On Gaza border, memorializing war victims with Quran, Mozart and Psalms

Concert symbolizing transition from mourning to hope brings together Jewish and Arab artists, hundreds of Israelis, the former chief of staff… and three Gazans

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Avner Itai conducts Mozart's Requiem on the Gaza Border, June 4, 2015 (courtesy/Noam Ekhaus)
Avner Itai conducts Mozart's Requiem on the Gaza Border, June 4, 2015 (courtesy/Noam Ekhaus)

KFAR AZZA — When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his monumental requiem in 1791, he could hardly have imagined that it would one day feature in a memorial concert for Palestinian and Israeli victims of a minor Middle Eastern war.

But hundreds of Israelis flocked last Thursday to a concert titled “From Mourning to Hope,” where the Catholic funerary Mass was performed on a grassy soccer field outside Kibbutz Kfar Azza, a secular community of 650 founded by immigrants from Egypt and Morocco in 1951, just three miles from the eastern neighborhoods of Gaza.

As night fell, the largely middle-aged crowd, sipping wine in plastic cups and nibbling on mini-sized focaccias, moved toward the large black stage overlooking Shejaiya. Folding up paper notes instructing them how to act in case of a siren warning of incoming missiles, the audience took their seats to hear maestro Avner Itai lead the National Kibbutz and Ihud choirs accompanied by musicians from the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble. The second half of the concert featured Jewish and Arab Israeli recording artists performing in both languages, including Yair Dalal, Lubna Salameh, Rakefet Amsalem and Yaffa Abu Shamis.

The Requiem was stopped twice to allow for two heart-wrenching interludes: a Jewish song based on the Book of Lamentations and a musical rendition of the Muslim Call to Prayer, accompanied by a wooden pan flute. One of the guests, seated in plainclothes at the front row, was none other than former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who led the Israeli forces into Gaza last summer.

Assnat Bartor, a biblical studies lecturer at Tel Aviv University, initiated the concert during Operation Protective Edge last summer, managing to get the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council — as well as Jewish and Arab volunteer musicians — on board. Twenty-one guests from Gaza were also invited to attend, but only three were approved entry.

“We had to overcome skepticism, cynicism and disagreement,” Bartor told The Times of Israel. “Not everyone accepts the agenda of joint mourning over Israelis and Palestinians.”

A Bedouin flutist preforms at the concert (courtesy/Noam Ekhaus)
A Bedouin flutist preforms at the concert (courtesy/Noam Ekhaus)

Some Israelis living in southern communities near the Gaza Strip were indeed angered by the concert.

“Believing that these kinds of events will affect Hamas terrorists is an illusion,” Sderot-based journalist Albert Gabai told the Israeli news site Walla.

Others, like Haaretz’s music critic Noam Ben Zeev, were irked by the lack of a clear political message. “Nothing but mourning and hope… singing for peace… how much longer can these cliches be repeated without saying anything? Probably forever.”

But on the grass in Kfar Azza, cynicism was in short supply.

“Don’t they deserve a requiem?” asked Shuvit Melamed, a social worker from Herzliya. “During the war, I published photos of children in Gaza who were killed every day… I wanted to show that they are hurting too.”

Melamed insisted that acknowledging the suffering of Palestinians in no way diminished her solidarity with Israelis who lost their loved ones. “I remember the names of all the [fallen] soldiers by heart,” she said.

Melamed and her friend Raya Rosin from Tel Aviv were debating whether people in Gaza could hear the notes emanating from the final rehearsal on stage. The two women took pride in the fact the two full buses came south from Tel Aviv, despite the significant cost.

Raya Rosin (left) and Shuvit Melamed attend a concert titled 'from mourning to hope' at Kfar Azza, June 4, 2015 (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Raya Rosin (left) and Shuvit Melamed attend a concert titled ‘from mourning to hope’ at Kfar Azza, June 4, 2015 (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

“I don’t know if this will help, but I support the idea of better neighborly relations,” Rosin said. “I have music in Tel Aviv too, but the combination of music and this location is meaningful.”

Abu Ibrahim, a resident of the Jabaliya Refugee Camp, was one of three Gaza residents who received special entry permits to attend the concert.

“We’ve had enough of wars and killing; we want to live in peace,” he said. “If things were easier, you’d see thousands of people [from Gaza] asking to participate.”

Ihab Balha of Jaffa (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Ihab Balha of Jaffa (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

As a construction worker in Israel in the mid-nineties, Abu Ibrahim learned to speak Hebrew, a language he slid back into after years of disuse. He wished Israeli citizens would convey the message of nonviolence toward Gaza. “We love life just as you do in Israel,” he said.

Dressed in airy white clothes, Ihab Balha, a Sufi practitioner from Jaffa and director of the coexistence education nonprofit the Orchard of Abraham’s Children, said the event symbolized unity between members of different faiths.

“God wants us to come together as human beings, regardless of where we come from,” he said.

“I have no doubt the people of Gaza will hear the concert in their hearts, even if not with their ears.”

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