This is one of those moments where you can’t decide if you want to be recklessly optimistic or brutally cynical about the prospects of peace.
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I just went to an event that featured David Broza and Mira Awad signing together, as well as a film which no one with a heart in his chest could see and walk away without feeling hopeful.
I left to the sound of police helicopters clattering loudly overhead in the hours following the fatal attack on Israeli pedestrians in East Jerusalem, a war-time buzz that has a way of making me feel that no one with a brain in her head can believe that this conflict has a hope of being solved anytime soon.
This is a Jerusalem, where a 3-month-old baby just lost her life so senselessly - to a Palestinian driver from Silwan who drove his car into a crowd of people waiting at a light rail station.
This is a Jerusalem where in that same neighborhood of Silwan, city and national officials are silent when ultra-nationalist Jews move in week after week, tossing matches at the tinderbox.
This is a Jerusalem where the luxury hotel suites that used to host peace talks house are empty save some tony tourists who do their best not to look too closely at what's really happening in this deeply troubled city.
The event I attended last night was an evening in honor of the release of “East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem,” a new documentary featuring legendary Israeli singer-songwriter Broza and the intensive eight days and nights he spent in East Jerusalem, working with a Palestinian studio there to pursue his decades-old dream to use music a bridge-builder between Israelis and Palestinians. (The film enjoyed an enthusiastic world premier last week at the Woodstock Film Festival, and also has a new 13-song CD attached to it by the same name.)
At the event, held at the Jerusalem Press Club at Mishkenot Shaananim, Broza performed with Israeli-Palestinian singer Awad, who together shared two duets they sing together on the album, “East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem” and “Ramallah-Tel Aviv.” They also screened a segment of the film, which is so moving in parts that I noticed a few tears rolling down Mira Awad’s cheeks in the dark. One of the people featured in the film is a young Palestinian hip-hop artist named Mohammed Mughrabi, who grew up in the Shoafat Refugee Camp. He explains that there are no trees in the camp and never have been – except a few in the courtyard of a UN clinic – it is an unhealthy cement jungle. As a kid, he recalls, he used to be able to climb up into the hills next the camp to see trees, but now all of that is blocked by the wall, or separation barrier.
“I thought refugees mean you’re a refugee for two or three years and then you have to be given a new place to live,” Broza says in the film as the camera pans across stretches of the towering cement wall. “But they’re still stuck in their reality,”
That’s a reality the film is meant to bring home, though not with any of those trigger words like “occupation” that might keep it out of Jewish film festivals, not by placing blame at the doorstep of anyone in particular, and certainly not by making any policy prescriptions. It is more like a rich musical journey into the possibilities of overcoming the conflict and connecting, starting with the universal language of music.
“This film is not about painting a rosy picture of Israeli-Palestinian relations, not at all,” Broza told the crowd. He did, he said in Q&A session after the film, find some Palestinians unable or unwilling to participate in a project that may sound good for peace, but hard-liners shun as normalization.
“I had hoped that more Palestinians would come to the studio to help,” Broza said. “There were moments when the boycott was in evidence in every conversation or unspoken conversation. It hindered the chances for this project to happen at some momentsand yet the beautiful thing is that we were welcomed so warmly in Shoafat.”
One of the more inspiring stories embedded in the film is the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an Israeli-Palestinian choir which is featured in several segments.
What the chorus' founder and director Micah Hendler is doing is revolutionary in that what he runs is not just a chorus, it’s also a dialogue group, employing professional facilitators. “We use the musical space to create a sphere of safety that allows these issues to be explored in a deep and human way,” he tells me after the show.
The chorus also just launched its first music video, called “Home,” in conjunction with a U.S.-based musician Sam Tsui, and in the two weeks since it’s gone online, it’s already received more than 135,000 views.
One of the teenagers in Broza’s film talks about the against-the-grain and yes, wildly optimistic nature of what they’re doing. “We’re Arabs and Jews singing for peace,” she grins, “which doesn’t really happen in real life.”
But who’s to say what’s real? Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said after Wednesday’s attack that “the situation in Jerusalem is intolerable and we must act unequivocally against all violence taking place in the city.” He has been silent, however, when more and more Jews move into the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods like the ones Broza tries to acquaint himself with in the course of the film. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents his hackneyed, hollow response: blame Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for incitement.
Mughrabi, that refugee camp kid turned musician, gave the quote that makes me want to hold onto the hope, drown out the helicopters, and keep believing that change may not be around corner - but is possible. “I learned that you only need the will that you want to do this,” Mughrabi says of bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, “and it happens."