Sanford F. Kuvin
July 3, 2008 - 4:25pm

Can music be an instrument for peace? That's what the Sounding Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival hopes for, as it offers some of the season's best free live classical music in the city. The festival brings together 75 top European, Israeli and Arab musicians for over 20 concerts to mixed audiences in a wide variety of venues – churches in the Old City, historic sites in West Jerusalem and Palestinian villages. In spite of the obvious difficulties entailed in having concerts on both sides of the Green Line, the festival, which runs through 5 July, offers a decent intercultural opportunity for Jews, Christians and Arabs to share the borderless atmosphere of music at its best.

The individual behind this initiative is the Austrian cellist Erich Oskar Huetter. With funding from the European Union, this extraordinarily talented musician has embarked on a seemingly mission-impossible task of bringing Israelis and Palestinians together through musical sounds that rise above the region's political deafness. It's the kind of undertaking that demands prolonged patience, persistence, and a continuum of financial support. Dozens of earlier Arab-Israeli programmes in every arena have not fulfilled their potential because those same qualities were in short supply.

Huetter says he sees the pleasure generated by music as a means for breaking down barriers between individuals and peoples. From my own experience, as a part-time resident of Jerusalem for the past 38 years, I can attest to the fact that Huetter's on to something. Back before the first Intifada, over several years during the 1970s and '80s, I played clarinet and saxophone with a jazz quartet during the summers in the Cellar Bar of the American Colony Hotel. As it happened, we musicians were all Jewish, but the enthusiastic audiences who packed the bar the nights we performed were Palestinians and Israelis alike. During breaks we would sit together over drinks and talk about music and politics, something that afforded us a rare opportunity to get to know each other in this culturally divided city. After the uprising began, however, public performances of music were discouraged in East Jerusalem, and the hotel let us go. Today, more than two decades later, jazz has still not reappeared at the American Colony, although there have been reports that that might change.

In my professional life as a scientist and physician, I have seen how Arabs and Jews, with all their political and cultural differences, can work together. The centre for infectious and tropical diseases that I founded in 1974 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem began the first regional cooperative scientific exchange between Israel and any Arab country when a disease called Rift Valley Fever threatened the Middle East in 1979. Over several months, this "eleventh plague" killed thousands of Egyptians, as well as over two million head of livestock. The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, though, made it possible for scientists from the Hebrew University's Kuvin Centre and Cairo's Ain Shams University to work together in their respective labs, host international conferences in both countries, and jointly publish over 50 peer-reviewed papers, as they brought this disease under control. Since then, the Kuvin Centre has been involved in successful cooperative programmes with universities and medical schools in Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan and with the Palestinians.

Now that the peace with surrounding Arab countries has turned cold, the cultural links are at a minimum. Many Arab professional bodies still ban cultural exchanges with Israel. This is a terrible mistake, one that destroys scientific relationships that have the potential to benefit the entire region and world. Left to our own devices, we musicians and scientists will rise above politics and continue to find a way to meet and share our common interests. For example, in 1982, during the first Lebanon War, the Kuvin Centre's cooperative programme with Egypt never dropped a beat, nor did it lose even one day of scientific cooperation during the first Intifada or the prickly negotiations with Egypt over Taba.

Thus, a programme like Sounding Jerusalem provides a unique opportunity to audiences in the area, not least because of the high quality of the music being performed. At one concert earlier this month, at the Austrian Hospice in the Old City, where we heard the complicated String Quartet No. 2 by Leos Janacek, performed by Finland's Meta4 String Quartet, I ran into a prominent Palestinian scholar I know. The next day, over coffee, we discussed the concert, and agreed that even though we had heard the same sounds, both we and the other Muslims, Jews and Christians in the audience may well have heard them differently, and that it may well take many decades or longer for these sounds of Jerusalem to be a real bridge to peace. But even when the sounds are interpreted differently, music can be more productive than any political process.

When I created the first antibody test for malaria in 1960, I thought for sure that a safe and effective malaria vaccine would not be far behind. Forty-eight years later, there is still no effective vaccine for the disease. Similarly, what we call the peace process has had its starts and stops, hopeful moments and others of despair over the past 30 years, but just like a malaria vaccine or a cure for AIDS, success is still not in sight. Give up? Never. Thirty years is but the blink of an eye in time, and I am confident of a peaceful outcome in all venues in this region, given the human instinct for the passion and persistence to see these objectives through.


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