Playing With the Enemy: Orchestra Brings Together Israelis and Arabs

February 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Set on the backdrop of mideast conflict, Jeffrey Brown profiles the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a musical ensemble that brings Israelis, Palestinians and other Arab citizens together for a common goal of creativity and maybe more. He talks to their founder, renowned conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim.

JEFFREY BROWN: All last week, Margaret Warner and a NewsHour team reported from Israel on many facets of its increasingly tense relations with its neighbors. While she was there, I had a chance to see the Mideast conflict from another angle: music.

The dramatic opening movement of Beethoven’s Third, the Eroica Symphony, performed by a group of musicians on a heroic mission of their own. This is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up largely of Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs from around the Middle East, people who might consider the other an enemy and would likely never otherwise meet.

DANIEL BARENBOIM, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: It is a space for dialogue. It is where you get to — where else outside this orchestra has a Syrian the chance to meet an Israeli and work with him and do things with him and talk to him and understand his — his narrative? Nowhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: The driving force behind the group is Israeli Daniel Barenboim, a conductor and pianist of international renown.

DANIEL BARENBOIM: And he’s an Israeli and I’m a Palestinian.

JEFFREY BROWN: He and his friend Edward Said, a Palestinian-American literary scholar and activist, first brought young musicians from the Mideast to a workshop in Germany in 1999, where they played together and talked about the tensions in their part of the world.

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Edward Said died of leukemia in 2003. Barenboim has continued, building the orchestra into a highly acclaimed group that gathers every summer in Spain for workshops before heading out on tour. They have appeared regularly in Europe and Asia.

We caught up with them at Boston’s Symphony Hall, part of the city’s Celebrity Series, at the beginning of just their second-ever visit to the U.S. Backstage, musicians aged 15 to 36 warmed up and chatted in a variety of languages.


JEFFREY BROWN: At rehearsal, Barenboim was a tough taskmaster…

DANIEL BARENBOIM: You see how much more space you have for a crescendo? Please, don’t play mechanically.

JEFFREY BROWN: … cajoling his young musicians.

DANIEL BARENBOIM: You’re just playing comfortably, comfortably, without any idea of thought. What is that?

JEFFREY BROWN: I watched the rehearsal, and you were pretty tough on them at various points. You kept saying, you’re playing too comfortably. What does that mean?

DANIEL BARENBOIM: It means that, to make music, to express music, you cannot adopt the line of least resistance. You have to adopt the line of most resistance. Music is not politically correct. Music demands total, total concentration and the perfect, perfect matrimony between thought, feeling, and gut.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how do you …

DANIEL BARENBOIM: And people who take it easy should choose to professions.



JEFFREY BROWN: Uncompromising in his music, Barenboim is also uncompromising in his politics. He’s been critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians, including expanding settlements. Several years ago, he brought this orchestra to the West Bank, and has performed himself in Gaza, concerts that were very controversial in Israel.

But he and the orchestra have also been criticized by Palestinians and other Arabs for promoting a kind of normalization that ignores the realities on the ground. A planned concert in Arab East Jerusalem last year, for example, was canceled after complaints by Palestinians.

Musicians on both sides have felt the pressure; 23-year-old Palestinian violinist Tyme Khleifi has been with the orchestra since she was just 13.

TYME KHLEIFI, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: Coming to this orchestra is probably one of the hardest things that each one of us has, like, done. It’s not easy to come and face so much pain and suffering and come face to face with the people who you grew up thinking that they caused it.

JEFFREY BROWN: She says her family supported her desire to play with the orchestra, but:

TYME KHLEIFI: The general population is against such a project, especially these days, with, you know, ever-worsening political situations and increasing levels of frustrations. And projects like this are viewed as normalizing projects and sort of collaboration, in the negative sense of the word.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how does that — how do you deal with that?

TYME KHLEIFI: Well, the only way that we can achieve anything that is even remotely related to peace is if we sit together and talk, or if we at least try to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you experience the same criticism?

GUY ESHED, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: I experience some things, especially lately, experience with a friend of the family who was very — he was criticizing basically mainly the activity of this orchestra and the activity of Maestro Barenboim.

JEFFREY BROWN: 33-year-old Israeli flautist Guy Eshed has been with the orchestra for 12 years. He now has a busy international career with orchestras and chamber groups. But he makes time to rejoin the West-Eastern Divan every year, with a clear idea of what is and is not possible.

GUY ESHED: It’s a humanitarian project. It’s not an orchestra for peace.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re not expecting to bring peace out of …

GUY ESHED: The fact we play the “Ode to Joy” and “All men should become brothers” is great. It’s beautiful. It’s a great idea. It’s a great idea, but it will not bring peace. We are not politicians. We cannot do that.

We are trying to achieve some kind of small utopia in our little community that can maybe give an example outside.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, of course, the upheaval and violence in the Mideast continue, and that limits the reach of this orchestra. While it can perform here in the U.S. and in Europe, it’s nearly impossible now to play in the home countries of its members. Barenboim is undeterred.

DANIEL BARENBOIM: This is even more relevant. Why does the orchestra function and the situation on the ground doesn’t function? Because, in the orchestra, we have the most important quality, and that is equality.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it frustrating to not be able to perform in the Arab countries, in Israel?

DANIEL BARENBOIM: Yes, very much so.

I think the full dimension of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will come to fruition the day that it can play in all the countries that are represented in the orchestra, whether it’s in Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Will that day come?

DANIEL BARENBOIM: One day, I’m sure, I’m sure. One day, I’m sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: The great hope of a man and an orchestra making beautiful music in a troubled world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there’s more online, including an interview with Mariam Said, who now manages the orchestra. Plus, watch an excerpt from the performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. You will find all that on our home page.