Music and Peace


In July 2012, the West Eastern Divan Orchestra led by the famous pianist David Barenboim performed all 9 of Beethoven's symphonies in one season at the British Proms. This was the first time such a feat had been undertaken in almost eighty years, but the orchestra was special for another reason: it was made up almost entirely of Israeli and Palestinian musicians.

Since even before 1942 when all of Beethoven's symphonic cycle was last performed, the relationship between Israel and Palestine has been one defined by conflict, violence, and suffering.

Territory in Israel that many Jewish people consider to be their religious and ethnic homeland is also claimed by the Palestinian Arab population on the same grounds. Israel and Palestine - and by extension Pan-Arab nations - have been in a constant state of war since 1948, and with no foreseeable peace agreement in sight, the West Eastern Divan orchestra works to fill a void where understanding, communication, and friendship between the two nations has only ever been conducted in the shadow of war.

When the orchestra was conceived in 1999 by the late Palestinian cultural theorist Edward Said and his close friend, the Israeli pianist and conductor David Barenboim, they were quick to state that what they were attempting to establish was neither 'a peace project' nor 'a love story’.

Over time however views have changed and many have come to disagree. Participating in orchestral performance necessarily calls for trust and cooperation between musicians; and only when this is achieved can there be music. The orchestra not only provides a working model for how relations between Israelis and Palestinians could operate in the Middle East, but also allows musicians to come together by way of level ground in an apolitical environment where they are guaranteed to share the same rights and responsibilities equally.

Although the founders of the orchestra remain sceptical about how much peace the project can breed, it is clear that the friendships and the dialogue that are facilitated by the orchestra have created room for healthy communication between Israelis and Palestinians that is sorely needed if the conflict is ever to be resolved.

Similarly, the work of West Eastern Divan orchestra encourages behaviours such as the Free Flow of Information, Acceptance of the Rights of Others and Good Relations with Neighbours. All such indicators that the Institute for Economics and Peace considers to be the Pillars of healthy relations between states.

Peace may be a long way ahead, but the work of the orchestra and its musicians demonstrates that it is a realizable future. Even the longest journey starts with a single step, and the West Eastern Divan orchestra has inched its foot forward. 

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