The maestro who should be our president
A citizen of the world, Daniel Barenboim fights to turn his near-far country into a more just place. He appears with our philharmonic, but only in Israel; he does not boycott, but he is not prepared to mislead the world.
By Gideon Levy | 04:59 10.11.13
Daniel Barenboim took my heart by storm last week. He was given an honorary doctorate from the Weizmann Institute of Science and invited me to be his guest, although we had never met. I listened to his speech and later we talked late into the night. The buildings at the institute went dark, the maestro took out two cigars and four chairs – for my partner and myself, and for his wife and himself – and we sat for hours on the grass in front of the institute’s fine guest residence. We talked about Israel, my country, which is, in a very deep way, his country, too. He had come straight from the airport and at first light he took off again back to Berlin. He is one of the most impressive people I have ever met.
The ceremony was festive, the food was excellent, the honorees wore their caps and gowns and the singer sang songs by Shlomo Artzi and Meir Ariel. One after the other the honorees, seven professors and philanthropists, rose to give their speeches. They extolled the Weizmann Institute and the State of Israel – and then the maestro rose.
The move from persecuted minority to state is an impressive achievement, he said. It required the creation of a new Jewish portrait, but Israel soon found itself ruling over another persecuted minority. Its failure to accept reality was its fateful mistake: It turned victims into culprits, he said. The conservative hall kept silent, although some of those present squirmed in their seats.
And he went on: The conflict is treated as one that requires compromises. “But ours is neither a political nor military conflict, but it is rather a human conflict between two peoples who deeply believe that they have the right to the very same piece of land. If my observation is right, then there is no point in looking for a compromise but what we need is to develop the capacity to understand and accept the right of the other. We can live side by side in a two-state solution or together in one bi-national state, but we can certainly not live back-to-back.”
He concluded by saying that it is “questionable whether a two-state solution even remains a possibility.” The wife of the institute’s president was furious.
Crowned with huge achievements – currently the director of the La Scala Opera in Milan and the Berlin Opera House – this man devotes a good deal of this time and energy to the project of his life, the West-East Divan Orchestra. Established by Barenboim and his friend, the late Edward Said, the greatest of Palestinian intellectuals, the orchestra consists of young musicians from Israel and Arab countries perform together. With all his fame, he never misses an opportunity to speak his mind courageously, at a time when most of his fellow artists keep quiet. He could rest, like they do, on his laurels, but he does not keep silent.
Born in Argentina and a pupil at A.D. Gordon and Tichon Hadash schools in Tel Aviv, Barenboim went out into the world as a young man, but never parted from his Israeliness and his patriotism. If an Israeli athlete who wins some anonymous competition “brings honor” to Israel; if even third place in the world poker championship in Las Vegas brings us “honor” – then this man brings real honor to Israel.
He fights for Wagner to be performed in Israel, for our lives here not to be based on traumas (and was declared persona non grata by the Knesset Education Committee) and, in a protest against militarism, he refused to be interviewed by soldiers in uniform from Army Radio. A citizen of the world, with an Israeli and a Palestinian passport, he fights to turn his near-far country into a more just place. He appears with our philharmonic, but only in Israel – he does not boycott, but he is not prepared to mislead the world. A Palestinian in Ramallah once told him: “You are the first Israeli I’ve met that is not a soldier or a tank.”
In my dream I see him called on to be president of Israel, a personage who will captivate Israel and the world, the way Albert Einstein was once called upon. But then I woke up and saw Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat scolding him in the Knesset hallway at the Wolf Foundation prize ceremony.