‘Music knows no borders, and neither do I,” English musician and producer Alan Parsons wrote on his Facebook page last week, in response to Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters’ request that Parsons cancel his scheduled concert in Tel Aviv. Parsons was right not to get his music into the debate about BDS (a movement promoting boycotts, divestment and sanctions) and the labeling of Israel as an apartheid state, both of which Waters supports.
The debate about BDS is a heated and tough one: on the one hand, many support it – as Waters wrote in August 2013 – in order to make Israel comply with principally admirable “international law and universal principles of human rights.” On the other hand, many leading supporters of BDS – like Chicago-based Ali Abunimah – do so for a vision contrasting the two-state solution, which is officially enshrined in all UN resolutions on the Israeli-Arab conflict.
The question of whether BDS is legitimate or not may be bypassed by asking whether it’s effective. I usually recommend that supporters of Middle East peace to help build Palestine over attempting to destroy Israel: instead of protesting against an Israeli factory in the West Bank, buy a fine bottle of Palestinian olive oil. Others fiercely disagree with me, and I can understand why: if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likened to South African apartheid, it is easy to argue that the tactics adopted to combat the latter will also be effective regarding the former. I don’t share that premise, and therefore do not share that conclusion. Nevertheless, even if I did believe in a full-scale boycott, I would make one exception: music.
A behavioral experiment performed six years ago at the University of London proved that quick blasts of happy music make people perceive others’ faces as happier, even when looking at faces with completely neutral expressions.
Another study, conducted two years ago in Finland, showed that music creates a sense of achievement and opportunity among youth.
When Bob Dylan was asked about his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, he replied: “A lot of people tell me they enjoy [it]. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean… people enjoying that type of pain, you know?” However, a study published in the Frontiers in Psychology Journal in June 2013 gives a solid scientific answer accounting for how sad music, too, leads to cognitive appraisal, a re-evaluation of our state of mind, and ultimately to pleasure.
Whether at a checkpoint near Bethlehem or on a bus in Tel Aviv, are we really lacking angry Israelis and Palestinians with a lower sense of achievement and opportunity, and with even less room for self-criticism? Roger Waters should have a look at the studies cited above, stroll around Jerusalem, and he too will realize that music is not something that both peoples deserve – it is something they need. If the academic references are not sufficient to sway peace-loving readers in the right direction, possibly my own personal story will.
At the age of 17 I had the unforgettable chance to play in an Arab-Jewish orchestra of Youth and Music Israel. There I learned to appreciate the aesthetics of the other side’s art, but also to exchange words for the first time with Palestinians. Since Israel has an education system that compartmentalizes secular, national- religious and ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Christian and Muslim Arab-Israelis, most people in the region grow up without ever talking to each other. Music was my opportunity to break that silence and replace my suspicions about Arabs with empathy.
I was conscripted a year later into the IDF. I knew that so long as the politicians don’t solve the conflict, some of us still have to engage in combat sometimes. Upon returning home on the weekends I would pick up the phone to Wafa and Anan, who played oud and kanun with me in the orchestra. I also remember when I wanted to strum some Bob Dylan on my guitar, I could not access a website with chords for his songs because it was blocking Internet users with Israeli IP addresses in the name of BDS. These two anecdotes, of an Israeli soldier’s friendship with fellow Palestinian youth on the one hand, and of an Israeli soldier unable to sing peace songs on the other, are perfect examples of why music cannot be made part of the conflict – it must be part of the solution.
Personally, had it not been for music, I would never have engaged in politics. Thanks to music I have attended countless demonstrations for peace, I have worked hard to build the first ever and the largest caucus in the Knesset for a twostate solution, campaigned to prevent legislation against Palestinian land expropriation, and organized for hundreds of Israeli students and myself to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his chamber in Ramallah last year in order to lend civic support to the (regrettably failed) diplomatic talks he led with the Israeli government.
Alan Parsons wrote “Everyone – no matter where they reside, what religion they follow, or what ideology they aspire to – deserves to hear it [his music] if they so choose.” That idea is validated not only by academic research, but by my own personal experience. Therefore, Alan Parsons was only 99 percent right. When Parsons writes to Waters that he prefers avoiding the BDS debate since “this is a political matter,” while he is “simply an artist,” he slightly misses the point. It is precisely because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a political matter that music must not know borders.
This article was was first published in The Jerusalem Post.