Udi Bar-David, a cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, was the first to take his spot on stage for “Dialogue in Three Movements: An Artistic Journey of Israel/Palestine in Celebration of International Day of Peace.”
The concert at Swarthmore College’s Lang Music Building on Sept. 22 mixed music and poetry in a performance of Israeli and Palestinian art. It was staged in collaboration with ARTolerance, an organization that uses art to find common ground, as well as Swarthmore College’s Department of Music and Dance, Peace and Conflict Studies Program and Office of the President.
“Art is a great tool for dialogue,” said Bar-David, who is Israeli and the founder and artistic director of ARTolerance. “There are so many processes that artists can develop that explore commonalities between different cultures. … It’s really about using and utilizing the arts to create processes that lend themselves to dialogue.”
Bar-David opened the concert with a song on his cello. After the last note faded into silence, the room went still and quiet for several moments.
Then, Nathalie Handal, an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University born to a Palestinian family, joined Bar-David on stage and took her spot to his right.
Handal brought her own art — poetry — to the show.
After she had finished her own opening, by reciting a poem about music, the next artist, Tammy Scheffer, joined them from the left. Scheffer, a singer-songwriter from Israel with an interest in live looping, came on singing noises.
“It’s really such a rare opportunity to meet and work with Palestinians,” Scheffer said afterward. “I see it as a privilege. We don’t really get to meet people from the other side in an environment that’s so all about listening, all about sharing, all about just being human with each other. It’s just really rare and precious. I wish there were more opportunities like this.”
The sounds of her voice during the concert melded into the next piece, an upbeat tambourine solo, played by Palestinian musician Zafer Tawil, who joined in from behind the audience. He brought the opening song to a rhythmic close.
That was the concert’s first number. Each of the artists’ parts served as their introduction, Bar-David explained to the audience.
The rest of the concert was a collaboration, a blending of instruments, singing and spoken word, in English, Hebrew and Arabic. The artists on stage were Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian and more. They joined in on different songs throughout the evening. Sometimes just one or two of them performed a number, while other songs included more of the group.
Later in the performance, singer-songwriter Fouad Dakwar and pianist Shira Samuels-Shragg came on stage to join them.
Between different numbers, Bar-David encouraged audience participation.
For example, after one alternative rock song called “Croquet by the Dead Sea,” which Dakwar sang while playing the keyboard, Bar-David asked the audience if they had been to the Dead Sea. Most everyone’s hands shot up. He then asked who had played croquet before. Hands again went up, though perhaps not as many as before.
“I hope enough people, onstage and offstage, will hear words and music that they have not heard before, that it will make them curious and open their minds to what these words and music, what does it mean, what aspirations does it represent,” Bar-David said the day before the concert.
Growing up in Israel and serving in the army, Bar-David said he was never exposed to the Palestinian narrative. In 1980, he moved to the United States for college, and that changed. He began to meet Arab people. He visited Arab homes and played alongside Arab musicians.
“The biggest revelation for me was to really discover, to meet Palestinians in a very human way, as friends, understanding their position through a humanistic conversation, through friendship, through sharing meals, through music, rather than from a position we’re used to so much — demonizing each other,” Bar-David said.
Two years ago, he founded ARTolerance with the goal of giving audiences the opportunity to hear perspectives from the other side of the conflict.
About a year and a half ago, Bar-David met Sa’ed Atshan, an assistant professor of peace and conflict studies. The two decided to work together to bring that topic to Swarthmore.
“You’d have Arabic music, and then you’d have Jewish and Israeli musicians contributing to it, and then vice versa,” Atshan said. “You’d have the Israeli songs and the Palestinian musicians contributing to it, the songs in Hebrew. That was incredibly powerful.”
The goal, Bar-David said, is to perhaps hear perspectives that might make the listener feel uncomfortable. But that’s part of what it means to have impactful conversations.
“I’ve been blessed in the last 20 years in meeting many organizations and individuals that work for organizations that work for coexistence, mainly in Israel and the U.S.A., a little in the West Bank. … They have given me the reassurance that partnerships across the board, with many of these organizations, give us a platform for the future that can be more impactful,” Bar-David said. “Individual efforts are good and they’re important and very honorable, yet in order to make an impact, you need a larger group of people to engage in these conversations.”
And then what exactly? More Oslo?