On March 25, 2009, 13 young Palestinian string musicians and old Israeli Holocaust survivors created a rare moment of beauty free of boundaries as they found themselves face to face at the Holocaust Survivors Center in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, performing, listening, and at times singing together. Neither group realized it would be facing the other until the moment happened. Neither group regretted it. Far from it. They reveled in the moment, learned more than a few heartbreaks one from the other, and posed for pictures together.
When the Strings of Freedom orchestra returned home to Jenin, the Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank, their music director, Wafa Younis, was fired, her studio apartment in the camp shuttered, and the orchestra disbanded. The reason: Adnan Hindi , leader of the camp’s Popular Committee, which sounds like one of those proto-fascist guilds of grass-root thuggery, decreed that Younis had deceived her musicians and had exploited them, in The Times' account, "for the purpose of 'normalizing' ties with Israel. [Hindi] said by telephone that the children had been 'deceived' and dragged unwittingly into a political situation that 'served enemy interests' and aimed to 'destroy the Palestinian national spirit in the camp.'"
Sabotaging a Bridge toward Understanding
Between small minds and self-destruction, there's hardly any distance at all. The point of the encounter was precisely to defy politics, to raise spirits on both sides and to lower barriers of ignorance: hardly any of the children knew who they were facing because the Holocaust isn't taught in the Palestinian Territories.
Palestinian suffering isn't exactly taught in Israeli schools, either, and Palestinians, especially in Jenin (a camp ridden in the violence of Israeli oppression and Palestinian resistance, a mix rife with terrorism on both sides), have more than a few reasons to be concerned about their own suffering for the past decades.
The string group was half an hour late to its performance because it was delayed at an Israeli checkpoint, one of those instruments of sheer humiliation that Palestinians live with every day. But none of that argues against Younis' courageous act, capped by her decision to dedicate one of the orchestra's songs to Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive by Palestinian militants in Gaza, and to criticize Israel's occupation of the West Bank.
So Much for Good Deeds Day
For that, the orchestra she started and has run for the past seven years, commuting from a town in Israel to do so, is falling prey to the very bitterness and bigotry she was aiming to override on "Make a Difference Day.".
Ruach Tova, Hebrew for "Good Spirit," is an Israeli service organization that connects volunteers with people who need help of all kind. Last Wednesday was Good Deeds Day, a sort of Israeli Make a Difference Day coordinated by Ruach Tova and initiated in 2007 by Sheri Arison, Israel's richest woman and one of the richest people in the world (thanks to Carnival Corp., the cruise ship company).
The charity approached Wafa Younis, who accepted the offer to perform. It's true that the Holocaust survivors were not told that they'd be looking at Children from Jenin that day. It's also true that the children weren't told they would be performing for Holocaust survivors, though Younis says she tried to tell the children about the audience on the bus but couldn't be heard over their rowdiness.
So what? No one was manipulated. There was no intention to harm, and there was no harm. How could there be when the occasion is about music and songs of peace?
The Distance Between Jenin and Israel
But some distances can't be bridged. The distance between Jenin and Holon would be no more than a couple of hours in normal geography, on normal roads, in a normal country. It's an indication of the immense distance between the two places that the Palestinian children were positively startled at the sight of civilian Israelis, whom most of them had never seen, because their experience of Israelis is limited to soldiers, heavily armed and just as metallically furrowed.
The old Holocaust survivors, most of them poor, were just as startled to see children from Jenin, a town they've only heard of on television or in the papers, a town typically associated with the word "terrorist" in Israel's vocabulary of preconceptions.
That day both groups were survivors, up to a point. Strings of Freedom no longer exists. That, in the end, is the tragedy of this story.