THE LANGUAGE OF MUSIC Afrah Saade, 17, a violinist with the Jenin youth orchestra, played for Holocaust survivors on Wednesday in Holon, Israel.
The New York Times
March 26, 2009
Palestinians Serenade Survivors in Israel
By ISABEL KERSHNER
HOLON, Israel — For just over an hour on Wednesday, a club for elderly Holocaust survivors on a side street in this suburban town south of Tel Aviv came alive with an encounter of an extraordinary kind.
A youth orchestra came to play for the elderly Israelis, a good turn that might pass in other countries as routine. In this case, though, the entertainers were Palestinians, a group of musicians 12 to 17 years old from the Jenin refugee camp, once a notorious hotbed of militancy and violence in the northern reaches of the West Bank.
Holocaust survivors and descendants of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war would make bizarre companions at the best of times, but the Jenin camp strikes a particular note of discord.
The capital of suicide bombers to the Israelis and a symbol of resistance to the Palestinians, it was the scene of a bloody battle between advancing Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen in 2002. Four years later, a young Israeli man from Holon was killed in one of the last suicide attacks in Israel, when a Palestinian from Jenin blew himself up in a restaurant in Tel Aviv.
Adding to the dissonance, one of Jenin’s militant leaders in the second intifada was commonly known as Hitler, a nickname he had answered to since his teens.
Yet for a while on Wednesday, the politics of the conflict were put aside. The youths scratched at their violins and the Holocaust survivors clapped along, trying to keep up with the changing rhythms of the darbouka drums.
“We are here to play,” Wafaa Younis, 51, the Israeli Arab orchestra director, told the rapt audience. “I do not believe in politicians, only musicians and these children.”
Any potential awkwardness may have been dulled by the language barrier — other than Ms. Younis, the Palestinians spoke only Arabic; the survivors only Hebrew and their native European tongues. Each also appeared to have only the sketchiest knowledge about the other side.
Zehava Zelevski, 73, was born in Poland and came to Israel via camps in Germany for displaced people in 1948. Her three brothers were killed during the Second World War. Ms. Zelevski said she knew about the Jenin camp from television and the newspapers, remembering that “all the terrorism came from there.”
One of the young musicians, Qusai Samur, 17, looked blank when asked about the Holocaust. He said he knew only what somebody here had told him — that these people lived alone as children because their parents had been killed.
The event, at the Amcha Center, was organized as part of Israel’s annual Good Deeds Day, an initiative of Shari Arison, a prominent Israeli-American businesswoman and immensely wealthy heiress.
Ms. Arison said in an interview before the concert that she came up with the idea for Good Deeds Day while taking a walk a few years ago. Anybody, whether rich or poor, can help a blind person cross a street, cheer someone up with a smile or help with someone’s shopping bags, she said.
Most of the day’s events are organized by Ruach Tova, an organization of the Arison Group that couples nonprofit groups with volunteers.
Ms. Younis, the orchestra director, had told Ruach Tova that she wanted to bring the Jenin camp youth orchestra, Strings of Freedom, to perform in Israel. Ruach Tova made the match with Amcha, an Israeli association that provides Holocaust survivors with emotional and social support.
The first item in the short concert was a specially composed Arabic song, “We Pray for Peace.” The youths performed it standing, with the seriousness of a funeral dirge. Things livened up a little once the darboukas came out. Ms. Arison, who attended the well-publicized event, was invited to dance.
By the end, it was hard to tell who had done the good deed for whom.
After the concert, Ms. Zelevski, the survivor, said she was “surprised” and “very excited,” seeing things were possible “not by war.” Debating the rights and wrongs of the conflict among themselves, some of the elderly Israelis commented that the Palestinian musicians were “only children” and were not to blame.
The young Palestinians, on a rare trip out of the West Bank, were all smiles. They had performed three times before in the Israeli port city of Haifa, but this was the closest they had come to the Israeli cultural metropolis of Tel Aviv.
Soon, a staff member from the Amcha Center politely asked the orchestra and attendant journalists to vacate the small hall. It was time for the survivors’ exercise class.
Outside, some of the elderly Israelis and the young Palestinians mingled, trying their best to interact.
Ms. Younis, a feisty retired music teacher, appealed for support. She said that an Israeli playwright, Dan Almagor, had donated violins for the Jenin youths, and that the Mormon University in Jerusalem had given other instruments and equipment, but that the orchestra needed more.
“Israel should give them violins,” she said. “We take the pain out of people’s hearts.”