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Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 2002 / 17 Tishrei, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Can great music transcend politics?

Daniel Barenboim's futile odysseys to Ramallah and Valhalla | For one day, according to The New York Times, music truly trumped politics. In story headlined " 'Moonlight' and Mendelssohn in the West Bank," Times correspondent Serge Schememann reported that an audience of 200 Palestinian Arab student "froze in delight" as world-famous conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim played Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata.

Barenboim had journeyed through Israeli roadblocks to visit the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority to do something more than play Beethoven on an out-of-tune piano. He was playing to more than the audience present at a Quaker-affiliated school. The numerous television cameras and reporters who accompanied him were there to document his appearance as a statement against Israel's policies.

The naivete of the statement is almost touching. Does Barenboim really think a piano recital will break down the anti-Jewish hatred that is fed daily to the Palestinian students he charmed?

His answer is "yes."

"Each one of us has a responsibility to do what is right, and not to wait for others to do it," Barenboim told the students. "My way is music. … Maybe this way, in a very small way, for these few movements, we are able to build down the hatred that is so much in the region."

Barenboim, an Israeli citizen, had actually defied the refusal of the Israeli military to travel to what is, for all intents and purposes, enemy territory, and used a German embassy car to travel to Ramallah.

It was a gesture for which the Palestinian Authority, desperate for legitimacy after two years of waging a vicious terrorist war that had cost the lives of hundreds of Jews and even more Arabs, was grateful.

But for many Israelis, this was just another outrageous publicity stunt for an international superstar who seems to understand his own people even less than he does the Palestinians. The idea of a major Israeli artist performing in Ramallah this year struck most Israelis as outlandish and inappropriate.

Imagine a young Leonard Bernstein or an Arturo Toscanini journeying to Berlin in 1944 to "build bridges" with the German people and you quickly understand the ridiculous nature of Barenboim's odyssey.

Considering that this incident follows on the heels of his attempt last year to force the music of anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner on Israel, Barenboim seems to have developed a knack for controversy.


Once upon a time, Barenboim was the darling of Israel. Having immigrated to the country from Argentina (where his German-born parents had fled from Hitler) at the age of 10 in 1952, he was one of a few Israeli superstar classical music performers that helped boost the country's self-image as a bastion of high culture.

Jews everywhere cheered as he romanced fellow musical star Jacqueline du Pré, an English cellist who converted to Judaism, and then married Barenboim at the Western Wall soon after Israel's victory in the Six-Day War.

He eventually evolved from being merely a renowned piano recitalist into one of the most admired conductors of the era, eventually taking on the leadership of the legendary Chicago Symphony Orchestra and serving as music director for Berlin's prestigious State Opera.

Barenboim's personal image took a hit after the film "Hillary and Jackie" detailed his less than exemplary behavior as a husband after du Pré was stricken with multiple sclerosis (she died in 1987 and Barenboim subsequently remarried), but his status as a musical superstar is undiminished.

Like most musicians, Barenboim knows a great deal about music and precious little about anything else. But that has not deterred him from taking the task of making friends with the Palestinians - even as they are killing Jews and calling for Israel's destruction - as his personal cause.

Even more curious is the fact that he has chosen to do so in the company of one of Israel's most virulent foes: Palestinian-American academic Edward Said. Said and Barenboim have become, according to the Times, close friends. They share a love for Wagner, and have worked together to create summer workshops in Germany for young musicians from Israel and Arab countries. For that achievement, the two shared the "Prince of Asturias Award for Concord" this year, a Spanish peace prize.

Barenboim's Web site ( treats his fans to polemics by the conductor on peace and music. In one essay published there titled "I Have a Dream," Barenboim fantasizes helping to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine with Said. That is interesting because despite their seeming intimacy, it is has escaped Barenboim's attention that Said actually opposed the Oslo accords because he was against peace with the Zionists on any terms!

Barenboim is uninterested in the fact that Said has preached hatred for Israel and support for terrorism (which Barenboim opposes) for decades. He chooses to ignore the fact that, as scholar Justin Weiner detailed in a ground-breaking essay in Commentary magazine in 1999, Said has fabricated his biography as a Palestinian refugee.


Also on the site is a lengthy question-and-answer session between Said and Barenboim on the subject of Wagner's music and his ideology, including a discussion of the composer's anti-Semitism and whether or not his work should be performed in Israel.

Some Jewish observers will quickly jump to the conclusion that Barenboim's views on Wagner have influenced his opinion of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but that would be unfair. On this subject, both Barenboim and Said actually make a great deal of sense. Wagner's writings and beliefs about Jews were, as Barenboim says, "monstrous." But he draws a correct distinction between Wagner's personal anti-Semitism and "the things we have been forced to associate with his music."

While Wagner saw his operas as an all-encompassing art form that had the power to redeem mankind, Barenboim seems to understand that his operas, are, after all, just music, albeit great music. Despite the fact that after Wagner's death, his family's Bayreuth festival performances of his works became associated with Nazism (and this tie lingers in the minds of many Holocaust survivors), the notion that performance of this music today has anything to do with anti-Semitism is baseless.

Barenboim was in the right about the foolishness of bans on Wagner's music but, nevertheless, wrong when he attempted to foist such performances on unwilling Israeli audiences last year.

Yet what applies to Wagner's politics goes double for Barenboim's own questionable beliefs.

His gestures of friendship to the Palestinians may win him peace prizes but they do nothing to actually achieve peace. Playing music for the Palestinians won't make them stop killing Israelis. Only defeat at the hands of Jews with guns, not pianos, seems to have the power to influence them in that direction. Barenboim forgets that German audiences thrilled to Beethoven during the Holocaust, without it having any impact on their willingness to murder Jews. What makes him think his Palestinian audiences are any different? Does the fact that he can hold marvelous dialogues about Wagner's art change the fact that Edward Said is a liar and a supporter of terrorism?

Daniel Barenboim may think his music will transcend the hatred of the Middle East. As someone who loves the music that he plays and conducts so well, I wish that it could.

The unhappy truth is that no one's music, not even Daniel Barenboim's, can drown the sound of homicidal suicide bombers anymore than the sound of Wagner could drown the screams of the victims of the Holocaust.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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