Bringing Beethoven to the West Bank

Conductor Daniel Barenboim tries to bridge the Israeli-Palestininan divide with classical music.

Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim is on the phone, apologising profusely. Somewhat improbably, he tells me he’s just popped down the road to buy a jumper, having arrived in London in the expectation of a heatwave only to find himself shivering this morning. That a man as unfeasibly busy as Barenboim has time to buy his own sweaters – let alone make his own phone calls – is unexpected. But five minutes later, the polyglot, polymath musician strides into the lobby at Claridge’s, bearing an Emporio Armani bag and that famously disarming smile – a smile whose ­persuasive power has convinced thousands of orchestral musicians, hundreds of Arabs and Israelis, numerous global politicians, even me – to do things they might never have imagined possible.

The pianist, conductor, author and lecturer turns 70 next year and still operates on a schedule that would give many 17-year-olds pause. Before this year is out, Barenboim will release his third disc of 2011; play a complete Beethoven piano concerto cycle in Israel; give 60 more  concerts, including a tour with the West-Eastern Divan, the Arab-Israeli youth orchestra he co-founded in 1999 with the late Edward Said; and perform in 12 countries, as well as the West Bank and the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.

Upstairs in his suite at Claridge’s, a grand piano bears well-thumbed copies of Liszt’s two piano concertos, which he would perform that evening at the Royal Festival Hall. I take this as gratifying evidence that a man whose musical achievements so often appear superhuman does, occasionally, have to practise. Pulling on his new jumper, he offers me a glass of “beautiful” red wine, though it is barely past midday; I thank him, but decline. And then suddenly, as is the Barenboim way, the smile has faded and he is talking very seriously about Gaza.

“One has to keep these pieces of information in mind,” he tells me in his distinctive accent, a ­mixture of his Argentine-Israeli childhood and the English, Russian, German, French and Spanish he uses almost interchangeably. “One, that 85 per cent of the population of Gaza is under 30 years old. Two, that 50 per cent is under 16. And that these young people are the future for all of us.”

Barenboim, a Jew who holds both Israeli and Palestinian passports, has recently returned from Gaza. In May, after various thwarted attempts, he finally made it across the border to perform a ­concert. Assisted by the United Nations and the new Egyptian government, which opened the ­airport specially for the occasion, he says he found the whole experience “deeply moving. One young man came up to me afterwards and said, ‘When the ­international community ignore us except to give us food, it makes us feel like animals. When you come here and give us a concert, it makes us feel like human beings.’”

Not that Barenboim allowed the emotion of the moment to overwhelm him. “I told the audience afterwards that I believe very much in the justice of the Palestinian cause,” he recollects. “But I also said, ‘please allow me to tell you that I don’t think you should try to achieve it with violence.’” The phone rings; Barenboim ignores it. “This is about the future of Palestine, the future of Israel, the future of the Middle East, and therefore the future of Europe,” he says. “It is no exaggeration to say this. To think anything else is very short-sighted.”

The last time I saw Daniel Barenboim was a little more than six months ago, when Mohamed Bouazizi was still just a fruit-seller in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid; when places such as  Tahrir SquareMisurata  and  Benghazi  were still unfamiliar to most of us; and when a nuclear plant named Fukushima-Daiichi was still generating away in Japan. To say that the world has changed is an understatement. Nevertheless, most musicians might have been content to give a concert in aid of the  Japanese earthquake  victims. They almost certainly would not be drawing intellectual parallels between these events and the “sonorous air” that is music – nor pondering how best to live in this changed world.

But Barenboim is not most musicians. “I think it’s imperative that every one of us rethinks ­everything we have believed in and understood until now,” he urges. “These events – the Arab ­uprising, which we must really salute, and the Japanese nuclear catastrophe, which shows us the peril the world is in and how we only ever look at our own short-term interests – have exposed a total lack of strategic thought.”

A musician, Barenboim believes, can offer a useful model for considering the “big, existential questions of life and society” anew. “Musicians are used to looking at the same printed page every day from scratch and always making it new.” He ­gestures at the piano. “You know, we played the Liszt concertos six times in different cities in the past week, but today we will not go to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, Pierre Boulez and the Staatskapelle and I, and repeat something we did either rather well or not so well in the previous concert. We will have to start completely from scratch. But we will have the added knowledge of the last time.” So the lesson of music is about ­accruing wisdom, and not repeating the mistakes of history? He nods. “I don’t mean to sound ­fatalistic, but I truly think these two events happened in order to say to all of us, to the population of the planet: beware, and think long term.”

. . .

If the world appeared stunned by the passion and energy driving the Arab youth uprisings, Barenboim was surely not. No stranger to political confrontation himself – the Israeli Knesset declared him persona non grata a decade ago, while many Palestinians accuse him of encouraging “normalisation” by inviting Arabs to “collaborate” with Jews through music – he has surrounded himself with revolutionary youngsters from this region for the past 12 years. The Syrian, Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Iranian musicians of the West-Eastern Divan may not be practising self-immolation. But simply by attending the orchestral tour every summer, alongside their Israeli counterparts, they are committing a form of resistance. It is worth remembering that not a single government represented in its ranks gives their blessing to its existence.

Nor do they hold on to their ideal of peaceful co-existence in some kind of utopian fantasy: every year, about 150 beating hearts and open minds, an equal ratio of Arabs to Israelis, come together – a model that remains unimaginable in the ­political sphere. “And every year,” Barenboim adds proudly, “these young musicians defy their government, their families and their society.” He points a finger at me – a surprisingly meaty digit given the delicacy of his pianism. “As you well know.”

In 2008, Barenboim invited me to join the West-Eastern Divan as an “honorary” violinist on the orchestra’s 10th anniversary tour. Between a ­surreal backstage audition in December, and the day we all converged in early January 2009, Israel launched its Operation Cast Lead offensive against Gaza. The tour was thrown into jeopardy: scheduled concerts in Qatar and Egypt were cancelled after security threats and some Arab members threatened a boycott. Barenboim e-mailed us all on New Year’s eve expressing the heightened importance of meeting during “this difficult time”, and the tour went ahead. In the ensuing three weeks, I ­witnessed at first hand the distinction Barenboim prefers when describing the Divan as “not an orchestra for peace, but against ignorance”. The discussions about the Middle East conflict, as central as music itself, proved that scepticism about the ­commitment of youngsters on both sides to understand better “the other” is unfounded. And in such circumstances, Barenboim’s insistence on the meaningful connections between music, in which one must listen and empathise or die, and the rest of life, became especially compelling.

“In front of a Beethoven symphony, unlike in life, these people are all equal,” he insists. “My ­contention is that music is a weapon through which we can learn a lot about ourselves, our society and about humanity in general.”

In the past few years, Barenboim has been increasingly committed to providing such “weapons” to young Palestinians in the West Bank. Yet any mention of Barenboim in the Palestinian ­territories inspires ambivalence. While he is outspoken in his opposition to the Israeli occupation – “the occupation has to stop, the settlements have to stop, otherwise there is no future” – many Palestinians view his bridge-building initiatives with deep suspicion, especially as the Divan has never officially denounced the occupation. As one former Palestinian member of the orchestra tells me shortly after my meeting with Barenboim, “Everyone knows that it is a beautiful thing that we can stand side by side in the orchestra, but they are not prepared to admit the reason why we cannot stand side by side anywhere except the orchestra, and that reason is the occupation.”

Barenboim is unflustered by the “normalisation” accusation. “It is essential that both sides have more contact with and exercise more curiosity about the other,” he tells me. “This is not a war between two nations, this is a conflict between two peoples who are both deeply convinced they have the right to live in the same little piece of land. If you drive from Tel Aviv to Gaza without checkpoints, it takes 35 minutes. But the people of Tel Aviv live in a make-believe world, as if Gaza were further away than Vietnam.” There is a knock on the door, which he ignores. “The Arabs have tried to throw the Jews into the sea and it didn’t work and the Jews have tried to throw the Arabs into the desert and it didn’t work. Their destinies are inextricably linked.”

The question of entwined destiny is particularly pertinent, I venture, when you consider the ­demography of Israel, where the Arab population is growing at almost twice the rate of the Jewish. Barenboim agrees. “I do not believe that the ­question of the Palestinians – and now I’m talking about the non-Jewish population in Israel – is really being addressed by the Israelis. If you are strong, you can win a war against your enemy. If you are very, very strong you can win a war against many enemies. But you cannot win a war against people who are amidst you … I don’t think there is a ­solution that can be imposed from outside. What the outside world can do is push for negotiations – not ­negotiations on the peace process, but negotiations on peace.” At that word, peace, Barenboim stops, and looks suddenly, uncharacteristically defeated. “We are all tired of the process.”

. . .

Last month, in the heart of the West Bank, there was heady talk of September, when the Palestinian Authority plans to  petition the United Nations for statehood. The exhilaration of the Arab spring reverberates through the air. I wonder what Barenboim thinks about the idea of an independent Palestinian state. “Well, I think it would be better if it were not declared unilaterally, because most things decided unilaterally only bring further stress and tension,” he concedes. “But if it is not possible to have negotiations, then I think the declaration of a Palestinian state is absolutely right, necessary and perfectly justified.”

Justified it may be, but inevitable it is not: many obstacles litter the path between here and September. Barenboim has always reserved particular contempt for “those who say they want peace and are not prepared to pay the price of peace”, so it is no surprise to find him outraged by what he sees as glaring inconsistencies in  Israeli  and  US ­attitudes  towards any eventual settlement. “We all know what Mr Netanyahu does not want. He does not want ‘67 borders. And yet he says he wants peace,” Barenboim scoffs. “So I would like to know why he doesn’t tell the world what he really wants? And as for Obama, I do not understand it. On the one hand, he agrees that the answer is a two-state solution along ‘67 borders, and on the other he says that if the Palestinians declare independence, he will veto. Frankly, I don’t see the logic of it.”

The phone goes again, and he finally gets up to answer it. The entourage is getting antsy. But he returns to the sofa. “It is as if you and I were married,” he grins, “and you would go shopping for food, and I ask for caviar but only give you enough money for tomatoes. And then I blame you for coming home with tomatoes.”

If his domestic model seems a tad antiquated, the metaphor highlights a fundamental stumbling block to negotiations. A favoured saying among the Palestinians, “only free men can negotiate”, goes one step further – that is, don’t expect us to bring you caviar when you’ve stolen all our tomatoes and stopped us from going to the shop. There was fury among Palestinians when the latest Wikileaks revelations demonstrated the extent of the concessions their negotiators were willing to make, yet Israel would demand much more – something that, says Barenboim, no Palestinian will ever give.

“The Israelis have to understand that the only security that is worthwhile and has a chance to be everlasting will come from Israel being accepted by the Palestinians and therefore indirectly by the Arab world,” he says. “Everything else is forced, unnatural and dangerous. The Israelis want an ideological end to the conflict, which they will never get because, let’s face it, there is not one Palestinian who will tell you that there is a ­necessity and a right for a Jewish state of Israel to exist there. The Palestinians are pragmatic, they say, ‘OK, we are not happy, but let’s try and make the best of it’. But they are not willing to give the Israelis the ideological end to the ­conflict, and the Israelis are not willing to try the pragmatic version because they feel it is ­dangerous.” He reflects for a moment. “There is nothing more dangerous than somebody who is very strong and very insecure.”

Barenboim, who will perform Beethoven in Tel Aviv later this month, has long been denounced as anti-Israeli, despite the warmth with which he talks of his Israeli childhood and education after 1952. “I am certainly not anti-Israeli, but there is no political party in Israel I could vote for with a clear conscience,” he clarifies. “My criticisms of the policies of the Israeli government are both on moral grounds – what it has done to Palestinian life and what it has stopped Palestinian life from becoming – and also strategically, because I do not think that this approach in the long term is positive for Israel.”

There’s another knock on the door. “Listen,” he says. “There can be no solution that is good for Israel and bad for the Palestinians, and vice versa. There can only be a solution that in the end is relatively, as much as possible, good for both.” Then he grins, mischievously. “And that is the definition of your British compromise, is it not – a solution whereby both parties are equally unhappy?”

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.