Jewish and Palestinian musicians aim to 'bridge the divide' through music

In musical terms, ‘polyphony’ is a musical texture that combines two or more tones or melodic lines. But what can music do to truly advance peace and understanding? IDEAS explores this question with Nabeel Abboud Ashkar, co-founder of Polyphony — a music education organization, followed by a panel discussion.

The Galilee Chamber Orchestra in Nazareth aspires to be a model of peacebuilding

The Galilee Chamber Orchestra performing at New York’s Carnegie Hall with conductor Saleem Ashkar. Founded by Polyphony Education in 2012, the Galilee Chamber Orchestra broke ground as the first professional orchestra composed of both Arab and Jewish musicians in Israel. (Stefan Cohen)

*Originally published on May 3, 2022.

For Galilee Chamber Orchestra violinist Kinneret Sieradzki, music is an ideal conduit for communication.

"We're coming from different backgrounds, and I think this is enriching the process from my point of view," said Sieradzki.

Based in Nazareth, half of the musicians in the Galilee Chamber Orchestra are Jewish, the other half Palestinian. 

"When you come and deal with the challenges and the pleasures of playing Haydn, you are triangulating the conflict — it's not one against the other. You're joining powers and energies to solve the challenge of what's directly in front of you, and that is enriching — and enriching the result not only the process," Sieradzki told IDEAS.

The orchestra made its Canadian debut in Toronto at the Royal Conservatory of Music's Koerner Hall on March 21, 2021. It is the touring wing of an educational organization Polyphony, and its mission is to "bridge the divide between Arab and Jewish communities in Israel through music and to serve as a worldwide model for cooperation based on cultural exchange, dialogue and partnership."

Nabeel Ashkar is the co-founder of Polyphony. In 2006, he gave up his music career and returned to his hometown, the Arab-Israeli city of Nazareth, to answer the need he saw in the community for ‘quality music programming.’ (Provided by Polyphony)

Polyphony co-founder and executive director Nabeel Abboud Ashkar was born to atheist parents in Nazareth, who strongly encouraged Nabeel and his brother Saleem to pursue careers in music. Both brothers eventually toured with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Argentinian-Jewish conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian-American philosopher Edward Said. 

"Making music requires an intense effort of listening — not hearing — listening and responding," said Ashkar.

"There's something very powerful about music, and I would like to attribute it to its power to break stereotypes."

IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed moderated a panel discussion at the concert, on the question of the degree to which music can serve as a tool for peace. 

"I think music serves a great purpose when it's of an individual quality, but in terms of its universal application, I think we run the risk of kind of mythologizing its power," said Simon Wynberg, artistic director of the Royal Conservatory of Music's ARC Ensemble.

To listen to the full concert and panel, head to the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Guests in this episode (in order of appearance):

Nabeel Abboud Ashkar is the co-founder and director of Polyphony.

Kinneret Sieradzki is a violinist with the Galilee Chamber Orchestra

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish is associate professor of Global Health at the University of Toronto and the author of I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity.

Simon Wynberg is the artistic director of the Royal Conservatory of Music's ARC Ensemble.

Special thanks to Royal Conservatory of Music's executive director of performing arts Mervon Mehta

*This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic.

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