2009_Lebanese rockers
Lebanese rockers Mashrou' Leila thrilled Arabs and Jews alike with their performance in Amman, Jordan this summer. Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami
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Every once in a while deciding whether or not to attend a rock concert involves a gut check. Early this summer, word spread that the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila ("The Night Project" or "Leila's Project") was performing in the ancient Roman theatre in the heart of Amman, Jordan – a rare Arab capital accessible to Israeli nationals thanks to peace agreements.

As one of the most innovative and accomplished musical acts in the region, Mashrou' Leila has attracted Israeli fans, several of who attended the band's 2011 performance in Amman. This year, an Arab man who lives in Haifa organized a package deal for those planning to attend, including a bus ride, accommodations, a ticket to the show and admission to an after party at a trendy nightclub.

But then Mashrou' Leila showed up in the headlines for non-artistic reasons. The band was slated to open for the world-famous American rock band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Beirut, just days before a scheduled show in Tel Aviv. "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" movement activists learned of show in Israel, and urged the members of the Chili Peppers to cancel it as part of a cultural boycott designed to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. When the band members refused, the activists turned to Mashrou' Leila, asking its members not to open for the Chilli Peppers in Beirut. Sources told the Lebanese media that the activists threatened to boycott Mashrou' Leila show in Amman.

The members of Mashrou' Leila cancelled their plans to open in Beirut, but the controversy drew attention to Israelis’ plans to attend their concert in Amman. A group of Jordanian activists wrote an open letter to the organizers of the after party, saying, "We would like to inform you clearly that despite your confirmation and that of your associate here in Amman, that the event you are holding will not host any Zionists (to be clear we take this stand against all Israeli nationality holders who are not Arab) we are taking certain measures to ensure that you will abide by your words in this matter."

The authors of the letter identified themselves as the "Jordanian Popular Boycott Movement," but appear to be closely associated with the campaign against "normalization," which seeks to shatter Israeli illusions of normality as long as the state occupies the Palestinian territories. While anti-normalization efforts have grown more strident in recent years, labeling all Israelis “Zionists” regardless of their political views appears to be a new development.

The letter confused the group of Jewish Israelis that planned to attend, many of whose members actively oppose Israel’s occupation. In lengthy conversations on Facebook and blogs, they agreed that there was no good reason for them to be unwelcome at the concert. Nonetheless, several of them cancelled their travel plans a few days before the concert.

On the day of the concert, a bus carrying the rest of the Israelis, as well as some world travelers, arrived in Amman. Outside the Roman theatre, hugs abounded, as Israelis ran into old Lebanese and Palestinian friends – a rare occurrence in a region crisscrossed with border fences. Some new international connections were forged as well.

Emily Schaeffer, an American-Israeli lawyer who represents victims of human rights abuse, was among those who made the trip from Israel.

“I’m a fan of Mashrou' Leila," she explained when asked why she chose to come despite the unwelcoming letter. "I love traveling and I wanted to see more of Jordan and what life was like here. I fell into a trap of normalization, but I feel strongly that keeping people from knowing each other only exacerbates the problem."

"The letter drove me into rage," said longtime activist Noa Shaindlinger. "Those who composed it speak in the name of the Palestinians, but I believe them to be two and a half people on Facebook who have no concept of what life here is like. Their use of 'Zionist' is merely a polite way of saying they don't want Jews to come over. In short, they are racist. I don't take the sensitivities of racists into account, and I feel that their approach is harmful to the struggle. It feeds Netanyahu supporters who can now say, 'Look, we told you so.'"

Shaindlinger was moved by the sense of unity on the joint bus, and even by the roll call read after pit stops, which included both Arab and Jewish names. She says she thought, “Perhaps this is what our society will look like some day when there are no longer barriers between Jews and Arabs.”

The concert, which featured a performance by Saudi-based musician Alaa Wardi, received rave reviews and went off without any notable hostile incidents. At one point during Mashrou' Leila performance, a girl in the front rows raised a Palestinian flag overlaid with the words, "Thank You, BDS". The band members did not react.

When the show ended at about 11 P.M., the after party began in the city's Abdoun quarter. The handful of Israelis who showed up was warned by friends who ventured inside that the drinks were overpriced. Most left to cut costs and spent the late hours chatting and laughing with their Arab friends at the hotel. Of those determined to party, only one was turned back. Ironically, he was an Israeli Arab whose traditional Jalabiya did not meet the club's Western dress code.