Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Singing Across the Divide

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Mar 12 2009 (IPS) - From the flattened buildings in Gaza, through angry demonstrations outside a Swedish tennis stadium, to the web pages of human rights reports, battles continue to rage over Israel’s policies and the legacy of its Gaza war.

Alongside, another battle is unfolding – over Israel’s image. And, on an unexpected stage.

Over 100 million TV viewers are expected to tune in to Moscow from May 12 to 16 for the 2009 Eurovision song contest. The annual competition between dozens of countries across Europe and the Mediterranean chooses by popular acclaim the continent’s most popular song. This year they’ll be assessing not only the merit of this or that pop ditty, the glitzy choreography and the flamboyant pyrotechnics; they’ll also be confronted by the question whether Israel had any justification for conducting the war the way it did.

During the past three decades, Israel has won the prestigious contest no fewer than three times. Now for Israelis, it’s not so much about conquering the world summit of musical kitsch, but about launching a counter-campaign to discredit their discreditors.

Groomed to carry these hopes is an unlikely female duo. In fact, for the purpose of the campaign they’re an all-too-likely duo – an internationally acclaimed Jewish Israeli singer with an Arab Israeli actress and singer. The cross-cutting duo Ahinoam Nini, 39, and Mira Awad, 33, were deliberately chosen by the Israel Broadcasting Authority to represent Israel. Now, the Israeli public has voted between four songs composed by Nini and Awad themselves. The chosen entry is called “Your Eyes” (“Eynekha”). It’s no accident that they will perform in three languages – Hebrew, Arabic and English.

The central verse tunes in on the peace sentiment they nurture:

“And when I cry I cry for both of us My pain has no name And when I cry I cry to the merciless sky and say There must be another way”

“We cannot allow ourselves – all the peoples of this region – to fall into the dark crevices of extremism,” said Awad in an interview on Israel Radio. “We must stay true to what we both passionately believe – peace and coexistence.” Nini, whose family originally comes from Yemen, added, “it’s something of a mission.” Known abroad by her stage name Noa, she is a long-time peace activist. She refuses to perform in the occupied West Bank, and condemns Israeli settlements. Her political inclinations have taken her to sing at the Nobel peace awards and at Vatican-sponsored ecumenical events.

Awad, a Christian in a country dominated by Jews and Muslims, and daughter of an Arab doctor from the Galilee village of Rameh and a Bulgarian mother, is no stranger to ambivalence. “I don’t deny my identity as a Palestinian and as an Israeli,” she says. Though aghast at both the war and the surge to extremism throughout the region, Awad says she won’t abandon her basic belief that “I’m part of this country.” Her home is now cosmopolitan Tel Aviv.

A soppy dream in the making? Not quite.

The fierce war in Gaza had just started when the decision was taken to send them to Eurovision. The choice has set off both vigorous opponents of the war and those staunchly for it.

A petition that was circulated by opponents of the initiative targeted the two singers as “a tool in Israel’s propaganda machine”, and criticised “the attempt to create an appearance of Jewish-Arab coexistence while Israel carries out the massacre of Palestinian civilians. Every brick in the wall of this phoney image lets the Israeli army deliver ten more tonnes of explosives.” Others dismiss the two friends as “dreamy idealists”, or as leading Arab Israeli actor Mohammad Bakri said, “naïve” for being ready to serve as a “fig leaf” for war apologists.

Right-wing Israelis, on the other hand, are disturbed by having an Arab who identifies with Palestinians representing them.

Appearing abroad, they have also been the butt of fierce anti-Israeli critics. “Somehow, we usually manage to disarm the anger,” says Awad, “especially when the protestors understand our views are not far from theirs.” They like to recall how, in Seville, Nini was met outside the concert hall by a torrent of abuse and strong posters denouncing Israel’s actions. When she told the demonstrators, ‘I agree with everything you say on your placards’, the anger suddenly turned into support.

This is not the first time singing coexistence has been contemplated as a remedy for easing the bitter conflict. A couple of years ago, many mainstream Israelis were moved when they heard a young Jewish boy and young Arab girl singing a popular Lebanese song, ‘Al-Ard Bit’asi’ (the land suffers), about ending war and bloodshed; the head of the Israeli Football Association even invited the Arab teenager to perform before an international match.

The young singer thought the intention was for her to sing the anti-war song before the game. But when it emerged that the invitation was for her to sing ‘Hatikvah’ (The Hope), Israel’s national anthem which reflects the ethos of Jewish Israelis but not of Arab Israelis, she politely declined.

Nini and Awad have bravely weathered the stigma of manipulation. Undaunted, they continue to believe they’re doing the right thing. “Some people,” Nini told reporters, “will see an Arab girl who looks Jewish, and a Jewish girl who looks Arab, which is precisely what we are. Maybe it will open some people’s minds.”

Not so much minds, nor even winning over ears and eyes: what Israelis are hoping is that their co-existence duet will sing its way into hearts, bring about a change of heart over their country’s disputed policies. Opponents of those policies are hoping for something else – that the mission will backfire and that criticism of Israel will be amplified on the world stage.

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