Soundbox A Baton That Unites Bankers and Music Lovers

Zubin Mehta steps out to meet the pupils in an educational project he has fostered The children at the Gesher al-HaWadi school (Bridge over the Valley) in Kfar Kara (17 km. east of Hadera) are familiar with the phenomenon - serious-looking adults in suits and ties climb up the path to the school's playground, accompanied by photographers and very-important-looking people who look curiously at them and get explanations from the school's coprincipals, Mona Atamana and Tal Kaufman.

Sometimes the guests even address questions to the pupils, who are able to answer in Hebrew, Arabic or English. But such a visitor as the one this week! Zubin Mehta.

The buzz had knots of little children gathered at gate long before he came.

Mehta has been conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for 40 years. Nurturing musical culture here has never been his top priority. From time to time, he has hinted at political and social involvement but only a year ago began taking real action. He announced the establishment of Mifneh (change), a program aiming to change musical education for Israel's Arab citizens.

In addition to Mehta and the IPO, Bank Leumi and the Arab-Israel Bank have committed to supporting the project for five years, as has an anonymous Jewish donor from Europe.

Mehta believed the Jews and the Arabs have to learn each other's language, and the Israelis have to speak to everyone, even Hamas.

"If we immediately dig in our heels and demand that Hamas recognize the state of Israel as a precondition, this will merely be an impediment," he said.

Meanwhile, Mehta presented his program, and a few months ago he visited the Beit al-Musika conservatory in Shfaram, one of the three schools in the pilot project. The other two are the Jezreel Valley Center for the Arts and the al-Mutran school in Nazareth.

He was present when the main part of the Mifneh program was implemented - the additional hours of study, the grants, the instruction by teachers at the Mehta-Buchman School of Music, which is also a partner in the project, and when ensembles perform music or songs.

This week, before the final concerts at the Nazareth school, Mehta visited the bilingual Arab-Jewish elementary school and kindergarten set up by Yad Beyad (Hand in Hand), the center for Jewish-Arab education.

The 150 children who study there have two homeroom teachers, Jewish and Arab, and they study together in the spirit of humanism and attempt to achieve equality and partnership. The children also have classes devoted to the arts.

Mehta's excitement was palpable. After the kindergarten children danced a short piece to the music of Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt," with the guidance of teachers Claudia Glushenkopf and Sarit Berkowitz, and the older children played the darbuka drum under the baton of teacher Tawfiq Khouriya, Mehta said it had brought tears to his eyes.

"There is no other school like this in the world where Jews and Arabs study in an Arab village," Berkowitz said. And Mehta responded: "That is what the future of this country should be."

The emotional ceremony was opened by Amin Khalaf, the president of Yad Beyad. He said the organization's two schools (the second is in Jerusalem) were a beacon of equality and brotherhood.

Mehta said he had read about the schools in an American newspaper and decided to initiate the visits to them.

"Now I can' t distinguish which of the children is Jewish or Arab," he said, "and I don't want to. Inshallah, they should go to university together, work together and live together."

The ride from Kfar Kara to the Mahmoud Darwish Center in Nazareth takes about half an hour.

That was Mehta's second stop, this time to hear a concert performed by the school's older musicians.

Here he could enjoy a high level of music, such as the wondrous, breath-taking guitar performance of Nairouz Nafa from the Shfaram center, and the virtuoso performance by the young trumpeter, Zoe Ronen, who studies at the Rubin Conservatory in Haifa.

The devotion of the students in the program was also evident from the performances of the al-Moutran choir, and the ensemble for ancient and multicultural music from the arts center.

Mehta once again stated from the podium that it will soon be possible to see the first Arab musician playing in the IPO. That is his dream.