added, “We have to accept co-responsibility for Palestinian suffering. Until an Israeli leader is able to utter those words there will be no peace.”

Barenboim has been one of the most consistent builders of “bridges of understanding” between Israelis and Palestinians both through the creation, with his close friend, the late Edward Said, of the orchestra West-Eastern Divan, which brings together Arab and Israeli musicians, and through his consistent criticism of the Israeli government’s divisive and harsh policies against the Palestinians.

Barenboim’s actions represent the best Jewish traditions of justice and compassion. The difficult path he has taken should be followed by all those Israelis who refuse to accept that Palestinians have an equal right to live a life in freedom and dignity.

Cesar Chelala is the foreign correspondent for the Middle East Times International, Australia.