Rebel conductor making music for peace

by Cesar Chelala

He has been called “a real Jew hater” and a “real anti-Semite” by former Israeli Education Minister Limor Livnat. However, few musicians have done as much for peace between Israelis and Palestinians as Daniel Barenboim, the noted Argentine-born Israeli orchestra conductor. It will be only through efforts like his that peace can eventually be reached in the Middle East.

On May 3, Barenboim conducted a concert in the Gaza Strip. The orchestra included musicians from Germany, Austria, France and Italy, who played the concert “as a sign of our solidarity and friendship with Gaza’s civil society,” Barenboim said in a statement released by the United Nations, the concert coordinator.

In 1999, together with Palestinian-American professor Edward Said, one of the most prominent Palestinian intellectuals worldwide, Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, a youth orchestra based in Sevilla, Spain, with musicians of Egyptian, Iranian, Syrian, Lebanese-Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian background.

To The Guardian newspaper Barenboim said: “The Divan is not a love story and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance, a project (to demonstrate how essential it is for) people to get to know the other — to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it.

“I am not trying to convert Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, or Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to — and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward [Said] died a few years ago — create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.”

Barenboim is no stranger to controversy. On July 7, 2001, Barenboim led the Berlin Staatskapelle in part of Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde” at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem, despite Wagner’s music being unofficially taboo in Israel’s concert halls.

Originally, Barenboim had been scheduled to perform the first act of “Die Walkuere.” But facing strong opposition from Israel Festival’s Public Advisory board, which included Holocaust survivors, Barenboim agreed to substitute Wagner’s music with Robert Schumann’s and Igor Stravinsky’s.

At the end of the concert he regretted his initial decision and decided to play Wagner as an encore, inviting those who opposed it to leave the concert hall. After strong debate, 50 attendees walked out and 1,000 remained, applauding enthusiastically after the performance.

Barenboim has performed before in Palestinian territory. In 1999, he performed at Palestinian Birzeit University. In January 2008, after a concert in Ramallah, Barenboim accepted honorary Palestinian citizenship, a decision strongly criticized by Israeli authorities.

Following these events, the leader of the Shas Party stated that Barenboim should be stripped of his Israeli citizenship. Barenboim considered it a big honor to have been given the Palestinian passport.

Barenboim’s visit to Gaza was conducted in defiance of Israeli law, which bans Israeli citizens from visiting Gaza. With this concert, Barenboim and his orchestra did more than bring hope to hundreds of thousands of people who feel neglected by the world; they proved music’s power to exalt life over war.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.