On September 21, 2008, Heartbeat Jerusalem,* a community of Israeli and Palestinian musicians using music to build understanding and create change, held its first concert ever. For nine months our first group of 12 Israeli and Palestinian musicians, ages 13-18, defied the status quo of separation, hatred, and fear. We met once a week for eight months to study and create music together. Over 300 Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals attended their debut concert at the stunning YMCA-Three Arches Concert Hall in Jerusalem. The audience came to state their common desire for peace and their support for the young musicians’ cooperative effort. The Heartbeat youth played and sang their hearts out. After the show, the audience lined up to congratulate the band members and thank them for their performance. The New York Times1 and Al-Arabiya TV produced excellent features on the event, and numerous local Israeli and Palestinian papers covered the concert too, writing kind articles (albeit often for the third page of the paper's arts section). For a “peace program,” we received terrific media coverage.
The next evening, on September 22, 2008, as I walked up the hill to pay our soundman for the previous night, I witnessed an 18 year-old plow into a crowd of Israeli soldiers with his father’s BMW. Within moments a mob of mostly orthodox-Jewish men, who lived nearby, gathered at the scene of the incident. According to the crowd’s telling of the events, and the subsequent Israeli and Western media coverage, this young Palestinian man had committed a suicide attack. We later learned that he had broken up with his girlfriend earlier that night. Apparently he had a few drinks, took his dad’s car, and was on an angry “joy-ride,” presumably to blow off steam, when he saw a crowd of Israeli soldiers crossing the street. In the end, none of the soldiers died, although 13 were injured. Other soldiers at the scene shot the young driver dead and his car skidded into a nearby electrical box. Reports of his “attack” flew around the world, making headlines on major news channels and newspapers. Within moments of the incident, a mob of 500 Jewish men gathered. I saw two Arab men in the crowd. One was running for his life, being chased away by over one hundred orthodox Jewish men. The second tauntingly tossed an object into the crowd and was promptly beaten, thrown on the ground, and kicked to a pulp by six young men. The Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, promptly announced his support for re-intensifying the home demolitions of all those related to terrorists, as a form of deterrence. All this for one kid and his spur of the moment act of violence. Of course, one can never get the full story...
Isn’t it amazing how mesmerizing violence has become? Has it always been this way? This shocking night has marked a defining moment in how I view music’s power and my role in helping to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How can one man’s violence be so much more powerful than hundreds using peaceful means? In fact, millions of men and women living in Israel and Palestine live peaceful lives and have no intention to attack or harm the other side. Why should we give more reverence to one man's violent act than we do to the peaceful acts of 300 at a concert, or millions quietly sitting at home? Is this because violence stirs more emotions? Is it because it gets better television ratings? There are those of us who seek other means to stir emotions and have our voices heard.
In this conflict zone, musicians seem to be some of the few people thinking clearly. While there are always exceptions, musicians share an understanding that music is music. We love to make great music. In my three years in Jerusalem, I have been extremely blessed to witness countless musicians come together, despite their political differences. Almost without fail, if two musicians can sit in a room together, they will play together. Music provides an opening, an incentive for an interaction that most of society has prevented. Moreover, musicians hold a unique power to bring their nuclear experience—from within the studio, song-writing session, or even a political dialogue—out into the community. A song created by four Israelis and Palestinians in a small studio in Jerusalem could, potentially, reach millions. A great song could dramatically transform people's understanding of “the other.” It could shake someone to a new awareness of the complexities of the conflict, the suffering of others, the fear, hopes, and love that we all experience. A song can take us where we want to go.
To go a step further, the musician is blessed with the responsibility to be creative. While so many professions demand that we be "practical," musicians are encouraged to reach beyond the limits. Our music can reflect today, take us back to yesterday, and paint pictures of tomorrow. It is our opportunity and responsibility to express ourselves and, if possible, to be a voice for others. Just by attaching our words to a nice melody and a catchy groove, people listen to us, challenge authority, question society, upset the status quo, or offer hope. That is… if we choose to.
Some choose to remain silent. In recent years, and increasingly in the past several months, many international artists have cancelled their concerts in Israel and Palestine. Some are simply afraid of seeming biased in one way or another and have no interest in taking sides—potentially to be labeled as “pro-this” or “anti-that”—unwillingly sucked into the conflict. Others had only planned to perform in Tel Aviv and Ramallah (Palestinian Territory) and were subsequently convinced not to perform for Israeli audiences as long as the Occupation persists. They hope their boycott will help drive Israelis to disrupt the status quo. Perhaps this is an effective method to wake up the Israeli public and force them to push for changes, rather than enjoying a raucous evening of mass opiate music. On the other hand, if an artist cancels his concert in Tel Aviv, he is written off as anti-Israel and joins the litany of people around the world who reinforce the mainstream Israeli mentality that says, “The world is against us. We must fight harder.”
I believe that the strongest approach is to use music to actually effect change. What does that mean? Some artists choose to utilize their music, media power, and their ability to bring people together, to actually bring people together, challenge the status quo of separation and fear, and actually do something for both Israelis and Palestinians. If Elvis Costello or Gil Scott Heron really wanted to help end the Occupation, they could play their concert in Jerusalem to a mixed audience. They could lift us up, speak their minds clearly and openly, and create a space for us to share and experience something positive together. They could set the example for the people here and for the world. As long as Israelis and Palestinians remain separate, the conflict will persist.
Consider this a call to all musicians in the world. Use your music to defy boundaries. Use your music to bring people together, to understand each other, to reflect on where we are and where we should be.
Heartbeat has traveled a fascinating journey in the nearly two years since that first concert. We have brought together over 50 Israeli and Palestinian youth and we have made great music. Through their music, the Heartbeat youth have expressed the brightest and darkest areas of their lives, they have detailed their opinions and experiences in the conflict, they have laughed hysterically, they have deeply offended each other, and most of all, believe it or not, they have built trust. Original recordings are on the way to the public’s ear. Hopefully many people will listen.
We say “The Mic is More Powerful than the Gun” and we believe that one day our motto will become true. In the meantime, we're just working on turning our amplifiers up a little louder, and we hope you are too.
1. See the video, "Jerusalem Journal: Teen Concerts Combat Animosity between Arab and Jewish Youth in Jerusalem Amid Recent Violence," on the New York Times website here.