Israel vs the Violin

This past semester I was the violin and viola teacher at the Gaza branch of Palestine’s National Conservatory of Music—though I never met my students, because Israel blocked me from….

This past semester I was the violin and viola teacher at the Gaza branch of Palestine’s National Conservatory of Music—though I never met my students, because Israel blocked me from entering the coastal strip. So I taught by Skype from the West Bank as best I could (when Gaza City’s electricity and Internet were both working at the same time), a poor substitute that nonetheless attempted to show the war-weary students that they had not been forgotten.[[Along with the author, Israel blocked the Conservatory’s General Director, Suhail Khoury, from reaching his institution. For more on the National Conservatory of Music, see this web page and this pdf. For the experiences of one medical professional blocked by Israel, see Mads Gilbert’s book, Night in Gaza, Skyscraper Publications, 2015. (USUKinfo)]]

They would be justified to believe that the world had indeed forsaken them. Israel strangles Gaza with a hermetic siege, lays waste to it with unprovoked attacks by land, air, and sea, and then blocks relief and rebuilding. Why, then, the violin? The people of Gaza need liberation above all, but until then they urgently need food, medicine, and reconstruction. Do they really need foreigners teaching their children violin?

People should have the opportunity to excel in whatever they love, and this is especially important for young people under extreme hardship and trauma. After Japan was devastated by a war and two atomic bombs, Shinichi Suzuki wanted to give something of meaning and beauty, a sense of self-worth, to the generation of lost children around him; he responded by developing a violin teaching method that addressed the country’s circumstances. For the people of Gaza, any pursuit of normality—playing soccer, writing poetry, chasing quarks—also defies Israel’s attempts to dehumanize them.[[For reports on how musicians in Gaza use their art to helped those emotionally scarred by the violence today, see e.g., Gaza youth learn music and challenge the occupation, Electronic Intifada, May 14, 2010; and the video Gaza After the War: Music Therapy.]]

Students in Gaza who win prestigious international scholarships or any other opportunity for further achievement are able to do so only at Israel’s pleasure. Those students whose dreams Israel does not shatter at the Armistice Line face the blockade again when they try to return to see their families at holidays or between school years—and if Israel does let them visit, they must accept the high risk that they will be unable to get out again.

For Palestinian musicians, Israel’s draconian control over civilian life means that they can only collaborate with colleagues in the same Israeli-created bantustan; that reliable planning is impossible; that your child’s music teacher may suddenly be expelled; and that on the day of the concert your child has worked all year to prepare for, s/he may be stopped from reaching the hall. Imagine a national music competition in which a foreign country blocks participants: In last year’s Palestine National Music Competition, the Conservatory had to establish video links to circumvent Israeli interference and enable all Palestinian applicants to audition. Some winners were forced to present their celebratory concert “live” by video link set up on the concert hall stage.

All Palestinians live with the fear of violence from the occupying military. In the West Bank, one talented teenage violinist I have coached and known for years was accused (wrongly, though the issue is irrelevant) by IDF soldiers of throwing stones; he denied it, and they smashed his violin. Another young musician similarly accused was, like so many other Palestinians, arbitrarily imprisoned and forced to sign a “confession”. In the most extreme case known to me, a Palestinian contrabass student (now a colleague) returning from a lesson was stopped by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint. They tied him to a wall and called in several new IDF recruits. “We caught this terrorist”, the soldiers told the new recruits. “What do we do with terrorists?” He awoke the next day in a hospital. His bass bow, broken in two, was all that was found with him.

One experience of mine is representative of the more mundane day-to-day obstacles confronting musical life in Palestine. The premiere of my string quartet Peregrinations was to have taken place in April 2014 at Bethlehem’s Peace Center, next to the traditional site of Christ’s birth, in a performance by the NCM String Quartet, under the auspices of the John Paul II Foundation and with the support of Bethlehem Municipality. It had been well-advertised and was to be broadcast live by Radio Mawwal. Two weeks before the performance, Israel prevented the quartet’s first violinist from reaching the West Bank. Diplomatic efforts to stop Israeli interference failed, forcing the cancellation of the concert. Within the space of one year, Israel thwarted three concerts of mine alone.

One day en route to teach students at a French cultural exchange institute in Hebron, two Israeli soldiers stopped me and asked what I was doing. I pointed to the viola strapped to my back, pointed to the entrance of the old city, and told them that I was teaching music. “What is your religion?” they asked next. I asked why they cared about my religion. “Because if you are Jewish you are not allowed.” They did not explain, but the impression was that the thought of a Jew teaching Palestinians to play the viola struck them as treasonous. Living in Palestine, one quickly learns to act pragmatically and say whatever avoids trouble, but I had had quite enough that day and told them that my religion was not their affair. After this went back and forth a few times, they grabbed me and started hauling me away to an IDF booth some fifty feet away. I was under arrest, they informed me. Quickly coming to my senses, I apologized and gave them the safest answer. “I am Christian.” The surname in my passport seemed to agree; and as regards my non-cooperation, the appearance of two TIPH international observers watching us from a distance likely tipped the balance in my favor. They let me go.[[TIPH (Temporary International Presence in Hebron) observers have no power, but act as witnesses. They followed the author until out of sight of the soldiers, and asked for an account of what had happened. The organization was formed in the aftermath of the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre by Hebron settler Baruch Goldstein.]]

Israel’s tight grip on life in Palestine is spun as the regrettable consequence of its right to self-defense. This, like the very idea that putting down resistance to its oppression is “defense”, is a lie. Stifling Palestinian achievement is itself the goal of Israel’s interference, because the Zionist narrative requires the dehumanization of anyone in the way of its ambitions. Israel needs to depict Palestine, and above all Gaza, as a nest of marauders. Palestine must never be seen as a civilization nurturing artists, writers, scientists, scholars—and violinists.

The BBC recently aired a piece entitled “Saving Gaza’s only grand piano”, a feel-good item that reported the discovery and restoration of a grand piano damaged in Israel’s 2014 “Protective Edge” attacks. In a virtually Orwellian reversal, the BBC referred to that onslaught as a “war with Israel”, and left its audience with the impression that Gaza would have a more flourishing music scene if only—well, if only ruling Hamas weren’t so conservative. One need not make any excuses for Hamas’ faults to point out that it is not Hamas that bombs Gaza to ruins and suffocates it under siege.[[Tim Whewell, Saving Gaza’s only grand piano, BBC Magazine, 26 March, 2015. Daniel Barenboim financed its restoration by the French technician Claire Bertrand. The articles alleges that the piano’s origin is uncertain; but the Conservatory’s general manager, Suhail Khoury, states (personal correspondence) that he was a primary participant in the piano’s acquisition and importation, and well aware of its history, but that the BBC never asked him. The National Conservatory’s Khamis Abu Shaaban was the discoverer of the piano after it lay damaged from bombings. Ironically, a few weeks before the BBC piece appeared, a concert within Palestine by Mr. Abu Shaaban’s own Watar Band was cancelled because Israel blocked him. The image on the right is a poster in East Jerusalem announcing the Watar Band concert, crossed out after news came that they were prevented from coming. Mr. Whewell did not respond to the author’s attempt to contact him.]]

“Paradise” is how Gaza was described to me by someone who lived there in the mid-1940s. Cataclysmic change hit Gaza in 1948 when many of the roughly eight hundred thousand Palestinians ethnically cleansed that year by the Zionist armies were shoved into the Mediterranean enclave, vastly exceeding its resources as Israel simultaneously severed it from the rest of Palestine. Israel’s siege of Gaza began then—not after the election of Hamas fifty-eight years later. Many of the refugees trapped in Gaza were on the brink of starvation, but they were shot dead on sight if they attempted to return to their own homes or even to reach what then became known as the West Bank, where conditions were slightly less horrific. Israel, meanwhile, stole their land, their homes, belongings, orchards, assets, businesses, factories, aquifers, and natural resources.[[Ted Steel, interview with the author, 2014. A good source for the early post-1948 period is Benny Morris, Israel’s Border Wars, Clarendon Press, 1993.]]

When after these seven decades with neither relief nor justice, fringe groups in Gaza fire crude rockets over the Armistice Line in response to an Israeli assault that the West does not report, our media and our governments showcase these rockets as an unprovoked attack. Israel has used them to justify five major campaigns—Summer Rains (2006), Autumn Clouds (2006), Cast Lead (2008-2009), Pillar of Defense (2012), and Protective Edge (2014)—that killed more than four thousand people, injured thousands, and laid waste to the entire civilian infrastructure. In each case, the media confined the discourse to two options: Most pundits, and the US Congress, offered unqualified support, while dissenting commentators argued that the attacks were “disproportionate”—justified, yes, but perhaps a bit too much “defense”. What actually happened, and why, remains off-limits. [[Regarding the Gaza rockets, see also Suarez, UXOs: Did Israel deliberately arm Hamas?, in Mondoweiss, December 13, 2010.]]

“Gaza has excellent musicians,” an unidentified chronicler wrote in the fourth century A.D. The Palestinian coastal region was, indeed, famous throughout the Roman Empire for its superb musicians, and Gaza appears to have had a dedicated music school by the third or second centuries BC.[[Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine: Archaeological, Written and Comparative Sources. p260 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002. By the fifth century AD, Gaza was also widely renowned for its visual arts, mosaics, philosophy, literature, and wine making.]] Today’s National Conservatory of Music follows a long tradition. The Zionist occupation of Palestine, like the occupations before it, will pass. In the meantime, Gaza’s millennia-old musical life, though crippled along with all aspects of everyday life, continues.

When future historians chronicle the so-called Palestinian-Israeli “conflict”, they will find the basics remarkably simple: turn-of-the-twentieth-century racial-nationalism spawns a settler ethnocracy. The land’s people resist. End of story. Everything else is details. What will leave our future historians confounded, however, is to understand how we explained our own role to ourselves. Why did we empower Israel so tenaciously, even as it made a mockery of everything we preached, and harmed us strategically, morally, and economically? What were we thinking?