Israel and the West Bank (and some efforts at musical peacemaking)

by Micah Hendler

(Micah Hendler ’11 was in Calhoun College and majored in music and international studies.  He is spending the summer globe-trotting with the Whiffenpoofs and documenting their musical-diplomatic exploits for the Globalist. This post describes their time in Jerusalem.)

Sunday, July 10

After a five-hour tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, we head to the Jerusalem YMCA for the Whiffenpoofs Concert for Peace, our one public concert in Israel. In the past, the Whiffenpoofs had collaborated with the Rotary Club in Jerusalem to set up the concert (I myself attended the 2010 Whiffenpoofs’ performance at the YMCA in Jerusalem last summer, a benefit for Rotary, and it was lovely), but I really wanted our concert to benefit peace work, specifically the work I had seen Seeds of Peace do so well over my four summers working with the organization. I figured I had a lot of experience in Israel and many connections in diverse communities in Jerusalem, so I tried, as respectfully as I could, to decline the Rotary Club’s offer, and decided to put together the event myself, relying on the copious logistical aid I had been promised by various Seeds of Peace staff members, from regional staff members to the executive director herself, as well as all the other networks I knew I would be able to tap into to generate an audience. But, like everything else with this tour, things did not go as planned. I got some great help from certain Seeds of Peace staff members early on in the process, but once the pedal had to hit the metal promotion-wise a couple weeks ago, Seeds of Peace was completely absent, despite several desperate emails from me. In addition, there were certain key avenues of publicity that I learned, too late, were crucial for generating an audience to any concert in Jerusalem. Presumably, local Seeds of Peace staff, or other local Jerusalemites that I asked for advice, would have had such expertise, but no one told me about them.

Organizing the concert in Jerusalem showed me the difficulties of combining music and peace efforts. (Hendler/TYG)

Because of my last-ditch efforts to save the concert, we end up with an audience of about 300 people. Particularly, one of the audience members remarked, “you would never find such a mix of people all in the same place at the same event in this city – this is pretty amazing.” And she was right – I was able to assemble a mix of Israelis and Palestinians, Seeds and soldiers, Jews, Christians and Muslims, young and old, and they all loved the concert. So that was a victory for sure. We also collaborated with Heartbeat Jerusalem, an amazing program started by one of my former Seeds of Peace music counselors, Aaron Shneyer. They are a band composed of Israeli and Palestinian youth from Jerusalem, who engage in coexistence work through collaborative song-writing and performance about all the issues that confront them in their lives, including the conflict. Hearbeat opened for us, and we closed the concert with a joint encore of the Israeli pop hit from the ’90s, “Salaam.”

In many ways, the concert was a success. Many of my family and friends from the US, Israel, and Palestine were at the concert, and I was happy to make them proud. But it was also a seriously lost opportunity. As far as social efficacy, only half as many people were able to experience the concert as I had hoped, and as traditionally come to Whiffenpoof concerts in Jerusalem (under the Rotary Club’s aegis, they usually sell out the YMCA). Financially-speaking, we barely broke even (the hall seats 600 people, and even with 300 people, we could barely cover our costs), so we will have little, if any, money to donate to Seeds of Peace.

But I learned some valuable lessons about making musical change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – notably, how hard it is. In particular, as our guide, Oodee, noted about Jerusalem’s architectural structure, it is impossible to build anything from scratch here – it must be built on the foundations of existing structures. I was able to assemble a rag-tag coalition of people to come to the concert, but by trying to simply create my own way without even being in the city in person to solidify my efforts with personal presence, my event did not have the solid structure that the Rotary Club had built for the Whiffenpoofs over the last several years. I thought that I needed to go against the grain and forge out on my own in order to make a difference, but such daring is rarely rewarded in a place as complicated as Jerusalem. If I want to start my choir in a year or two, or five, it will need to be firmly entrenched in the city of Jerusalem itself first, so that it can then stand firmly on its own.