Making peace in the Middle East to the beat of a hang drum

Founders, Israeli Lee Ziv (left) and Jordanian Jamil Sarraj connect Middle East nations and religions through a new musical project Musaique.She’s been featured in newspapers around the globe for her humanitarian work organizing money, supplies and the Israeli community to support the people in Gaza earlier this year. But professional peacemaker Lee Ziv, won’t stop at embracing the idea that she can connect people, through small efforts, in the Middle East.

Before the war with Gaza broke out in December, 28-year-old Lee, from Jerusalem, and Jamil Sarraj, who runs creative workshops in Jordan, had already met at a conference held in Jordan. After jamming a little, they decided to get a dozen friends together — six from Israel and six from Jordan, to make a little music and possibly something bigger in the peacemaking community. “We felt as though we created a new family,” Ziv recalls.

“Jamil and I started playing music and thought we had an amazing connection through this music. He called me and told me the United Religion Initiative could help us create a project. And we thought yallah, we should cooperate on music together,” Ziv tells ISRAEL21c. She has since collected over 40 musicians from across the Middle East region to participate in the project, Musaique.

“It’s not easy,” she admits. People across the Middle East can’t meet freely in each other’s countries: “We can meet only in Egypt, Turkey, or Morocco,” she explains.

Multi-faith band for peace

After a weekend jam session in a village on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea a few months ago, the musicians — mainly amateur — decided to create a group. They plan on touring with Musaique to create and record music in Middle East locations, where it’s possible for all the members to cross political borders.

Now organized under the United Religion Initiative (URI), Musaique could be the Middle East’s first multi-faith, multi-nations band, which will place more emphasis on the peacemaking part of music, than music as a profession.

“We thought from the beginning that we’re not going to be working [necessarily] with professional or known musicians,” says Ziv. “We want to bring people who love music and who want to do work on interfacing through music.”

Middle Eastern sounds and instruments will be a natural way for people from these parts to connect. Ziv, who works for the Sulha Peace Project in Israel, says she imagines the day when people from all over the Middle East will be able to play music together at both the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, and the El Aksa mosque, the golden dome.

In many instances, Israeli Arabs who are Muslim, Palestinians, Bedouins, Christians and Israeli Jews already play music together in Israel, but not under a banner for peace, but as a natural form of cooperation as professional music makers.

Musaique, on the other hand, will emphasize the peacemakers’ dialogue created by way of the music. It will be a homegrown effort, initiated by the people who come from the region.

Living the music story for life

“There are so many problems in the region, not only in Israel,” says Ziv who lives in the Ein Kerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. “There is Armenia and Turkey, and now Egypt and Iran.”

After the first meeting in Jordan, “we feel we changed each other for life. I was just talking with Jamil and told him we’d have an amazing story to tell our grandchildren. But we’re not going to just tell it, we are going to live this story,” says Ziv who plays the drums and the new-age musical steel drum, the hang, also known as the PANArt.

During the weekend jam, their first meeting as a group, Ziv says the musicians felt a strong affinity for one another. “We felt as though we were practicing music for 10 years together,” she says. “All the music from this region, we have the same source. We came with Israeli songs with Hebrew lyrics, they knew the music and we know the tone and exactly what they are playing.”

A song called Oje aseman, a traditional Persian song, is the first that the band is working on. Next month a meeting is planned for Jordan in a village on the border with Syria. And in the near future, the group plans on taking the show on the road, recording in Amman, Jordan, and then onto Turkey with musicians they hope to collect from Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco, Iran, Armenia, Turkey, and Egypt.

The musicians are already willing. “Every day I am getting phone calls,” says Ziv. “Our vision is to meet every time in a different place and then perform in a studio. We want to work with local communities in each place, and integrate Sufism and Kaballa and to create music around it,” she says. “Through this knowledge we can understand music includes everything.”

A safe place to play in Sderot

After eight years of rocket attacks, Sderot’s children can finally play in peace, with the world’s first indoor playground reinforced with concrete and steel. Children playing, enjoying themselves, laughing. We take it for granted. But for the past eight years, this scene has been in short supply in Sderot. While rockets regularly fell on this northern Negev town – just one mile from the Gaza border – life was adjusted. And playing outdoors was one of the first casualties.

That changed recently when a new $5 million indoor recreational facility was dedicated by the Jewish National Fund-US in a particularly moving ceremony. According to JNF’s CEO Russell Robinson, the playground is “the biggest and most important gift that could possibly be given to the children of Sderot and the entire region”.

The JNF, which funds 99 percent of its Israel projects with partners, set out to raise the entire project cost on its own. The operating budget, estimated at $200,000 a year will also be entirely funded by the organization.

Like many play areas, it is complete with a jungle gym, rock-climbing wall, air-hockey tables, snack area and even the latest in high-tech devices. Unlike other facilities, this 21,000 sq. foot former textile factory has an indoor mini-soccer field and is largely built with reinforced concrete and steel – making it the only ‘safe-for-play’ indoor recreational facility in the world.

Here, children who have known nothing but Code Red since they were born, can play and their parents can be comfortable knowing that they are only seconds away from one of the many sections of the facility that double as a shelter when the siren sounds. Peace of mind for all.

The excitement in the room was genuine. It emanated from parents and grandparents to children, to the JNF Mission who traveled to Israel just for this dedication, to the dozens of spring break participants here to give a bit of themselves to this land.

It will be a long haul, however. I spoke to a young mother who has lived her entire life in Sderot. She’s happy that her kids now have this place to enjoy, but added: “The reality for my children hasn’t yet changed. It will take no more than one red alert every few months before the change will begin.”

A long list of individuals came together to make this playground a reality. Most impressive was the speed of it all – local people and local materials were used and the project was completed in just seven months. Many volunteered – from senior citizens to students at Sapir College. All responding to the need that for eight long years there has been no safe place for kids to play.

Despite all, the spirit of the 20,000 plus residents of Sderot remains strong. And as one 12 year old told us all at the conclusion of the dedication ceremony, “Nothing can break us – we’re here to stay.”

The very next day, the residents of Sderot enjoyed their first outdoor Purim carnival in eight years. Together.

Israel’s opportunity in a time of economic crisis

Now is the time for investment in a national strategy to exploit the next technological wave. The world stands on the threshold of a multi-dimensional technological renaissance, and Israel can and must be an important player in these developments. Its task is to invest in human capital and in the conditions required for it to realize its goals in this respect.

The global economic crisis and the elections held in Israel last month again sharpen the questions about the role of the state and the government in shaping economic policy. The crisis generates expectations of the government, most of them to do with the short term, and diverts attention away from the need for serious public discussion of long-term national economic strategy. The basis for such a strategy is the goal, where does the country want to be in another five years, or ten, or more?

It’s hard to answer that question in our complicated geopolitical circumstances and in the changing “flat” world. I want to propose a flexibly defined goal whereby Israel wants to create and keep a global competitive advantage in the areas on which it chooses to focus.

Keeping a competitive advantage in a global world will enable us as a country to maintain a growing economy and to invest in growth producing areas and in important national aims (security, welfare, and so on).

After deciding on the goal, we have to choose the areas on which we wish to focus, to choose the ways in which we can obtain an advantage, and to decide how to measure progress.

Developing knowledge

Israel should focus on developing knowledge and innovation-intensive industries, and on exporting the goods and services they produce. By this I mean products and services that exemplify originality, inventiveness, and combinations of scientific disciplines, through which we can stay ahead of competing countries. The innovation industries can be in various fields: communications and computing, medicine, design, genetically modified agriculture, complex materials, and so on.

The pace of technological progress is dramatic. The concept “science fiction” has lost its meaning today, it’s hard to think of things that won’t be fact in the next decade or in the course of this century.

An example of this is the tremendous developments in computing and information technologies. The capability and power of today’s personal computer are a million times those of the first personal computer, which was developed 35 years ago. This pace will accelerate, uses and applications will broaden, providing answers to many problems that concern us in areas such as energy, education, and healthcare.

The world stands on the threshold of a multi-dimensional technological renaissance, and Israel can and must be an important player in these developments. Its task is to invest in human capital and in the conditions required for it to realize its goals in this respect.

There are many layers of investment, such as:

* Development and support of basic research at universities and research institutes (for example, encouragement and subsidies for researchers from overseas);

* Increasing the size of grants for commercial companies on the basis of their investment in R&D, with clear criteria for such aid (such as number of patents registered annually);

* The definition and implementation of a national education strategy, with an emphasis of nurturing teachers, excellence, and core subjects (languages, natural sciences, creative thinking);

* Removing bureaucratic bottlenecks, such as restrictions on the flow of investment capital to Israel;

* Expanding investment in the national communications infrastructure and turning Israel and its citizens into leaders in the use of advanced technologies.

Sixth in the world for innovation

A good yardstick for monitoring progress is the Global Competitiveness Index compiled by the World Economic Forum. The index combines data in 12 “pillars of competitiveness”, and ranks 134 countries according to their ability to compete in international markets and provide a basis for rapid growth. Israel is currently ranked 23. In the past few years, our ranking has fallen, from 14th, to 17th, and now to 23rd.

For innovation, we are ranked 6th in the world. On the other hand, we are ranked in 56th place for macro-economic stability, and 24th for the standard of higher education. These figures show that we have the ability, but that we must improve performance in the other areas in order to be among the leading countries.

Many commercial companies have flourished in times of crisis, and Israel too has an opportunity to define and implement a national economic strategy, based on cultivating its innovation industry, to turn us into one of the 10 leading countries in the world for competitiveness and capacity for growth.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2009. Reproduced by permission of Globes [online] –

Tomorrow’s negotiators offer hope of a better future

Student teams who take part in Israel’s model UN conferences are learning how to negotiate and resolve conflict – skills the Middle East can’t do without. Over the last two months, we have witnessed appalling negotiating skills in the Middle East. Israel and Hamas have each declared a unilateral ceasefire because the two sides cannot even agree on terms to bring an end to the current tensions, never mind a long-term solution. Political leaders may promote the idea of peaceful resolution, but actually sitting down to talk seems to require a Herculean effort in which nobody wants to invest.

Despite the visible failures of current leaders, programs designed to offer an alternative to future generations are encouraging. Two examples are this week’s third annual Israel Model United Nations Conference (IMUN), and last week’s eighth annual Israel Middle East United Nations Conference (TIMEUN). In both conferences, diverse groups of high school students improved their own conflict resolution proficiency.

For the third year, IMUN took place in the Moshe Sharett Auditorium of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Approximately 300 Arab and Jewish students across Jerusalem, from the Hartman Institute to the Boyer School, as well as the American International School in Even Yehuda, spent three days negotiating and passing resolutions based on formalized rules of international diplomacy.

During the opening ceremony, students had an opportunity to pose challenging questions on issues ranging from global warming to concerns regarding Israel’s portrayal in the United Nations. Based on responses to the remarks of keynote speaker Richard Miron, spokesperson and chief public information officer, United Nations Special Coordinator’s Office, it was clear that these students had carefully researched the challenges they would be addressing. They did not shy away from asking difficult questions and did not accept answers at face value.

Watching “Denmark” send messages to the Greenpeace delegation about supporting offshore drilling resolutions and Iran protest international sanctions from the podium, it’s hard to remember that these students, dressed in business attire, are not real United Nations delegates.

But, despite the sometimes palpable tension as representatives struggle to simultaneously support their positions while working to achieve an acceptable compromise, none of the delegates walk out. Nobody screams and nobody uses idol threats. These students assume the passion, dedication and professionalism we would like to see in real negotiating teams.

Dedication to peaceful resolution

The same dedication to peaceful resolution of issues was also seen at last week’s TIMUN conference. Under the passionate and dedicated guidance of Sara Jane Shapira, and her assistant, Peter Sickle, over 500 students came together at the campus of the Walworth Barbour International School (WBAIS) in Israel’s Even Yehuda to debate real issues, adjust to unexpected crises and pass resolutions.

Christian Arabs from Nazareth, Palestinians studying at the Jerusalem French School, Jewish students from the Amit Nachshon Yeshiva and even a group of students who flew in from the Bikent University Prep school in Ankara, Turkey joined students from WBAIS and 31 other schools for three rigorous days of committee meetings, passionate debate, resolutions and team-building.

For eight years, despite the second Intifada, Lebanon War and other regional crises, high school students have sacrificed free time throughout the year so that they can prepare for this conference; showing their classmates, neighbors and families that, if people are ready to talk, they can find a way to resolve conflicts. But they have to be ready to talk.

Sitting with Sara Jane Shapira, a longtime teacher at WBAIS and the ongoing director of the conference, I realized just how passionate the participants were. Assignments were made months ago, long before the war broke out in Gaza. Despite the tensions of current events and the resulting deteriorating relationship between Jerusalem and Ankara, the Bikent Prep students did not cancel their trip. Not only did they participate, but they did not resign from their previously assigned role as the Israeli delegation.

Actually, all of the student participants displayed a great deal of courage and integrity.

A different point of view

Shapira encourages participants to broaden their horizons and look at conflicts from different perspectives, so all of the students are asked to assume roles different than those they represent in real life. Students of Haifa’s Leo Baeck school represented Jordan, students at the Tabeetha School in Jaffa assumed the roles of South Korea, Thailand and Uzbekistan and students of the Hayovel School in Herzliya assumed the position of Saudi Arabia.

For months, students involved in both conferences have learned to argue effectively to defend countries whose positions they may have found anathema in reality. They are challenged to see things from a different point of view.

For some students, the affects are long lasting. Graduates have used their TIMEUN experience as a springboard for professional training. More than one former student has returned to tell Sara Jane that their participation in TIMEUN inspired them to study conflict resolution in university. Some are now teaching these skills themselves at a variety of universities.

Merrill Lynch and Global Classrooms have sponsored TIMEUN for many years. Though the economy has weakened globally, all of those involved in the program, including conference directors, students, and parents hope that the funding will be available next year. The program challenges students to re-evaluate long-held positions and biases.

The world is becoming more and more divisive. It is a dangerous time. Radical religious movements are increasing in numbers, and the damage they inflict is growing This, combined with the worst economic global downturn since the Great Depression, can combine to serve a lethal blow to the future of peaceful conflict resolution.

But watching the IMUN and TIMEUN students in action, one realizes that the world cannot afford to lose events like this. These debates offer students a chance to become more effective leaders than the ones who have brought us to the dangerous precipice where we stand today.

We have more in common than we believe

Serving as chairman of one of the 9,000 ballot boxes used in the 18th Knesset elections proved to be an enlightening experience for one Israeli voter. I had the honor of serving as a chairman of one of the more than 9,000 ballot boxes used during the elections for the 18th Knesset. When I arrived at the voting location at 6:30am, I had no idea that I would leave at 12:15am, almost 18 hours later, after such a mind-altering experience.

The first thing to strike me was the different worlds merging on my staff. My deputy was a young secular woman representing the Labor Party. The second member of my committee was a young, religious woman representing National Union. There were two “voting observers,” both haredi men – one from United Torah Judaism and one from Shas. During the course of the day, an additional observer joined from Kadima. The camaraderie and unity which developed over the day among the group was quite remarkable.

As a group we laughed, debated some points, discussed our backgrounds and cultures and really bonded. In what other setting would a haredi man be found sitting and talking amicably with a secular woman? Where else would a member of Shas be found challenging a young, Kadima activist to solve a difficult riddle? In what other setting do people from all walks of Israeli life sit and discuss the coming of the Messiah, the Iranian nuclear threat, and anti-Zionist extremists? While for the rest of the country it was a day of fragmentation as people voted their separate ways, in our voting room there was a unique moment of unity.

I need to do this myself

The second incredible impression was witnessing certain voting experiences. A new immigrant from America in her ’90s took close to 20 minutes trying to decipher the various Hebrew acronyms on the voting slips, refusing legal help from my staff since she “needed to do this by myself.” She had tears in her eyes as she put her envelope in the ballot box.

There were French immigrants who, upon slipping their envelopes into the ballot box proudly proclaimed a voté, the French declaration that “I have done my civic duty.” There was an older Israeli woman who, upon putting her ballot into the box mumbled, “The Messiah should come today.” There was a Russian couple standing outside the room for quite some time trying to make up their minds – clearly basking in the fact that they had the right to make this decision and influence the future of their country.

There was a young man who moved to Jerusalem recently but was still registered in Beit Shemesh who, upon realizing that he had left his identification documents at home, panicked and was willing to spend hours on the road driving wherever he had to go to find some way to vote. There was the recent Anglo olah (new immigrant) pleading with us to find a way for her to vote despite her not holding the legal documents to allow her to do so. Overall, there was an incredible sense of anticipation, tension and excitement, as people were not simply voting but clearly sensing that they were helping set the direction of their nation.

You never know what a person truly feels

The final experience came at the end of the day, when it was time to count the votes. Some of the staff felt so comfortable with the rest of the group that they decided to reveal for whom they voted. The young male Kadima representative? He voted for Shas. The young female Labor representative? Shas. This taught me in the most glaring and tangible way that externals cannot define the essence of a person; you simply never know what a person truly feels on the inside.

It also revealed to me that there is a searching and yearning for something spiritual and meaningful among the younger generation which manifested itself in these two people, one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi, identifying with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and a religious party.

We do not yet know in which direction our country will turn. But for me, Election Day yielded tremendous fruits as I came to the conclusion that our country has a bright future with passionate and caring citizens who have more in common than we are often led to believe. For me, and I hope for you, this serves as an Election Day victory.

Published courtesy of The Jerusalem Post