Playing for peace

Monday 31st October 2005
New Statesman Special Issue

Part Israeli, part Palestinian, the Divan Orchestra is a beacon of hope in a gloomy landscape

Ariel Sharon and Daniel Barenboim represent two conflicting Israeli approaches to relations with the Arabs. Sharon is a proponent of the doctrine of permanent conflict and a unilateralist par excellence. Barenboim is a believer in co-responsibility and constructive engagement. Sharon is in the destruction business. Barenboim is in the construction business. Sharon is a Jewish Rambo. Barenboim personifies the Jewish values of truth, justice and tolerance.
In 1999, Barenboim and his friend Edward Said, the Palestinian academic and critic who died in 2003, created the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. It is made up of young Israeli and Arab musicians who meet every summer in Seville for intensive rehearsals and a concert tour. Alongside the musicians, and very much as a second fiddle, a small group of Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals, myself included, hold discussions on conflict resolution.

Barenboim and Said wanted to use the resource of culture towards a positive end: peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Our discussions in Seville started from the premise that Israelis and Palestinians are fated to live together on the same small piece of land. It follows that what is good for one side is good for the other. The ideas we put forward are not directed against anyone; they are designed to help the parties break out of the cycle of violence, bloodshed and mutual destruction.

The sound of classical European music, and especially Mahler's First Symphony, provided an exhilarating backdrop to the discussions. Raised in enmity, the exceptionally talented young men and women set an example by their devotion to the demands of their common craft. Together they play with wonderful energy and harmony in an orchestra that is larger than life. When looking at the musicians, it is impossible to tell the Israelis from the Arabs or Palestinians.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a beacon of hope in the gloomy political landscape of the Middle East. The challenge lies in translating this imaginative artistic concept into the realm of politics. No one underestimated the magnitude of the challenge, and yet there was a palpable sense of optimism in Seville. By the personal example he set, Daniel Barenboim infected many of us with his confidence that the impossible is easier to achieve than the difficult.