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When music becomes a place of subjugation

If we who consider ourselves to be ‘peacemakers’ cannot identify the power dynamics within our own programs and events, then what we are doing at the end of the day does more harm than good for peace, justice, and those most marginalized in this relationship: Palestinians.

By B.G. Silver*

Illustrative photo of a concert (Photo by Shutterstock.com)

Illustrative photo of a concert (Photo by Shutterstock.com)

In our ever-growing jungle of protracted conflict and systemic injustice, there is an unquestionable need for inter-group reconciliation encounters between Israelis, Palestinians, and Palestinian-Israelis constructed with peacebuilding and human rights education. What is often missed is that peacebuilding and reconciliation are not simply the answer. They must and can only be a solution when applied through a critical praxis that addresses systemic injustice and inter-group power dynamics even within peacebuilding and reconciliation endeavors.

As a musician-activist educator, and member of this extended peacebuilding and reconciliation community, it is my responsibility and the responsibility of my colleagues to speak out when this crucial aspect of our work has been violated. I experienced that violation a number of weeks ago when attending one of the only openly public “peace” events that seem to exist in Jerusalem. To my shock and dismay, we just don’t get it.

As widespread violence continued to blanket this divided city, there was a pocket of hope: this year’s first in a series of open and free-to-the-public musical “peace” events.  Several years ago, this idea was birthed with the purpose of uniting Israelis and Palestinians through song and dialogue. Israeli and Palestinian communities would come together for a night of bilingual singing and teaching of each others’ narrative songs, break bread together, and engage in dialogue. I had attended one of these events in Jerusalem in 2011. To my understanding at that time, it upheld many of the values it committed to as an equalizing, joint Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding and reconciliation encounter.

Over the years, dozens of peacebuilding and reconciliation organizations have sprouted, focusing on many mediums such as sports, dialogue, and the expressive arts as a means and end to transforming conflict. While the aspirations of these organizations are noble and well-meaning, they often cloud overall peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts. More often than not, they do not address, whether through unwillingness or ignorance, the direct power dynamics and inequality that continue the patterns of systemic injustice and conflict, rather than producing new patterns based upon building equal social relationships that can challenge inequality, lack of freedoms, separation, segregation, and mistrust. These patterns of systemic injustice and conflict, which are intertwined into the socialization of society through educational, ideological, and political systems, will continue unless critically challenged.

Now several years later in 2014, with two more “casual” wars behind us, apartheid-like, silencing legislation in our midst, and greater lack of trust and understanding, I still wasn’t expecting this musical “peace” event to be particularly critical of the occupation. I wasn’t expecting something revolutionary that pushed the boundaries of society here that feel, often on both sides, entrenched in decades of scars, fear, and pain. Yet, what I saw and heard was nothing like what the event had been in 2011, and was hardly an acceptable event to unite Israelis and Palestinians. It achieved “whitewashing” at best.

How could it be at a musical “peace” event between Israelis and Palestinians that there was practically no music played or sung in Arabic, unless sung by Israelis? The event’s MCs, who happened to be one Israeli and one Palestinian from Shuafat, said that this event was not about “Kumbaya.” We were told that attending was a hard thing to do, and that we would undergo a challenging experience. There was also some mention that it was difficult, if not practically impossible, for anybody to attend from Shuafat Refugee Camp that night because the Israeli authorities had closed off the camp in the wake of more cyclical violence in the streets of Jerusalem. Mostly people continued to smoke and drink their beer. The Israeli announcer controlled the conversation. The Palestinian announcer seemed to be looking for space — any space.

After the announcers and two singers, both surprisingly Israeli who were supposed to teach the audience songs in Hebrew and Arabic, finished their bit, the main act began. I expected from this famous globetrotting Israeli artist something strong and meaningful as part of the main act, shared with a Palestinian-Israeli singer.  I thought he could be a voice speaking out against the sickening violence, and inequality enveloping us. I thought he could be the amplification for activism and solidarity at this musical “peace” event. I wanted him to recognize, to be of witness of what is happening here that affects both Israelis and Palestinians, even if in disproportionate ways. Nothing. All the while, the crowd continued to drink and smoke, while a few individuals slipped through the crowd passing around little stickers promoting an upcoming event against racism in Jerusalem.

As I stood with a Palestinian member of the Israeli-Palestinian youth organization I work for — from Shuafat Refugee Camp — who had suggested attending this event in the first place, I couldn’t help but wonder how he felt and what he thought. I personally felt embarrassed. What kind of event was this anyway? A party to celebrate Mizrahi-ness as a translation for Palestinian-ness? To find the “Arab” in each and every one of us? To party like it’s “haflah-time”? I tried to read his face. I tried to see how comfortable or uncomfortable he felt with each passing faux pas. All I could think of, from my “critical pedagogy in education” lens, was how this event, meant to be liberating in the wake of violence, separation, racism, only continued to subjugate him. We hadn’t entered a public space of freedom; it was the same space as practically everywhere else here for Palestinians, just masked and packaged differently.

I am not lambasting this particular event to condemn it from happening again, or to say that those who organized it don’t mean well. I also recognize that the growing strength of the BDS hinders Palestinian participation even in the most critical programs that address the inequality, violence, segregation, racism and occupation. This is also why these types of events are so crucial to tackle the multiple forces on both sides that divest from building a safe, equitable future for all. In all seriousness though, if we who consider ourselves to be “peacemakers” or who work for or with peacebuilding and reconciliation organizations cannot uncover the continuation of power dynamics within our own programs and events, if we cannot think critically of our words and actions, then what we are doing at the end of the day does more harm than good for peace, justice, and those most marginalized in this relationship: Palestinians.

If this is what exists, then it’s not enough. If we in this field do not engage in praxis[1] nor familiarize ourselves with the teachings of Paulo Freire, Johan Galtung, Ann Berlak, Zvi Bekerman, Monisha Bajaja, and Amin Maalouf among others, our programs will further the patterns of systemic injustice and conflict rather than liberate. We ask ourselves why there isn’t peace? Well certainly peace and justice won’t come if we continue to work this way. If even we can’t name the inequality, then who will?

This goes to say: we, in the field of peacebuilding and reconciliation, must look at our programs and events that bring together Israelis and Palestinians through a much more critical lens. Essentially, we must re-educate society to witness the power dynamics that exist here and learn to challenge them, in addition to building trust and mutual understanding. We must be open to being the stranger, thoughtfully and critically addressing the systemic injustice even we may contribute to, despite our best intentions and hopeful hearts.

*B.G. Silver is the pseudonym of a musician-activist educator living in Jerusalem. Her current jam includes Janelle Monae, Brahms, Bustan Abraham, Alicia Keys, Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, John Legend, Amy Winehouse, Dvorak, Umm Kalthoum, and Beyonce. The author asked not to use her real name in order to protect the organizations she works for and the increasingly sensitive work they do.

Read also:
Israeli president’s apology offers a rare hope for coexistence
‘We will overcome’: Arson and mourning at Jerusalem’s bilingual school
Israel’s other war: Silencing Palestinian citizens

[1] “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” (Freire, 1970, p.34)

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    1. Rembo

      I have no idea what you are trying to say. An even took place bringing together Israelis and Palestinians that wish to make an effort to bring peace closer. Yet you criticize because what? They didn’t burn an Israeli flag on stage?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      Take the information from your observations and do something actually mutually respectful with it, something creative, something collaborative.

      Don’t moan, organize.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Pedro X

      The writer might want to examine systemic prejudice on the Palestinian side which has prevented sporting and musical events from having any real effect on the conflict. For instance, a Palestinian youth orchestra was disbanded for having played music before Holocaust survivors. The Palestinians who arranged friendly football matches between Jewish and Palestinian children have been branded as traitors. At a Jewish Arab music festival a Jordanian singer canceled his appearance because he was threatened with death if he should appear. He said that people who wanted to make peace were made criminals by the Arab side.

      The fact is that Palestinian culture and cultural events promote hatred, violence and non cooperation between Arabs and Jews. Abbas and other Palestinian politicians are regularly shown on PA TV attending events featuring cultural displays of song and dance urging Palestinians to regain their rights by bloodshed against the Jews. In January 2012 the Mufti of Jerusalem repeated the Hadith calling for genocide of the Jews. At a puppet festival the organizers called for youth to pick up weapons and fight the Jews. Arab social media is currently chock full of promotion of knifing and running over Jews in motor vehicles. One song called run over the two month baby is symbolic of the systemic prejudice in the Palestinian Arab sector against any forms of co-existence.

      A PSR poll in September 2014 found that 72% of the Palestinian population favoured transferring Hamas weapons and tactics to the West Bank. Palestinians desire a war which would bring great destruction to themselves over trying to negotiate peace.

      In the business world, Arabs do business with Jews and the Jewish state but hide the fact. They are afraid to come out into the open to say that they do business with the Jews. The Palestinian tech sector was appalled by an article which trumpeted the cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian tech sectors. The Palestinian business owners reacted as if the article signed their death warrants.

      In the 1990s after Rabin was shot dead, 500,000 Israelis rallied for peace. There was no Arab rally for peace. The Palestinians brought terrorism to the table which defeated Shimon Peres bid for re-election even though he enjoyed a 20 point advantage over Netanyahu. Recently Israelis attempted to attend a meeting with Palestinians as an alternative to the peace negotiations held between government parties. The Palestinian anti normalization activists surrounded the hall and the Israelis had to leave because of the threat of injury and harm.

      The Palestinians lack a real peace camp and popular support for peace and co-existence. The Palestinian government supports non cooperation and fuels the flames of incitement.

      Reply to Comment
      • “In the 1990s after Rabin was shot dead, 500,000 Israelis rallied for peace. There was no Arab rally for peace.”

        This Rabin?
        In The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Ilan Pappe writes: Israel’s ‘peace’ axioms were re-articulated during the days of Yitzhak Rabin, the same Yitzhak Rabin who, as a young officer, had taken an active part in the 1948 cleansing but who had now been elected as prime minister on a platform that promised the resumption of the peace effort. Rabin’s death – he was assassinated by one of his own people on 4 November 1995 came too soon for anyone to assess how much he had really changed from his 1948 days: as recently as 1987, as minister of defence, he had ordered his troops to break the bones of Palestinians who confronted his tanks with stones in the first Intifada; he had deported hundreds of Palestinians as prime minister prior to the Oslo Agreement, and he had pushed for the 1994 Oslo B agreement that effectively caged the Palestinians in the West Bank into several Bantustans. – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2010/11/the-real-yitzhak-rabin#sthash.iD1NfM1F.dpuf

        If I were Palestinian, I’d be wondering (not that anyone would care) why Rabin got popped by one of his own. That’d make me think peace is not wanted by Israelis. Maybe a knee jerk reflex, but that’s what I’d be thinking. Maybe after some time I’d think differently and see that in fact the GoI really does want peace, but wait, no, nope, they really don’t. As a matter of fact, they seem to want to just kill us. Huh. What’s your question?

        Reply to Comment
        • Sluggo

          Annie, what is the reason that your character Marnie stays in Israel? Couldn’t a single American mother leave a place she hates move back to the US and be with family? She doesn’t work so,she can be a parasite at home, Not sure you thought this part of the story through. Perhaps it is,similar to the abandonment you faced in your own life.

          Reply to Comment
        • GilGamesh

          First of all the question you were responding to was “In the 1990s after Rabin was shot dead, 500,000 Israelis rallied for peace. There was no Arab rally for peace” . What does Rabin’s past have to do with why there was never a rally for peace by the Palestinians?
          Secondly using MW as a source for anything historical is useless, it just isn’t in anyway shape or form a reliable source.
          Thirdly if that’s the question you would ask yourself if you were a Palestinian then you’d be one dumb Palestinian. At the time there was no doubt that the vast majority of Israelis were horrified by Rabin’s murder that’s why there was a rally of 500,000 to begin with.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Whiplash

      Listen to what the Palestinians are singing and it has nothing to do with co-existence. Haaretz:

      “A new video reportedly made by two Ramallah residents is calling on Arabic speakers to run over babies, a reference to an attack last month in which a Palestinian terrorist rammed his car into a light rail station in Jerusalem, killing an infant and a 22-year-old woman.”

      Palestinian social media is flooded with cartoons urging Palestinians to use their cars to murder Jews.

      The Palestinians Architects society published a cartoon showing Palestinians knocking over a portion of the separation barrier onto a Jew killing him.

      PA TV is awash with songs about Jews being apes and pigs and the need of Palestinian youths to spill their blood fighting the Jews to get back Akko, Yaffo and other Israeli cities.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Poxipa

      I agree that teaching critical social theories could help. But the main problem is more basic. It has to do with the fact that these type of ‘peace’ activities are becoming more of an antithesis to the Right wing than they are a call for ideological transformation.

      The preoccupation with extreme right-wing violence overshadows the concern with structural violence among the Left, and every somewhat liberal politician who isn’t pro-violence, including right wing ones (Livni, Rivlin) is automatically embraced by the mainstream Left, regardless to his or her ideology of state power.

      Of course the feel-good bourgeois activism that you describe also plays a role here.

      Reply to Comment
    6. sh

      Music is never a place of subjugation because it’s the only cultural field that cannot be hemmed in. There’s no recipe yet for stopping people humming or jamming and music a society doesn’t want you to hear will waft out of windows, doors and over walls, even if they’re tight shut or 8 metres high.

      That said, Israeli left-wing demonstrations are (still) places of subjugation – albeit often unwitting. It’s the society that is a place of subjugation, not music. Up to us to make good things happen.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Victor Arajs

      Normalization between Jews and Arabs should be totally opposed. I am gratified that fewer Arabs are utlizing Jerusalem’s light trains, which was to support normalizaton

      Reply to Comment