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Daniel Barenboim: I am a Palestinian and an Israeli

On Tuesday, world-renowned conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim breached the blockade on Gaza by bringing an orchestra of some of Europe’s top musicians to a brief solidarity concert. +972 spoke to him after his return to Berlin.

Daniel Barenboim. Photo: Evgeny Reider

How do you sum up the visit?

I think it was a very important occasion. Thirty-six of the best European Musicians – from the Berlin Staatskapelle, from the Berlin Philharmonic, from the Vienne Philarmonic, from the Orchestra du Paris, and from La Scala of Milan came there with me and we were able to show solidarity with the civic society of Gaza. This was made possible by the invitation of the United Nations, who organized the concert together with Palestinian NGOs. It was a very important step in that it we didn’t go in with a political mission, but with the humanitarian mission, for the people and civil society of Gaza, who have had no access to culture for a long time.

I was especially impressed by the following fact:The Gaza Strip, as you know, is a very small area with over one and a half million inhabitants. And in spite of the blockade, which deprives them of many essentials – including cement to finish buildings, which you can actually see as you go there – in spite of that, they managed to build twelve universities. Twelve universities, in an area where you not only have 1.5 million people, but in an area where 85 percent of this 1.5 million are under thirty years of age. Very young people who are the hope of the next generation. And I think this is absolutely wonderful that they have built as many as twelve universities for these people. Because these are people who will get knowledge and information through the newest means the internet has to offer. This is the future of Palestine, and therefore, in some ways, also the future of Israel. Because this is the people that it will have to deal with. It’s a humanitarian, Palestinian, but also in a way Israel’s own interest to encourage people who want knowledge.

What is your take on the blockade policy ?

I think the blockade is a very, very major mistake. Because nobody has a right to distribute collective guilt, and also, in a sense, because the blockade is against Israel’s own interests. Israel should be encouraging people there to gain more knowledge and culture, not bring them to a point of total desperation. When people get information and knowledge – knowledge about everything, not just about the present situation, but knowledge of culture, knowledge of science, knowledge of political science – they will want and demand a better quality of life for themselves. And if you take measures that impede them from getting that better quality of life you automatically make them your enemies.

How was the audience’s response?

The audience was extremely enthusiastic. After we finished the concert I spoke a few words from the stage, as the United Nations Messenger of Peace, in the name, if you will, of the United Nations, and in the name of the musicians who came with me. I explained that the purpose of the concert was to show the people in Gaza that there are many people in the world who think about them and who want to show this kind of solidarity.

After I said that, I spoke a few sentences in my own name. I told them I am an Israeli. I told them I am also a Palestinian, and that I was living proof that it is possible to be both. I said that in my opinion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be solved by military and political means, because it’s not a normal conflict between two nations, of the kind we’ve seen hundreds of times throughout history. When you have a conflict between two nations, it’s a conflict about borders, about water, about oil, about any of these things. Thinks kind of conflict can be resolved diplomatically, politically, and if all else fails, militarily – for instance, conflicts between France and Germany and so on. Our conflict, in Israel-Palestine, is a conflict between two peoples, who are deeply convinced they have the right to live on the same little piece of land. It cannot be solved diplomatically or militarily, or any other means than by understanding the point of view of the other, having the curiosity to understand the other, and then by dialogue with them.

I feel, like most of the world, that the Occupation that existed for more than 40 years now is not conducive to peace, that settlements on the other’s territory are not conducive to peace, and that the Palestinian cause of self-determination and an independent state is a perfectly just cause. It is important to remember the justice and the righteousness of this cause, because a just cause will be never achieved with violence. Violence can win when the cause is not clear, but when you have a clear, just cause, the use of violence only weakens the cause.

This is what I said in Gaza – the exact same things I say in Tel Aviv and in Berlin, and I must tell you I was very moved by the reception – not only to the music but also to what I had to say.

You have put music in the service of dialogue, but also a growing movement that uses music in the opposite way – arguing that by denying Israelis musical performances one can pressure them to change their political opinion. What is your take on the cultural boycott?

I think it’s counterproductive. I think we need to have the courage to open up, and have an open exchange of views which hopefully will then lead to a peaceful solution.

Did you have any response or reaction from Hamas while you were in Gaza?

No – no contact, no reaction from Hamas. I don’t think there were even Hamas people at the concert, and if there were, they were there privately and I didn’t meet with them.

Some Israelis would say you were supporting Hamas by holding a concert there.

I certainly don’t support Hamas. I came there to play for the people who wanted to come to the concert and were interested to hear the music.

This is arguably a very dangerous time to visit Gaza – a peace activist was murdered there two weeks ago and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden came just before your concert. Did you feel safe in the Strip?

There was no problem. There was lots of security, of course, but there wasn’t really a feeling of danger.

Did you enter Gaza with your Palestinian passport?

No, I entered Gaza through Egypt with my Spanish passport.

Will you bring your the West-Eastern Divan orchestra of Arab and Israeli musicians to Gaza?

I hope so. I think the people of Gaza and the civic society there would be very happy to welcome the Divan one day. I hope we’ll be able to do that some day, and I hope sooner, rather than later.

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    1. So what did he exactly mean by saying that he is both Palestinian and Israeli?

      Reply to Comment
    2. aristeides

      He holds dual citizenship.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Jose

      Barenboim indeed holds dual citizenship, but only of Argentina and Israel. His Palestinian, as well as his Spanish, citizenship is just a honorary one.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben Israel

      I am also a Palestinian-Israeli. I am an Israeli Jew and I live in a region that has been part of the territory called “Palestine” in the past (a suburb of Tel Aviv, within the Green Line, to be more exact).

      Reply to Comment
    5. Barenboim: but there wasn’t really a feeling of danger

      Michael Kimmelman, the NYT journalist, who accompanied the musicians:

      A threat from an Islamic extremist group in Gaza, received by United Nations officials during the middle of the Mozart symphony, forced a hasty exit by the players after some post-concert speeches. The sight of players hurrying past them was heartbreaking… The orchestra swept back to Rafah and reboarded its plane

      Reply to Comment
    6. aristeides

      Since there isn’t a Palestinian state, any Palestinian state is in a way “honorary.”

      Reply to Comment
    7. Leonid Levin

      I’m proud that there are people like Barenboim. What he does is brave, noble and deeply human.

      @Ben Israel, you could also call yourself a Canaanite-Palestinian-Israeli, because you live in a region that was part of the territory called Canaan, even before the Israelites set foot on it.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ben Israel

      That is correct, and it applies to Barenboim, too.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Leonid Levin

      Why not just call ourselves World citizens, Earthlings, Solarians, Milkywayers, Universians?

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ben Israel

      I oppose “world citizenship” or “world government” because it would lead to a totalitarian, Stalinist state. You do recall that prior to World War II, Soviet Communism claimed to be “internationalist”. The USSR did not have a national anthem until 1943 IIRC and the name USSR was the only country name that has no reference to a geographical location.
      Yet this experiment in “internationalism” was a colossal failure.
      People need to feel close to some groups of people more than others. People naturally feel closer to their family than to other people, and they feel closer to people who speak their language and share their culture than to those who don’t. This is a normal, healthy instinct.
      The fact that there are different cultures and different nations does NOT mean there have to be endless wars, as long a mutual respect in emphasized.
      The European Union is yet another attempt to create an anti-nationalist state but what will happen in the end is that the inevitable problems will end up causing a backlash that will INCREASE nationalist feelings. For example, the Germans are now asking why they have to bail out the “lazy Greeks and Portuguese”. The Greeks in turn are saying “see, the Germans want to dictate to us just like they did when the occupied us in World War II”. The end result will be chaos, unless a totalitarian regime is put in power to supprees these centrifugal tendencies.

      I as a Jew strongly oppose these things. I feel Judaism has something important for the world but it is not a “universalist” religion like Islam and Christianity. The trend of the majority religions is to overwhelm the minority groups and so we, as a minority groups in the Middle East and the world, have the right to defend our culture, religion and values in our own sovereing state. We see, for example, in San Francisco a move by “progressive” forces to ban circumcision, in the name of “progressive universalist values”. Same with the attempts to ban Kosher slaughter in “liberal” countries like New Zealand. There is nothing new here and we are not going to allow the one country we have to be swallowed up by these forces of “progressive internationalism”.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Leonid Levin

      Ben Israel,

      You make some interesting points. Thanks for your insights! Yes, the USSR, where I incidentally come from, was a failure. However, it was an artificial, totalitarian formation, ruled by a relatively small elite, which did not reflect the will of its people. The European Union is a more successful venture, though not without problems. The end result does not need to be a chaos. Ultimately, the people of Europe want to live in peace and cooperation and they will find ways to do that.

      I don’t see anybody attacking Jewish culture, religion and values, so there is not really a need to defend them. I see things like circumcision and kosher food as things of the past that may have been necessary thousands of years ago because of health reasons, etc. From my point of view, what’s essential to Judaism is the prohibition to worship idols (which is in fact anything created by man: things, money, celebrities, power, states, ideas, all kinds of isms, etc) and the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself”. Or as Rabbi Hillel put it: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.”

      I feel there is a trend away from traditional religions towards a common experience of oneness of human kind. What humans have in common is much greater that whatever divides them. Throughout the history of mankind, families united into clans, clans into tribes, tribes into nations. The next logical step is the unification of nations into a world community, in which there is no need for one group to dominate another. This can be achieved when 1) more and more people will experience the wonderful feeling of oneness with the rest of mankind and when 2) people will find ways to harness the virtually unlimited energy of the sun, wind, tides, thermal, etc. and to use this energy to efficiently satisfy all material human needs, so that there is no need to compete for scarce resources. This will take some time, a lot of creativity and ingenuity, but is possible.

      The one country that you have, just like any other country, is a temporary and ultimately not so significant phenomenon on the gigantic scale of human history and will eventually give way to a commonwealth of the united nations of the world!

      Anyways, it’s good talking to you in the spirit of sharing views and ideas. Though our views may differ significantly, we can still be friends!

      Reply to Comment
    12. RichardNYC

      That he was able to “breach” the “blockade” with an orchestra says something about how suffocating the blockade really is doesn’t it. Once the Rafah crossing is open, I look forward to hearing the anti-Israel community’s justifications for continued use of the words “blockade” and “siege” (the unilateral definitions would make Israel a victim of blockade by Syria and Lebanon)

      Reply to Comment
    13. A great sentiment, a true advocate of mutual humanization, without the either/or demonization.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Rashid Ali

      Mr Barenboim is an Argentinian. He is not a Palestinian because he is not of the endogenous peoples of Palestine. He is not an israeli because israel is an illegal entity. While we appreciate any support in our struggles, we dont want it to complicated by claims that are not true

      Reply to Comment