Music, Literature, Boycotts, Listening

23 Aug 2011, Cologne, Germany --- Conductor Daniel Barenboim rehearses with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Cologne, Germany, 23 August 2011. From 23 until 28 August 2011, Barenboim will lead the philharmony in playing all of the Beethoven symphonies. Photo: Horst Galuschka --- Image by © Horst Galuschka/dpa/Corbis

Conductor Daniel Barenboim rehearses with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Cologne, Germany

I’ve just finished listening to a talk given in London by Daniel Barenboim, conductor at La Scala, and known for his beautiful renditions of Chopin and Schubert. He is less known for his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of Seville, whose players are young Palestinian, Jordanian, Israeli, Syrian, and Egyptian musicians.

Barenboim is a citizen of both Argentina and Israel. He formed the orchestra in 1999 with the Columbia University Professor, Edward Said. Said was a Palestinian-American music lover, known for his critique of “Orientalism” in European literature

The orchestra’s home, Seville, is a city that in its prime saw a flowering of culture part Muslim, part Christian, part Jewish. I was happy to find Barenboim saying this about the orchestra:

The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance.

What sort of ignorance concerns him?

. . . it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I’m] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to . . . create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.


A year and a half ago, while teaching in Israel, I learned of an American boycott of Israeli academicians. The American Studies Association, with which I was loosely connected, had passed a resolution banning Israeli professors from appearances at American Studies conferences. It also condemned American professors who traveled to Israeli universities.

Their position meant that Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said were dead wrong, that Arab and Israeli musicians shouldn’t fraternize, that American and Israeli academics shouldn’t listen to each other.

I imagined a modest proposal voiced by The Very Reverent Jonathan Swift: books by Israeli authors must be banned, even burned, and libraries must purge their shelves of everything Israeli.

American and Israeli academics shouldn’t listen to each other.

A Tel Aviv colleague, invited to give a talk in London, wondered whether he’d be expected to eat at a separate lunch counter.

Barenboim and Said had launched an orchestra of young musicians gathered around skills of listening, good will, and cooperative endeavor. A good thing!

Culture, whether in music or literature, painting, architecture, or dance, can be an undercurrent for good – perhaps weak, but nevertheless real. We need that when so many voices, in and out of the academy, opt for silencing and contempt.

 — Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

Credits: Daniel Barenboim is quoted in the Wikipedia entry under his name (accessed June 2015). A video of his 2015 Edward Said Lecture has been made available on-line by the London Review of Books.


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