In 2014, as the war raged across Palestine, 16-year old Mohammad Abu Khdeir was killed. The day after, Micah Hendler, founder and director of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus (JYC), the only mixed Palestinian-Israeli choral group in the city, urged the teenage singers to stay home, especially those from Shu’fat, the neighbourhood where Abu Khdeir had lived.
The next day, half of the chorus made it to rehearsal. Including one singer from Shu’fat. Hendler, shocked and concerned, asked what brought her, and how she physically got there. "Well, I woke up to gunshots this morning," she responded. "But being in my house made me crazy because there was so much violence, so I just left my house and walked down the street and out of Shu'fat. Soldiers tried to stop me but I just ran away. I'm glad I'm here now, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be." This is the kind of space created in the centre of the city most sanctified and struggled over.
It ends up being the elephant in the room...Because people are also political, and certainly in Jerusalem, everything is political.
Jerusalem, more than perhaps any other place on earth, has always been a city contested. In its 6,500 year history, the city has been destroyed twice, and besieged, attacked, and captured well over a hundred times. Today, it is a city divided into the Israeli West and the Palestinian East (which is also occupied by Israel). The Green Line that separates the two areas almost never moves in a straight line, composed instead of squiggles and confounding loops. Maps aren’t simply lines on a paper (as the imperial European statesmen who drew the borders of the Middle East would have liked to believe); the Green Line reflects neighbourhoods, communities, and the nature of the city.
"We've created a platform for these singers that is way beyond what a normal teenager in Jerusalem would ever have. They've traveled, they've been in viral videos, they've been interviewed. And that completely changes their sense of self."
In the middle of the city an unlikely group of Israeli and Palestinian high schoolers meets for the chorus at the YMCA, one of the few places in the city that can bring together people from different sides of the conflict. More than simply bringing together teenagers from across the divide to sing, the chorus’s intensive dialogue program creates space where people who have been raised across a chasm are brought together to speak about what separates them.
Image courtesy of Emily Cohen.
Established in 2012, the JYC brings together 30 Palestinian and Israeli high schoolers for weekly rehearsals, concerts, retreats, recording sessions, and tours. Through musical co-creation and intensive dialogue, the chorus addresses three levels of social, interpersonal, and intrapersonal change. Over the years, they have toured Japan, England, and the United States, where they were featured on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Hendler was also selected as one of the Forbes’ 2017 30 under 30 for music.
The concept of 'home' is an important one for the singers, who have co-created an oasis from the chaos that often defines their contexts.
It was Hendler’s own experience as a teenager that drove him to start the chorus. In 2004, he participated in Seeds of Peace, an international camp in the US that brings together teenagers from across conflict lines, where he was put face to face with the realities of what he had been taught about Palestine and Israel. Through the dialogue program he would later emulate and modify, the teachings of the Jewish day school he had attended in his hometown in Maryland, USA, came crashing down. “I had been taught, either implicitly or explicitly, that every attack on Israel was rooted in anti-semitism,” he reflects. “But then I was talking to Palestinians who were telling me, ‘look, I don’t care if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, whatever. But an Israeli soldier shot my cousin while he was playing football.’ And that completely shatters that narrative.”
Plaque commemorating the inaugural speech by Lord Allenby upon dedication of the Jerusalem YMCA building, 1933.
The high school chorus meets once a week for a four hour rehearsal, an hour and a half of which is dedicated to professionally facilitated dialogue that brings the conflict into the room, as well as speaks to the group and personal dynamics that arise in any teenager's life. Though the nexus of the group is the conflict and the life experiences of the singers, it also provides opportunities and space for creative expression, travel, growth, and exposure that teenagers everywhere need.
The JYC's year-long dialogue program is run by two pairs of facilitators who spend a significant portion of the program unpacking words and values that are taken for granted. What is equality, when education and standard of living varies so drastically within the same city? What is peace, when the conflict can place one singer in an army uniform, pointing a gun at another? “We not only assert things then expect people to follow them," explains Hendler. "We go in depth into what it actually means for us to be together right now.”
Over the years, they have toured Japan, England, and the United States, where they were featured on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Hendler was also selected as one of the Forbes’ 2017 30 under 30 for music.
After graduating from Yale with a degree in Music and International Studies and a published thesis on the power of music for peacemaking, Hendler moved to Jerusalem to start the chorus, when he was first met with results that no research could have predicted. Because of the different movements in Palestinian society, including Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) and broader anti-normalisation stances, what he expected from initial recruitment was that it would be easy to bring Israelis, and much harder to convince Palestinians to join.
But of the 80 teenagers that auditioned in the first round, most were Palestinian. And the reason was simple, and more social than political. In West Jerusalem, they were competing with a million and one other musical extracurriculars, while teenagers in East Jerusalem have a fraction of the same opportunities. Because Hendler had come in with the expectation that people would act according to their supposed political ideology, he was initially blinded to what was actually possible. This has carried into all of the chorus's work since.
There are [Israelis] who have been in the chorus who — both because of their personal disposition and what they’ve learned in the chorus — decide not to go to the army.
It’s important to understand that no teenager joins an afterschool activity for the lofty, romantic ideal of ‘making peace.’ Instead, the chorus was addressing unmet needs to sing, learn English, travel the world, and come face to face with the inaccessible ‘other.’ The everyday realities and needs of teenagers on either side of the Green Line, for creative expression and safe spaces, completely trump the supposedly unbreachable divides that should — if different nativist discourses should be believed — make the JYC impossible.
Image courtesy of Emily Cohen.
I must admit, though I wear a ‘peace’ pendant around my neck and spout more than my share of idealistic rhetoric, I myself have grown wary of initiatives that bring together Palestinians and Israelis in this way. There’s a fine line between offering an oasis — a safe home that teenagers everywhere need — and building a kind of bubble that obfuscates the very real violence that defines the situation. The JYC is clear where it stands, partially because — except for one song — they do not sing about 'peace', a term that has been dragged through the gutter of shallow, idealistic, co-opted clichés that circuitously add to the oppression they supposedly address.
“There’s so much more depth that you can get by addressing other concepts that don’t have the same stigma," Hendler explains the alternative the JYC has taken, "that are critical building blocks for any kind of peaceful solution...that [are] more meaningful and tangible than just saying ‘peace, peace’."
Many other organisations that seek to bridge the divide simply draw the line at playing football, or painting, or whatever activity they choose. But they never address the conflict itself. “I think that’s nice, but that’s step one,” says Hendler. “It ends up being the elephant in the room...Because people are also political, and certainly in Jerusalem, everything is political.”
The JYC Alumni Ensemble reimagined a popular Israeli song to - in their own voices and styles - reflect the realities, hopes, and difficulties of coming together.
The chorus, in contrast, is unwavering in its commitment to bringing the difficult realities into the room. One such painful reality is that, when they graduate high school, the Israeli singers—who at that point would have been singing and speaking and building connections with Palestinians for at least a year—join the army. The conscription is mandatory for Jewish and Druze (but not Arab) citizens of Israel over 18, both men and women. Often, Israeli teenagers who enter the army, especially those engaged with programs like the JYC, are told they need to cut all communication with Arabs, or they're a security threat.
"There are [Israelis] who have been in the chorus." Hendler says, "who — both because of their personal disposition and what they’ve learned in the chorus — decide not to go to the army.” But this isn't a simple decision. Refusing to join the army is punishable with jail time, and even if someone manages to receive an exemption, it bears a heavy social stigma. It's a situation that has no foreseeable easy solution, but what the chorus has been able to do with its dialogue model is bring it in for the singers to engage, unpack, and confront.
There’s so much more depth that you can get by addressing other concepts that don’t have the same stigma that are critical building blocks for any kind of peaceful solution...that [are] more meaningful and tangible than just saying ‘peace, peace’.
It is also this model that preserves the chorus itself. During the war in 2014, as airstrikes fell on Gaza and rocket sirens blared across Jerusalem, almost all Palestinian-Israeli programs shut down. That summer, the violence was especially targeted towards youth on both sides. Some of the chorus members were socially connected to Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach, the Israeli teens kidnapped and killed; others grew up close to Abu Khdeir, the 16-year-old Palestinian boy who was murdered following those kidnappings.
A dialogue session at one of the chorus's retreats in the Negev desert.
The JYC, which had just announced its first tour to Japan, met 3 times a week all summer. Not one singer quit, even as the country tore itself apart around them, instead using the space of dialogue to confront what they could not outside. During one rehearsal, rocket sirens blared across the neighbourhood, sending the group into the basement of the Jerusalem YMCA, where the chorus has met since its founding. In the part of the basement strong enough to act as a bomb shelter, everyone who was in the area--Jews, Muslims, Christians, tourists, anyone who had happened to be around--congregated in the single hope a rocket wouldn’t fall on the building.
I had been taught, either implicitly or explicitly, that every attack on Israel was rooted in anti-semitism. But then I was talking to Palestinians who were telling me, ‘look, I don’t care if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, whatever. But an Israeli soldier shot my cousin while he was playing football.’
In true choir fashion, the group began to sing inside the makeshift bomb shelter, to a crowd sorely in need of hope. “In that moment,” Hendler reflects, “it wasn’t a matter of politics. It wasn’t a matter of if [this fear] is justified or not. It was just that people were scared...And we started singing to help people feel like it was going to be okay.”
In addition to the equal number of Jewish and Arab singers in the chorus, the JYC also brings together different socioeconomic backgrounds on both sides. This is possible, in part, because the chorus has no common language, translating from English into Arabic and Hebrew as needed. By doing so, the chorus was capable of including singers from more traditional musical backgrounds—Palestinians, for example, who really knew the maqamat [Arabic musical scales] and could sing mawaweel [vocal improvisation]. As a result, the chorus's group sound now reflects a tangible 'diversity' that goes far beyond the liberal cliché. In addition to their developing craft of fusion—"finding hooks between traditions", as Hendler explains it—the chorus also reflects different musical traditions on their own, giving each its due process.
Contrary to many multicultural musical initiatives, not everything has to be a mash up at the JYC. In 'Adinu', they perform a Sufi chant on the centrality of love to religion, staying true to the chant form and the mawwal.
Because of the unique experience that singers go through, they also become agents of change within their own communities. On both sides, the work that the chorus does is often unpopular. On one side, it’s normalisation. On the other, it’s interaction with a community that breeds terrorists. But the chorus’s experiences don’t sound the same as the narratives created and propagated across the divide for generations.
Hendler tells the story of an Israeli singer whose teacher violently opposed the chorus. In class, the singer confronted the racist rhetoric the teacher was espousing with her own experience interacting with her friends in the chorus. “She went to an Orthodox Jewish girls’ school,” Hendler adds. “It’s not like she was in some sort of left-wing hippie context. And she was confronting, not just her teacher, but a rabbi.” And she could do that because—in place of the Chinese Whispers that perpetuate views of an archetypal, supposedly static ‘other’—these singers now have an actual experience with people they have seen and interacted with, not just opinions they've heard and relayed.
A rotating group of singers in Jerusalem won’t solve a crisis that turned 70 last May with the anniversary of the Nakba. To watch the news and listen to the jingoistic rhetoric espoused in increasingly right-wing societies, nothing ever can. But, for example, because that one singer who stood up to her rabbi had introduced her friends from school to her Palestinian friends from the chorus, there was now a group of Israeli girls willing to jump to her defense, as she stood against violent, exclusionary rhetoric.
People grow up in the chorus, continuing to be involved as alumni and staff, long after their programs as high schoolers have ended. In many cases, the friendships that have formed across the chasm are reconnected after the Israelis return from the army, adding depth and nuance to the relationship. So in concentric circles around those rotating 30 teenagers, different narratives—ones that do justice to the unjust, oppressive, unequal dynamics of the conflict—are spreading.
“What’s really important is we’re not trying to say that everyone can get along, and definitely not saying that everyone does get along...But simply that there are other ways of doing things and that if we work to create opportunities and access and equity, then a lot becomes possible that is currently impossible.”