For a few minutes, Arabs and Jews united by music
Young musicians from a West Bank refugee camp performed on Wednesday for survivors of the Holocaust.
Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters
It was the rarest of encounters: Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs separated by generations and bitter conflict.
Teenage musicians from a Palestinian West Bank refugee camp played the notes, although sometimes flat, of classical Arabic melodies. An audience of elderly Jewish Holocaust survivors tapped their feet and nodded in rhythm.
Lately, Israelis and Palestinians seldom mix in any setting, and this concert Wednesday morning near Tel Aviv by refugee children for concentration camp survivors came with plenty of historic, cultural, and political baggage. But for about an hour the enmity vanished. A dozen performers and about 30 survivors connected through music and, perhaps, gave one another some empathy for lives intertwined by conflict but separated by borders.
"They have a difficult past and we have a difficult past," says Keren Naiomi, a native of Poland who lost her entire family at the age of 5 and then was sent to a concentration camp. "They're from a refugee camp and we're from a concentration camp." For many of the Palestinian young people, who come from a neighborhood that was leveled by an Israeli invasion seven years ago, the rare permits to cross legally into Israel stirred excitement first and foremost – mostly about their first visit to the beach and to the land that their grandparents and parents called home before Israel was created in 1948.
The orchestra knew little, however, about their audience. The Holocaust is not taught in Palestinian schools or many places in the Middle East because of its political sensitivity as one of the seminal events leading to the creation of Israel.
"They told us that it is important to be kind to them because they are old," says Ali Zaeid after the performance. "They told us that these people have been through a war just like you."
The Palestinian music group was founded five years ago by Wafa Younes, a retired music teacher from the Israeli Arab town of Ara who crosses military checkpoints several times a week to teach in the Jenin refugee camp. For children traumatized by daily clashes between militants and the Israeli army, the lessons are a form of therapy, she says.
Perhaps that contribution emboldened her to take children to performance sites that some Palestinians might say go too far at normalizing relations with Israel.
"Everyone should be embraced," says Ms. Younes. "Regardless of whether they are Holocaust survivors, the elderly need their hearts warmed. My goal is to play for anyone who is in pain."
For their part, the audience of Holocaust survivors in this Tel Aviv suburb knew only that they were being treated to a performance of Middle Eastern music. But they weren't informed until the last minute that the band members were children from a Palestinian refugee camp who first had to wait two hours at a military checkpoint before leaving for the concert date.
As the performers moved through a brief set of songs that included an Arabic prayer for peace and music from Umm Kultum, the serious faces of the children turned into grins as they noticed their audience tapping along.
Two of the Holocaust survivors were invited to the microphone to sing a Yiddish song translated into Hebrew that recalled their childhood in Europe.
The concert culminated in a chorus of drumming and clapping that featured a duet with Israeli billionaire Shari Arison, whose Ruach Tova (Good Spirit) organization sponsored a national "Good Deeds Day" throughout Israel.
"Let's hope that this violence ends and we only sing and make music together," says Younes. "God willing."
As part of the same event, the Palestinian orchestra was scheduled later in the afternoon to perform for a group of Arab and Jewish children at an after-shoool activity center in the mixed town of Jaffa.
Ms. Arison shies away from questions about the political sensitivity surrounding the encounter between the survivors and the refugee children. "The idea is to remind people that it doesn't take much to do a good deed," she says. "I stay far away from politics. This has nothing to do with that."
Still, the political message of Arison's and Younes's good deed was not lost on Zaeid, one of the young musicians.Even though he considered his own status as a refugee to be a result of the Holocaust refugees whom he played for, he says, "there are Israelis who live here and have [no bone of contention] with us. They are obliged to be in the army."
As the meeting ended in a round of photographs and handshakes, one survivor came up to thank Younes for "the music that went straight to my heart."
Had the seniors made new friends from the concert?
"Friendship?" asks Tova Nichery, a survivor of a labor camp, who had just posed with the young musicians. "Not so fast. They're back to where they came from and we go back to where we came from. There needs to be dialogue."