Barenboim-Said Foundation does not promote normalization

Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Ramallah, August 2005. (Mushir Abdelrahman/MaanImages)

On 28 January 2010 the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) issued a statement to the Qatari government calling for a boycott of Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) and condemning the Qatari Ministry of Culture for hosting the orchestra in Doha. The statement goes so far as to accuse Daniel Barenboim of being an ardent Zionist. I would like to point out that the PACBI policy is “to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel.” It does not call for a boycott against all Israelis, but those affiliated with institutions that support the Israeli state and its policies and who do not express support for the Palestinian struggle against occupation. Daniel Barenboim and WEDO do not meet any of those criteria.

WEDO is but one of the many educational programs of the Barenboim-Said Foundation (BSF) which was founded by Daniel Barenboim together with my late husband, Edward Said. It is registered in Spain and the regional government of Andalusia is the main partner in this project.

WEDO is not a project for normalization. The yearly workshops in Spain are advanced musical summer courses. When students from Arab countries and Israel attend the same courses at any university around the world where the professor’s competence is the reason for which they enroll, it is considered furthering their education, not normalization.

The only requirement to attend the workshop and become a member of the orchestra is musical competence and talent. The musicians have to pass rigorous auditions and the ultimate goal is musical education on the highest level. The BSF has been offering music education programs in the occupied West Bank in partnership with the al-Kamandjati Music Center. We are actively supporting the AM Qattan Foundation’s Music Center in Gaza, as well as pioneering projects in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. We also offer music education programs for Palestinians in the Galilee (we have a conservatory in Nazareth) and in Jaffa. The aim is to bring together all the Palestinians in Palestine through the language of music.

Most importantly, nowhere in PACBI statement is it mentioned that the WEDO was established by Edward Said as well as Daniel Barenboim.

By attacking the orchestra, PACBI is attacking the integrity of my late husband and his legacy. It is not the first time PACBI has used this skewed approach. The deliberate omission in the statement of any reference to Edward and his support for this project is a manipulation of the media and a conscious effort to mislead the Palestinian people. Edward passed away more than six years ago. I do not know what he would have said about all this today, but I know how he felt about this project and what he wrote about it. A couple of weeks before his death, when a Palestinian activist friend who had reservations about the project asked him about WEDO, Edward unhesitatingly replied in an email: “It is the most important thing I did in my life.”

Denial of the existence of the Palestinians has been the essence of the Zionist project. When this method is used by Palestinians to deny one of their own, their most vocal advocate, a champion of justice and universal human rights who never tired of demanding their right to self-determination, it is an outrage.

Edward was a visionary and constructive critic who spoke truth to power. He was a courageous and original thinker who was not afraid of taking risks and going against the grain, who always thought in alternative ways that led to opening roads and building bridges. The only thing he most abhorred was criticism that was destructive.

Daniel Barenboim has also been courageous and issued many statements condemning the occupation and the Israeli policy on Gaza. He was also a close friend of Edward. They wrote a book together entitled Parallels and Paradoxes in which they articulate many of the ideas that WEDO is based on. Daniel’s thinking has evolved over the years even though he and Edward did not agree on some issues. One does not have to agree on everything. The recent statement of PACBI indicates that the authors did not do their homework. Had they done so, they would have found more statements articulating Daniel’s support for the Palestinian cause.

Last year in an interview with Yussuf Shayeb in the Ramallah-based al-Ayyam newspaper, Daniel stated that the work of the BSF has nothing to do with normalization. It embodies solidarity and consolidates against injustice and occupation. In the summer of 2006 the orchestra issued a statement against the wars on Lebanon and Gaza. In January 2009 during the assault on Gaza, the orchestra again stated that it “deplores all actions that lead to civilian deaths” and that it “represents an alternative model based on equality, cooperation and justice for all.”  These statements were published in all the concert programs. When last summer a concert planned as part of the celebrations for “Jerusalem — Cultural Capital of the Arab World” was forbidden, the orchestra dedicated its concert in Geneva to “Jerusalem — Cultural Capital of the Arab World.”

The terrible irony is that by attacking the WEDO and the vision of Edward and Daniel, PACBI is doing exactly what Edward saw the western media doing to the Islamic world, as he wrote in his book Covering Islam. When former US President George W. Bush attacked Iraq in 2003, Edward Said responded with a lecture on humanism in Beirut and Cairo. Bush told the world: “you are either with us or against us.” At a PACBI panel discussion held during Israeli Apartheid Week in New York City in March 2009, a Palestinian speaker said: “To those who profess to be our friends and talk only about humanism, we say ‘f… humanism’. You are either on board or not.” I wonder what is the difference between him and Bush?

Edward’s thinking about the conflict evolved over the years. In the end, no matter what the solution is, both peoples will have to live together. To do so we need to talk to the enemy and to break the wall that separates us. To him the WEDO was an experiment that broke down barriers of hatred and allowed the participants to get to know the other. It was also an educational project where music was taught on a sophisticated level to musicians who had talent. Today, it remains a humanistic endeavor whose results will bear fruit in the future.

Since Edward’s passing, I have been actively involved in this endeavor. I too was in Qatar this past January and when introducing the orchestra I made a strong statement demanding freedom for Palestine.

Edward always reminded the Palestinians that they must fight on many fronts simultaneously. The WEDO is fighting on the cultural front; PACBI is fighting the same fight on another track. Many of us actively support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign and respect what it is doing. But equally, I have the right to ask that it acknowledge my involvement and the legacy of Edward Said in this project and respect the goals of the WEDO and the BSF.

Mariam Said is a retired banker and vice president of the Barenboim Said Foundation USA.