Hearing Their Pain


Published April 01, 2009, issue of April 10, 2009.
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The tale of the Palestinian youth orchestra players from the Jenin refugee camp who performed for Holocaust survivors in Israel is a classic illustration of the way giddy hope is squashed by political reality in today’s Middle East. It began with warm feelings and good intentions — bring Palestinian teenagers from one of the West Bank’s most notorious refugee camps to serenade elderly Jews in a setting where the only common language is music and the only response required is to clap in appreciation. It ended with the outrageous move by Jenin’s self-styled leaders to condemn the program and bar the orchestra’s director, an Israeli Arab, from entering the camp.

It’s tempting to view this sorry episode as one more reason to believe that the larger goal of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation is impossible when even an hour-long program played with scratchy violins is viewed as a traitorous act. But, of course, this is about more than the music, or even the participants. It’s about the unwillingness of both peoples to acknowledge each other’s suffering.

Denying the centrality of the Holocaust to modern Israeli identity is like telling an African-American that slavery and segregation were just minor mistakes in U.S. history. But denying that Palestinians have suffered greatly since the founding of the state of Israel is also a willful injustice.

The numbers of murdered, maimed and misplaced are not equal. The Holocaust was unlike any other genocide because of its calculated use of modern technology to inflict maximum destruction. That so many in the Arab world, and beyond, refuse to acknowledge it is painful and infuriating. It sure makes conversation difficult.

Palestinian suffering has a different character and cause, and yet it is no less real to those who mourn loved ones and long for what they consider their homeland. Recognizing one hurt need not obviate another.

Closing the Jenin youth orchestra — ironically called “Strings of Freedom” — was bone-headed and sinister. It was a failure of leadership and cannot be justified. But it points to the larger challenge: the need to actually listen to the mournful tune of one’s enemy.

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