Between the Local, the Global, and the Aid Economy in Palestine: The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM) at the Christmas Concert for Life and Peace in Bethlehem

by Nili Belkind  //  LONGFORM

Hebrew University

Nili Belkind is an ethnomusicologist whose specialty areas include the Middle East and the Caribbean. She has published on a wide range of topics, including music and social movements, diasporic imaginations, cultural policy and diplomacy, borders, the urban space and ethnonational conflict. Her (just-released) book Music in Conflict: Palestine, Israel and the Politics of Aesthetic Production (SOAS’ Studies in Music, Routledge 2021) is an ethnographic study of the complex relations of musical production to political life in the context of the conflict. The book examines the politics of sound to show how music-making reflects and forms identities, and in the process, shapes communities, in a context of ongoing political and structural violence. Currently a postdoctoral fellow with the Department of Musicology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Nili received her Ph. D from Columbia University. Prior to pursuing her Ph D, Nili spent many years working in the music industry as an album producer, record-label manager and A & R specializing in world music. In this period, she worked most extensively with artists from the Spanish and French Caribbean.  

This article describes the role of a Palestinian cultural institution—the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM)—in creating national infrastructure and cultural ambassadorship that is part and parcel of the project of legitimizing Palestine, and Palestinian modernity, on the world stage. The focus on cultural production provides the ethnographic basis for analyzing the interface, alongside inherent tensions, occurring between the aid economy set up in Palestine to support international interests in the name of “state building” and “peacemaking,” and local moves and desires—in a context in which state building, colonization and occupation are all happening simultaneously. While postcolonial readings of the aid economy in Palestine view it as a neocolonial intervention detrimental to Palestinian society and its struggle for liberation, this study points to a much more dynamic process that shows how both the accommodation of foreign interests and the assertion of Palestinian agency work (and do not work), in tandem. Moving away from domination-resistance binaries and associated essentialisms, the article analyzes the evolving and changing meanings awarded to music making, locally and globally, in the political and performative moment. The article also ponders the growing role of nationalized cultural production in a context of the ever-shrinking geography within which it can be actualized.

Sitting by the fireplace of Bethlehem’s Casa Nova hotel’s lounge-lobby, Michele, the academic director of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM), explained the conservatory’s refusal to take part in previous editions of the annual Christmas Concert for Life and Peace to the Italian television channel production team here to record the 2011 concert for broadcast. “I’m against calling it a conflict. Conflict implies even opponents, not a cruel occupation,” Michele declared.

The Christmas Concert for Life and Peace was an annual event produced by the Italian non-governmental organization (NGO) Life and Peace Association (LPA) beginning in 2000 and was presented as a cultural enactment of Jewish-Israeli, Palestinian, and international hopes for regional peace. Historically, the event included two performances by an Italian orchestra, one held at Bethlehem’s Nativity Church and the other at Binyanei ha-Uma (The Nations’ Buildings) in the predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem, then aired as single broadcast on Christmas day via Italy’s national RAI channel and other stations in Europe. For Michele and the ESNCM, this dual format perfectly illustrated the problematic essence of what is often termed normalization (taṭbīʽ). In the Palestinian-Israeli context, normalization is equated with building relationships between two sides possessing different powers, in which the weaker side finds itself acting in the service of power (Salem 2005). From the ESNCM’s point of view, the LPA—by advocating peace and dialogue in the highly unequal circumstances in which Palestinians living under military occupation in Bethlehem are not even permitted to enter Jerusalem—was whitewashing the violence of the occupation, or normalizing the ethical abnormal. Michele was paraphrasing the discourse of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and its cultural arm, the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). The ESNCM’s position speaks to local cultural institutions’ role in supporting and disseminating the ethics of BDS—which has become an important global player in the Israeli-Palestinian battle over narratives and international legitimization.[1]

In 2011, the LPA accepted the ESNCM’s conditions for the conservatory’s participation: a single concert in Bethlehem with a cultural focus on Palestine rather than a dual performance format. For the 11th edition of the Christmas Concert, the Association would, for the first time, produce a concert in Bethlehem with the Palestine Youth Orchestra (PYO)—a national institution founded by the ESNCM—providing the orchestral base for both Palestinian and Italian guest soloists.[2] The LPA agreed to the ESNCM’s terms, but insisted the concert was to retain the title of previous years: the Christmas Concert for Life and Peace, a title the ESNCM accepted.

The ESNCM’s negotiations with the LPA for this eventuality—and the tensions occurring throughout the concert production—reveal the machinations of a broader field of power dynamics, interests and agendas characteristic of the political economy in post-Oslo-era Palestine, and the roles that cultural productions take on within this field. The rapid development of contemporary cultural production and cultural institutions in Palestine—the ESNCM among them—was enabled by an economic development package, or “peace dividend,” that followed the 1993 Oslo Accords and consequent expectations for a sovereign Palestinian state and Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation.[3] This package was created to support the buildup of Palestinian civic society and state institutions viewed by Western donors as indispensable for a modern state, and to promote “peace building” with Israel. Leading donors were the European Community and the European Union, followed by the United States (Hamdan 2011)—a policy the US maintained until Trump’s presidency.[4] Cultural production, understood as instilling humanistic values, pluralism, and a democratic ethos, has been awarded an important place in this equation.

In many ways, the aims and discourses of the NGO-based economy in Palestine bear resemblance to Western interventions in other “post-conflict” societies—for example, the post-Yugoslavia Balkans—combining Western conceptualizations of “democracy,” “development,” and “pluralism” with a neoliberal order (Devic 2006; Sampson 2002). Palestine, however, provides a unique situation, as here the aid economy continues to operate on assumptions that do not consider post-Oslo realities in which neither peace nor sovereignty are on the horizon. Aid interventions aimed at creating conditions conducive to peace and independence are occurring as conflict, occupation, colonization, and Palestinian state building are all happening simultaneously. In this context, Palestinian cultural organizations are forced to navigate between a number of contradictory logics: “development towards peace” (and sovereignty) and the conflict on the ground; the so-called depoliticized frameworks of the aid economy and the entwined ethics of nation-building and cultural resistance, and foreign donors’ alignment with Israel, alongside the growing role of cultural institutions in global advocacy for the Palestinian cause.

This article is based on fieldwork conducted in Palestine-Israel in 2011–2012, during which I “followed the conflict” by “following the music” to study the politics of music making in the post-Oslo era.[5] At the ESNCM, I worked as a volunteer, spent time with personnel and students, documented events, and joined the rehearsal camps that preceded major productions. The article investigates the complex interplay between the aid economy and cultural production in Palestine, demonstrating how music making produces models and projections of Palestinian modernity in a context of occupation, globalization, and the influx of aid. I focus on how these dynamics are negotiated, lived, and performed at the ESNCM, as the organization positions itself in local and global arenas of signification and in networked circulations of culture, power, and politics. While most analyses of the aid economy foreground its neocolonial bent and debilitating sociopolitical and economic effects on Palestinian society and its struggle for liberation, I argue that cultural policy is not solely the purview of foreign interests, but also the outcome of (diversely articulated) local needs, ideologies, and projections. My focus on institutional cultural production reveals a dynamic process in which both the accommodation of foreign interests and the assertion of Palestinian agency work (and do not work), in tandem.

Moreover, the ways in which aesthetics intertwine with “the political” are key to understanding the dynamics of cultural resistance and/or accommodation in this context. As David McDonald (2013) has noted, academic readings anchored in postcolonial studies tend to view cultural production largely through a binary lens of domination and resistive empowerment and to romanticize “resistance” rather than interrogate its framing (see also Saligh and Richter-Devroe 2014; Swedenburg 2013). This leads to particular “regimes of representation” (Nooshin 2017) anchored in aesthetic domains that marginalize wide swaths of cultural production and contribute to the essentialization of Palestinian identity(ies). In the case of Palestine, folklore—which has been indexed with liberation politics since the rise of the PLO in the 1960s—and more recently, hip-hop, are genres intuitively focused on as “authentic” models for, or soundtracks of, the politics of liberation. This article will show how Tchaikovsky and Mozart, associated with elite cultural production in the West, may be drafted to the politics of nation-building and resistance at a Palestinian cultural institution in ways that complicate the domination-resistance binaries of postcolonial readings, but are suited for an era in which the internationalization and culturalization of conflict go hand-in-hand.

The culturalization of conflicts in globalized arenas has been described by post-colonialist scholars (Boletsi 2013; Mamdani 2004) as intimately entwined with the construction of narratives underscoring the “clash of civilizations” discourses (Huntington 1996) that emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War and, most especially, after 9/11. They explain this discourse as a shift in Western narratives about political violence occurring in articulation with the age of globalization, one in which political and economic differences have been recast as inherent and essentialized cultural differences between “modern” (Western, rational, civilized) societies and “premodern” societies (equated with Muslim fundamentalism and non-liberal societies). According to Mahmoud Mamdani (2004), within this narrative, “premodern peoples” are conceptualized as either lagging and in need of philanthropy or as immutably anti-modern, and hence to be feared and policed.

While Western aid interventions in Palestine since the 1993 Accords can be read as “philanthropic,” there is a different yet overlapping register through which the internationalization and culturalization of the conflict have become intertwined in the case of post-Oslo Palestine. As Edward Said (1988) has noted, ethnonational struggles over space and territory are also struggles for legitimization shaped through the currency of ideas, rhetoric, symbols, images, and representations. Images and representations of Palestinians commonly circulating in the West, which for decades had been aligned with the Zionist movement, were those of the Islamic zealot, the terrorist, or the irrational primitive (Said 1988). Oslo initiated a period in which Western brokership of the “peace process” meant that the Palestinian leadership directed its diplomatic efforts to the West (and in accordance with Western directives), a process that intensified following the second intifada (2000–2005). At the same time, the development of a robust, institutionalized culture industry in the Occupied Territories and popular interest in Palestine meant that new images, representations, and narratives of Palestine and Palestinians were now also circulating in the West (De Cesari 2012; El Ghadban and Strohm 2013; Jawad 2014; Karkabi 2018). Cultural production (and mobilization) in the post-Oslo era took on heightened charge and meaning, becoming a highly contested sphere within which the conflict and its associated narratives were constructed and debated more heatedly than ever, both locally and internationally.[6] The ESNCM’s participation in a mediated classical Western music concert that would be widely circulated in Europe provided a means of constructing projections of Palestinian modernity and sovereignty that also “speak” to the West in its own language of “civilization.”

I begin with a brief description of the ESNCM, highlighting how the institution is building a national cultural infrastructure based on a cultural mapping of Palestine that disrupts and subverts Western states’ discourses and imaginations of Palestinian futurity, which are based on 1967 borders and Oslo’s premises for Palestinian sovereignty. This follows with a critical review of the aid economy in Palestine and the place that cultural production has been awarded within its frameworks. The story of the Christmas Concert for Life and Peace elaborates the sociopolitical tensions that occur when local positions come into conflict with global interventions and the aid economy. It shows how a local cultural institution leverages its ideological alignments both locally and internationally and positions itself in a cultural ambassadorship role that is entwined with the project of legitimizing Palestine, and Palestinian modernity, on the world stage. I then map the ESNCM’s nation-building, resistance, and diplomacy efforts vis-à-vis other actors and stakeholders, including the church custodians of the Holy Land, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and BDS. My final commentary ponders the potential liberatory power of national imaginaries and projections produced through cultural texts, in the context of the ever-shrinking on-the-ground spatiality and cumulative fragmentation of occupied Palestinian geography.

The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM)[7] or: how a local cultural institution (re-)maps Palestinian (national) geography
The pioneering ESNCM, aka Al-Ma‘had, is the largest and longest established conservatory in Palestine. Founded in 1993 with 40 students, the ESNCM was the first Palestinian institution providing formal music education since 1948. By 2011, the Ma‘had was serving over 800 students attending branches in Ramallah, East Jerusalem, Nablus, Beit Sahour (Bethlehem) and Gaza, in addition to conducting outreach programs in more peripheral areas. The conservatory provides a structured academic program designed to prepare students to enter university-level music programs in both Western classical and Arabic musics.[8]

The Ma‘had is also developing a variety of events and institutions that both literally and symbolically serve to diffuse the isolation of Palestinians imposed by conditions of dispersal, exile and occupation, while laying the basis for a national cultural infrastructure. Among these are two premiere national orchestras the Ma‘had has founded, both of which focus on Western classical symphonic or chamber repertoire that also incorporates works by Palestinian and Arab composers. The Palestine Youth Orchestra (PYO) formed in 2004, brings together young players from the Palestinian diaspora, the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) and Israel, to create a “national youth orchestra on par with similar groups worldwide” (ESNCM 2011). Due to difficulties in securing passage to Palestine for participants, the orchestra usually conducts its rehearsal camps and tours abroad; 2011 was the first year the PYO was able to tour Palestine. The Palestine National Orchestra (PNO) consists of professional musicians of Palestinian origin, also hailing from the entire diaspora. The PNO made its debut performance in Ramallah in 2010; for some of the musicians based in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, it was the first time they were able to visit Palestine.

The symbolic cache of the national orchestras is amplified by their reach beyond conditions of geographic dispersion and social fragmentation, serving as embodied representations of Palestinian unity for audiences. During the PYO’s 2011 tour in Palestine, Suhail Khoury, the Ma‘had’s General Director, typically introduced the orchestra by asking the musicians to stand up in turn according to their country of origin—Lebanon, Syria, Argentina, etc.—a performative move that generated much applause and a palpable sense of excitement.

Competitions and annual festivals the Ma‘had founded also serve to re-territorialize geographic and social fragmentation into a continuous Palestinian cultural space. Among them is the biennial Palestine National Music Competition, established in 2006, which is open to all Palestinian instrumentalists and ensembles specializing in Western or Arabic music from Palestine and from within the Green Line. Competitions take place in East Jerusalem, an administratively complicated location due to permits that need to be obtained for West Bank participants, but one that defiantly refocuses Jerusalem as Palestine’s national capital and cultural base. Competitors from the besieged Gaza, who cannot obtain travel permits, are video-conferenced in. Their slightly blurry on-screen images, and thin audio signal coming through as they play, profoundly accentuates the extreme isolation of Gaza’s Palestinians, for the audience in Jerusalem. Under such conditions, a moving performance often generates heightened emotionality and a sense of solidarity among the competition judges, teachers, participants, and administrators in attendance.[9] Through this technological collapsing of spatio-political barriers, Palestinian unity is virtually reaffirmed, by a visual and sonic image that is sensorially flimsy, but affectively doubly potent.

This process of Palestinian place-making diffuses internal distinctions between oPt-based Palestinians and Palestinians of ’48 and between the local(s) and the diasporic, combining a “geography of resistance” (Feld and Basso 1996) with nation-building and redefining the “self” attached to Oslo’s frameworks of “self-determination.” It is a project of self-nationalization in which building cultural infrastructure is geared as much towards representations of a borderless “Palestine” inclusive of all Palestinian populations, as to creating international representations recognized as on par with modern (and sovereign) nation states. A mapping of national identity that reaches past conditions of occupation and dispersion, it also aims past the territorialized conception of sovereignty attached to the failed Oslo Accords and to foreign interventions in Palestine.

“Development towards peace” at a time of conflict
Culture became a central focus for aid interventions in Palestine most especially after the second intifada (2000–2005). As El-Ghadban and Strohm (2013:188) write, “culture became the new buzzword, the new commodity for foreign investment.” Foreign aid supported the establishment of cultural centers and the sponsorship of arts education programs and artists in different mediums. It also enabled the dissemination of Palestinian art locally, and importantly, abroad—in music festivals, art galleries, and film festivals. For Palestinian music conservatories, this support facilitated their tremendous growth and snowballing presence in public life over the past couple of decades (Beckles Willson 2013). Yet the political economy created by foreign aid in Palestine is rife with contradictory aims and policies, and participation in it means navigating a terrain that often does not align with the cultural and political representations Palestinians aim for.

Critics argue that the aid economy has been constructed primarily to serve Israeli and Western interests in the region (Leone 2011; Taghdisi Rad 2011). Their critiques are based on several claims. The first maintains that the aid economy in Palestine renders the occupation sustainable for Israel, rather than supporting an emergent Palestinian polity. As Sahar Taghdisi Rad points out (2011:18, quoting Moore 2008), donors have helped prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the Occupied Territories, but they have also enabled Israel’s “deluxe occupation in the West Bank—total military domination with no responsibility for running the life of the occupied population, and no price tag attached.”

The second critique addresses donors’ interests and their effects on Palestinian society. It pegs the peace-building and humanitarian mandates of foreign interventions in Palestine on international financing institutions’ (IFIs) commitments to Western governments and their stakes in a neoliberal global economy, international security, and spheres of political influence (Taghdisi Rad 2011; Tawil-Souri 2012). The only frames proposed for the “correct” kind of Palestinian state to emerge in this context are liberalization and privatization. This promotes the privileging of top-down policymaking, international interests in the region, the PA’s top power echelons, and unchecked capitalism. It also leads to growing class divisions, deflection of real needs and democratic ideals, and promotion of an untenable acceptance of the status quo amongst civil society.

Ava Leone (2011) highlights the Orientalist subtext of these moves, contending that the shift from political rights to human rights discourses occurring in articulation with the second intifada, was accompanied by Western donors’ narratives of Palestinians as irrational and inherently prone to violence. By this logic, Palestinians are a problem to be solved through training in “democracy” and practice in civil participation. Such narratives do not credit preexisting Palestinian civil society organizations for their role in providing spaces for civic participation and producing social cohesion, but instead aim to replace them. Per Leone, domestication of these discourses produced a social elite that is accountable to donor priorities rather than to the people they serve.

Critics focused on culture and arts in Palestine (Al-Shaikh 2009; Beckles Willson 2013; El-Ghadban and Strohm 2013) align with these views. They point out that donors understand culture as a basic human need, as groundwork for “development,” and as a basis for the provision of a modern, liberal, and democratic society, rather than as a process that reflects and constitutes social identities under conditions of military occupation. They also view foreign investment in Palestinian culture as part of the neocolonial drive to replace grassroots initiatives, nation-building, and popular resistance, with humanitarian discourses and foreign values of aesthetic production intended for the rewards of global consumption. For Al-Shaikh (2009:765) this process amounts to a “shifting concern, on the cultural level, away from preserving the Palestinian collective memory, [to] fostering cultural politics directed towards achieving collective amnesia.”

These critiques are largely validated by discourses attached to culture-focused aid. For example, a UNESCO study that sets up guidelines for developing the PA’s cultural policies brings to life both UNESCO’s Orientalist gaze and the instrumentalization of culture within such framing:

Indeed, nothing less than Palestine’s future as a viable modern nation is at stake. It is the harnessing of culture to the burgeoning world of communications which will pave the way out of underdevelopment and political and religious extremism. Clearly, a prosperous and democratic Palestine is the best possible guarantee of long-term peace and security in the Middle East. Moreover, with its wealth of religious and cultural heritage, the Holy Land may then more effectively fulfill its natural vocation as a haven for the world’s pilgrims. (Coordination Unit in Favor of the Palestinian People 1999:23).

The Orientalist nature of this report is most striking in the conceptual slippage that locates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the underdevelopment of Palestinian society or its political and religious extremism, rather than in historical trajectories of dispersion and subjugation. Cultural policies emerging from this viewpoint apprehend Palestinian subjectivities as premodern—hence the paternalistic attitude—and romanticize culture as a means of arrival at sovereign modernity. The report also links UNESCO’s interventions in Palestine to global interests (the Holy Land’s “wealth of religious and cultural heritage”), rather than local needs.

While critics rightly point to the aid economy’s problematic gaze and structure, they tend to focus on top-down analysis and overlook Palestinian agency. The Ma‘had’s negotiations with the LPA over the Christmas Concert were a moment of local cultural resistance. Insisting on a single concert in Bethlehem entailed potential risk, as some of the Ma‘ahad’s administrators worried it could jeopardize donors’ funding needed to complete the new conservatory building in Beit Sahour. But Suhail backed Michele on the need to follow BDS guidelines and for the Ma‘had to stand its ground. Considering the dependency of Palestinian cultural institutions on the aid economy, this was a defiant stance. The story of the Christmas Concert for Life and Peace shows that while Palestinian music education institutions have benefited tremendously from foreign investment, they are also intent on setting their own agendas. Music conservatories follow and domesticate donors’ discourses and standards selectively and aim to advance local positions. And their disposition towards the occupation is not a politics of accommodation, but of resistance. While Palestinian music institutions cannot contest Israel’s sheer material power, they do contest its moral legitimacy through cultural production, both locally and globally. They also advocate for Palestinian narratives internationally, pressure donors to take a moral stand, and contribute to new formations of nation-making and cultural resistance in Palestine. 

The Christmas Concert for Life and Peace: from ‘music for peace’ to ‘music for liberation’

Below is a broadcast of the Christmas Concert for Life and Peace:

At the basis of the negotiations taking place between the Ma‘had and the LPA prior to the concert was a clash of opposing conceptual frames—“music for peace” and “music as resistance.” In such a high-profile event, this process was bound to become fraught with tensions. The Ma‘had was transparently advancing Palestinian cultural resistance ethics and strategies, using the event to promote itself and to voice “Palestine,” musically and politically, locally and abroad. The LPA’s position retained irreconcilable ambiguities. On the one hand, the LPA presented the new format of the Christmas concert to the Ma‘had as a gesture of solidarity with Palestinians that followed the Palestinian Statehood’s United Nations (UN) bid (September 23, 2011) and Palestine’s admission to UNESCO (October 31, 2011).[10] On the other hand, the LPA remained invested in the “music for peace” ethos. Maintaining this ambiguity was a means of trying to mediate between irreconcilable ideologies. It also enabled the LPA to avoid taking a moral and political stand in a highly contested terrain of cultural production.

The LPA had greatly benefitted from participating in the peace economy for the past decade. This engagement enabled the NGO to raise considerable funds and to build numerous alliances with the Bethlehem municipality, the church custodians of the Holy Land, and Italy’s entertainment industry and political apparatus. The Italian sponsors listed in the concert program included Italy’s Cabinet, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, the Italian Minister of Equal Opportunities, and the Italian Minister of Youth, indicating the political and economic clout the LPA had built back home based on its interventions in Palestine. Michele, who represented the Ma‘had to the LPA, was aware of the LPA’s interests and mistrustful of their intentions, most especially their lucrative alignment with the mandates of the peace economy.

The clash between opposing ideological frameworks was further complicated by the meanings and subtexts attached to discourses circulating during the event’s production. These were borne of a mixture of local and global politics, the coupling of a religious event with an entertainment economy, and the diverse agendas and identity politics of subjectivities involved. Tensions percolating during the event’s planning stages only intensified during the rehearsal period. Michele was vexed when he found out the producers were organizing a pilgrimage tour for the concert in which their fares indicated they would be making a substantial profit over local hotel prices. He was further angered when the producers tried to cut costs by resisting equal fund allocations for local Palestinian soloists and imported talent and later, by attempting to substitute falafel sandwiches for the real meals promised to the orchestra members. For Michele, these moves manifested a cynical exploitation of pilgrims and a racialized, neocolonial disposition towards Palestinians.

Contestation over ideologies and economic considerations soon spilled over into aesthetic domains. Michele was furious when the LPA’s Italian artistic director claimed the PYO was not up to performance standards, as he felt that the LPA had not budgeted enough rehearsal time for the program’s length. Many among the Ma‘had felt the LPA’s artistic director’s aesthetic choices were often designed to achieve high TV ratings rather than showcase artistic merit. Besides the classical repertoire the PYO was accustomed to, the program included symphonic adaptations of popular standards such as the Beatles’ “Let it Be.” The choice of featuring Italian teen protégés as soloists—including a veteran of io Canto (a music variety show akin to American Idol)—also pointed to the production’s market orientation. Of such decisions Michele commented disdainfully, “We’ve had Berlusconi TV aesthetics in Italy for a really long time now!” And Liz, the ESNCM’s principal violinist, found these choices depressing, as one of the reasons she loved teaching in Palestine was not having to participate in the kinds of cheesy productions entailed in being a member of a Belgian symphonic orchestra trying to cross over into popular domains.

In short, the Ma‘had’s dealings with the LPA over logistics, and the LPA’s choices of soloists, repertoire, and aesthetics, only reinforced the Ma‘had’s assumption that the LPA represented a neocolonial exploitation of the “peace industry” and the Holy Land, rather than philanthropic goodwill or a guileless peace-oriented agenda. As highlighted above, negotiating these tensions is daily fare for all Palestinian cultural organizations, which are dependent on an aid economy attached to advancing the defunct “peace process,” but seek to define their own terms of representation (see Laïdi-Hanieh 2006).

Bethlehem usually has a sleepy, small-town air about it, but on the days leading to Christmas, the city buzzes with life and activity. By the time rehearsals for the Concert for Life and Peace began, the city was brightly decorated, festive, and overrun with traffic. Manger Square—the plaza by the Peace Center and the Nativity Church—and the Old City streets filled with pilgrims, kids selling trinkets, and older shabāb peddling icons and prayer beads. An open-air stage on the plaza showcased nightly concerts and children’s activities.

Over the next few days, life for all involved with the concert circulated around the plaza. Rehearsals took place at the Peace Center. Non-local PYO participants and the Italian production team stayed at the Casa Nova hotel. The hotel’s lounge-lobby became the nerve center of the production, where business meetings were conducted, problems sorted out, and musicians hung out during breaks and at the end of the day. The Franciscan monks who run the establishment, always conscious of their potential role in building community, did their best to defuse tensions by providing the best possible logistical and ambient support for the project.

While behind the scenes tensions were playing out, the orchestra members spent their days in intensive rehearsals with Juan David Molano, a Colombia-born, Geneva-based conductor and pianist. Juan David had been arriving every few months for music camps and concerts, a continuity that produced a growing intimacy with orchestra members. The intimacy was also visible among participating youth who had shared dorms, rehearsals and camaraderie in previous camps. The Italian soloists tended to keep to themselves and disappear once rehearsals ended.

Among the cast of musicians, one person was an anomaly: Russia-born Israeli bassoonist Sasha Fine. Contracting a Jewish-Israeli, especially a member of the Jerusalem Symphony—an organization likely to be on PACBI’s boycott list—may have been the outcome of necessity for the Ma‘had, but Sasha’s jovial bonhomie seemed to render him liked by all. Sasha had taught at the Bethlehem branch for five years. He adored his Palestinian students and was upset his contract wasn’t renewed in 2011.[11] Sasha is not the only (Jewish) Jerusalem Symphony member to have been contracted by the Ma‘had at different times. But his presence at a PYO concert, one promoted as a national event, foregrounded how boycott policies can become dissonant with the complex reality on the ground, in a geographically and demographically dense and checkered conflict region. Sasha’s participation demonstrates a politics of personhood that disrupts the ethnically purist politics of nationhood, in a highly charged and nationalized performative space. Moreover, his inclusion in an event featuring a Palestinian national orchestra shows that no matter how many barriers are constructed to avoid contact between populations (by both Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians), interrelationships and interdependencies complicate communal insularities as well as anti-normalization policies.

By the day of the concert, December 20, the church’s stone courtyard and fortress walls were festive with decorations. Local boy scouts directed audience traffic and passed out programs. The church filled beyond capacity, and many rows of folding chairs were added to the church pews. The audience included different church orders marked by customary habits, local dignitaries, families with children, and a sprinkling of foreigners.

The program notes (Life and Peace Association 2011) were laced with references to Christian discourses on peace and coexistence. They opened with the blessings of Archbishop Antonio Franco, the apostolic delegate to Jerusalem and Palestine, who dedicated the performance to the recently deceased Monsignor Pietro Sambi. The Monsignor had served in Bethlehem during the second intifada (2000–2005), the IDF’s occupation of Bethlehem (2002), and the siege on the Church of the Nativity. The siege, lasting 39 days, began as the IDF invaded numerous Palestinian urban centers, storming into Bethlehem with tanks and troupes on April 2, 2002. Approximately 240 people took refuge in the church, among them Palestinians involved in armed struggle alongside policemen, clerics, priests, and schoolchildren, which were later joined by peace activists. The clerics took on the role of interlocutors between the sanctuary seekers and the IDF (Raheb 2004; Young 2003). Referencing Monsignor’s Sambi’s mediatory role during the occupation, the Archbishop wrote, “during these violent times it was necessary to maintain a voice that called for peace and reconciliation, a voice that would provide a consistent call for peace and sanity… The Christmas Concert for Life and Peace was initiated by [LPA Secretary General] Rino Maenza as a message of solidarity to the people of the Holy Land.” The Archbishop was highlighting the important role of the church in mediating imminent violence during the second intifada, positioning the Christian mission as a critical player for advancing peace in the region, and foregrounding the role of music in advancing Christian ethics of peace.

Next came the words of the Franciscan friar and custodian of the Holy Land Pierbattista Pizaballa: “When music becomes an instrument of Peace, it changes your perspective… It enables you to be free to imagine spaces without confines.” LPA personas’ program dedications were similar in vein. Rino Maenza wrote: “musical language becomes a supportive infrastructure for a peace culture to spread farther and wider.” And Angelo Miele, LPA’s president, stated:

This year too we are guests of the Bethlehem municipality, here to renew our commitment to peace … at Life and Peace Association we believe in a future where walls will come down and different cities will live in peace… I tell musicians not to be intimidated by this place, a symbol of both Culture and Christianity; what we expect from you is a great concert, and even more so, a big message of peace.

This Christian-inspired discourse of peace and benevolence was not the central message the Ma‘had had for the audience, both local and foreign, at the Church of the Nativity. Once the Ma‘had’s personnel came to the podium, the religiously cast poetics of peace were replaced with poetics of liberation. The Ma‘had’s speakers used the recent Palestinian bid to be accepted as a full member of the UN—vetoed by the United States but followed by Palestine’s acceptance as the 195th member state of UNESCO—as the frame from which the meanings attached to the 11th Christmas Concert for Life and Peace were to be apprehended. Jalil, director of the Bethlehem branch, spoke in Arabic and then in English:

This evening is unique and spiritual, one witnessed by every Palestinian city, village and refugee camp, [one] witnessed by the whole world. We find ourselves gathered in the most holy place on earth, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where light is shed on the history and identity of our nation. To reflect the Palestinian dream from its humanistic aspect, through the language of music, [which] addresses populations and broadcasts messages of hope and freedom … tonight we celebrate, but we don’t ignore the political reality of the segregation wall, the confiscation of lands and the military checkpoints that divide and disconnect our lands and our people. The Palestinian flag [was] recently raised at UNESCO’s headquarters, and tonight, local and international media will reveal to the whole world the capabilities and civilization of a people awaiting a just path to freedom. The fingers of 60 young men and women will reflect cultural Palestinian life through the language of music, delivering a message stating that we are a people worthy of this land; a people who deserve to live… Good luck, and Peace. Merry Christmas.

Jalil’s speech turned this spiritualized event, alongside its location at the Nativity Church and Bethlehem, into cornerstones of Palestinian national identity, rather than a Christian one. And his message was about liberty, rather than peace and reconciliation. Audience members, especially those from different church orders, watched him intently. While he was speaking, you could have heard a pin drop, and he was received with much applause.

Michele’s speech, in Italian, came next. Highlighting the celebratory occasion of the Palestinian flag joining the flags of 194 UNESCO member countries, his speech rearticulated ideas he stood for while negotiating with the LPA, to the audience:

Many times, when they talk about Palestine in the international media, it is mentioned exclusively in relationship to Israel. This deprives the Palestinian people from being recognized for their own heritage, their own culture—as a people, a culture, a society that exists on its own merit. Tonight’s concert will broadcast to all an unknown aspect of Palestinian culture: an orchestra of Palestinian youth formed by the ESNCM, made up of Palestinian and Italian musicians and soloists. This marks a departure from the [Christmas Life and Peace] concerts that have taken place in the past, when an Italian orchestra would present one concert at the Nativity Church in Bethlehem and one in Jerusalem, [an act] that ignored the blunt reality of an occupying country and an occupied country in Palestine.

Michele’s speech was also received with much applause. Both speeches made a discursive move linking cultural value (civilization in Jalil’s terms, culture in Michele-speak) with national value, rather than with the amorphous “culture of peace” the clerics and the LPA highlighted in the program.

In highlighting how global imaginations often overlook Palestinians as a people possessing a culture to be understood and valued on its own terms, Michele foregrounded a Palestinian sore zone of politico-cultural sensitivities. Palestinian cultural producers are highly aware that Israel’s sovereignty carries a profound ideological weight in the eyes of the world, against a territorially and politically (and hence also culturally) yet-to-be defined Palestine. Commonplace perceptions endow Israel, as the hegemonic power, with ontological legitimacy and permanence. Moreover, in the West, Palestinians had for decades been denied their existence as a political community, as historical subjects and as moral litigators for their cause (Doumani 2007). Contemporary musical representations of Palestinian collectivity are therefore underscored by the message that Palestinians embody a collective identity that is of a historical trajectory that must be heard and sounded on its own terms and is here to stay.

Jalil and Michele’s speeches implicitly linked Palestinian culture and heritage with specific aesthetic content: classical Western music, the PYO’s specialization. This move in effect constructed this musical tradition as a sui generis representation of Palestinian identity. By assigning intrinsic and essentialized values of Palestinian culture and heritage to a performance tradition in a context in which Western classical music education was but two decades old, Jalil and Michele’s presentations were coupling a heritage-in-the-making with a nation-in-the-making.[12] Moreover, the speeches projected the performance of Western classical music by a Palestinian orchestra, as one based in an aesthetic language that negotiates with the (Western) world in its own terms of cultural value. Once broadcast in Europe, this representation would provide a counter-image to Israel’s reflexive self-positioning as politically and culturally aligned with the West. To paraphrase Jalil, it was the embodied performance of this music by Palestinians that would deliver to the world the message that the Palestinians are worthy of their land.

Both speeches also highlighted the injustices of the occupation completely glossed over in the discourses of church clerics and LPA. They advanced “liberation” rather than “conciliation” as the concert’s socio-political framing. The main difference between them, besides Jalil’s flowery style and Michele’s terse pointedness, was Michele’s direct criticism of the LPA’s previous productions, when pointing out that the LPA’s implicit acceptance of local power structures as equivalent sides in the conflict overlooked the “blunt reality of an occupying country and an occupied country in Palestine.”

Finally, both speeches celebrated UNESCO’s recent recognition of Palestine as a sovereign member of the organization. For Yara El-Ghadban and Kiven Strohm (2013), UNESCO’s acceptance of Palestine was merely a self-congratulatory move for Western countries that allowed the more important bid for Palestine’s sovereignty to be swept under the rug and, more broadly, that highlighted UNESCO’s instrumentalization of culture and art as a means of maintaining Western hegemony. The Ma‘had however, took UNESCO’s move as an international vote of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and a prominent platform from which cultural production could be leveraged to further political claims. From the Ma‘had’s perspective, the internationalization and culturalization of the conflict enabled by UNESCO’s vote provided new platforms for turning culture into a locus of the struggle for liberation and of performing resistance. Moreover, UNESCO’s vote was taken also as a reaffirmation of locally made links between culture, heritage, and the right to sovereignty at the core of UNESCO’s orientation. With these speeches, the Concert for Life and Peace became a showcase of how culture could be productively deployed by Palestinians to advance their own agendas on international platforms as never before.

While the speeches would be cut out of the concert’s broadcast, their messages came loud and clear to all actors on the ground. The musical program began right after Michele’s speech, but his words would create quite a stir in the following days.

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       Photograph by Fares S. Mansour. Christmas Concert for Life and Peace at the Church of the Nativity.

The evening’s program was designed to bridge the political and aesthetic tensions that surrounded the concert’s production, as this was where both the Ma‘had and the LPA needed to shine. It was also long, so the RAI production team could cut performances of lesser quality for a 70-minute TV broadcast. The first half featured repertoire that constitutes the ESNCM’s daily fare: standard classical Western music pieces peppered by orchestral works written by Arab composers. The inclusion of repertoire by Palestinian or other Arab composers in Western music programs is common across the West Bank—a means of bolstering pride in local contributions to Western traditions and of deconstructing East-West binaries. Highlights of the program included Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (Op. 23), with Palestinian-Israeli pianist Fadi Deeb featured as soloist; his playing amplified the piece’s dramatic, romantic-era flare. Laura Marzadori, one of the Italian teen protégés, executed a bright and spirited delivery of Beethoven’s Romanza No. 2 in F Major (Op. 50), and Nicola Barbagli, an Italian who had performed in Palestine before, was featured as soloist on Palestinian composer Salvador Arnita’s Allegretto Pastorale for Oboe and Strings (1965). The piece had been chosen for both the Pastorale’s Christmas appropriateness and its composer’s origins: Arnita was a music educator, composer and, in the 1940s, conductor of the Jerusalem Radio Orchestra, until forced to flee to Beirut in 1948 (Shaked 2011). Laura Marzadori later returned as soloist on Paganini’s Variations on the G String for Violin and Strings. While she played this oeuvre with flare and feeling, intonation problems indicated the work was a notch above her technical comfort zone, bringing to mind the Ma‘had critiques of featuring teen protégés as soloists. Laura closed the first half of program with her younger sister, violist Sara Marzadori, on Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante (K 364) Andante movement.

The second part of the program shifted to the lighter, voice-centered and Christmas-oriented fare. It started with the Italian duo Petra Magoni (mezzo-soprano) and Feruccio Spinetti (double bass) improvising on Brahms’ well-known lullaby. Petra possessed a velvety voice, but her improvisations were stilted, and it was clear she wasn’t accustomed to singing in German. The duo later returned to perform Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love” accompanied by piano and orchestra, on which Petra, who couldn’t pronounce the English lyrics properly, sounded even more awkward than on the Brahms. Enrico Nadal, the recent star of io Canto, sang “Let it Be” to a piano and orchestral accompaniment clearly intended for the commercial bent of the broadcast. He also encountered difficulties enunciating the English lyrics.

The one Palestinian insertion into this part of the program provided a break from the sentimentalized vocals. Sana‘ Moussa stepped up in a dress that was a spin on a traditional Palestinian robe, which stood out against the orchestra’s black and white and the other female soloists’ evening gowns, and which also broadcast the Palestinian context and location of the concert. She sang “Ya Mariam,” a traditional Christmas ode to Mother Mary popularized by the Lebanese singer Fairouz, to a rich, post-Romantic arrangement written by a Palestinian composer specifically for the PYO.

Despite the length of the program, the crowd remained seated and the three singers came together for the encore. Petra started off “Silent Night” in Italian to piano accompaniment joined by the orchestra mid-strophe, Sana‘ sang the second strophe in Arabic, and Enrico returned to Italian on the third. The three singers closed the carol together singing in their respective languages. This was a symbolic finale to the Italian-Palestinian collaboration. It highlighted the bridging of Orient and Occident underscored throughout the performance by the embodied presence of musicians and the insertion of Palestinian repertoire into a Western classical concert format alongside lighter vocal fare intended for the European market. The audience clapped enthusiastically for quite some time, and despite the length of the program, lingered around after the musicians left, not quite ready to close the evening.

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Photograph by Fares S. Mansour. Sana‘ Moussa, Christmas Concert for Life and Peace at the Church of the Nativity.

Back at the Casa Nova lounge after the concert, a tired giddiness enveloped the Ma‘had folks. Generally, the musicians were happy with the performance and the ways the artistic content had bridged the irreconcilable ethics and interests of the Ma‘had and the LPA. Without the Ma‘had speeches, the European broadcast would brush away the political grit and romanticize Italy’s relationship with the Holy Land; however, the sole Palestine focus and hybridized repertoire would also advance Palestinianness as a distinct identity, possessing cultural capital and its own articulations with the West.

In the following days, tensions continued to play themselves out locally in response to Jalil and Michele’s speeches. LPA’s producer Rino Maenza was livid with the ESNCM, as the Ma‘had’s message did not align with the “coexistence” and “peace” focus on which the LPA had built its lucrative interventions in the Holy Land. He also expected the PYO to be grateful for the opportunity provided by the LPA rather then set a political agenda for the concert. In all likeliness, what brought on Maenza’s wrath was the concern of potentially losing the LPA’s lucrative place as middleman between the Italian RAI channel, the Bethlehem municipality, and the custodians of the Holy Land. Michele viewed this as an opportunity, as doing away with middlemen would enable the Ma‘had to direct the aesthetic content, control its political representations and advance Palestine on its own terms. The possibility did not seem too far-fetched a scenario. The RAI’s producers had been educated about the local situation; the then-mayor of Bethlehem responded favorably to the speeches, and debates about the meanings generated by the Christmas Concert of Life and Peace were now also taking place in church circles, which had previously been unquestioningly supportive of the LPA’s initiative. Regardless of future outcomes, the Ma‘had had turned the event from a concert celebrating the “people of the Holy Land”—a celebration denatured of national representation and “political” discourse—into an opportunity for a performative musical and discursive display of and for Palestine that would continue to resound in different ways, both locally and globally.

Performing Palestine on local and global stages
On September 23, 2011 President Mahmoud Abbas formally submitted Palestine’s request to join the UN as a full member state. The move to internationalize the conflict arena was a radical shift in the PA’s approach to the conflict: rather than seeking to revive the stalled peace process, it sought to bypass it entirely. The timing for this move dovetailed with the completion of the PA’s preparations intended to show the world (and IFIs) that the country was ready and worthy of sovereignty.[13] Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s state-building plan, which involved establishment of “solid institutions, guided by the principles of good governance, respect for human rights, rule of law, and the efficient and effective delivery of public services,” had been rolled out in 2009 (Palestine National Authority 2011). By the time of the UN bid, it had received the stamp of approval from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (BBC News Middle East 2011).[14]

In some ways, the fast expansion of music education infrastructure in Palestine in the post-Oslo era provided a cultural parallel to the PA’s state building efforts, characterized by the development of national institutions, diplomacy, and internationalization of the conflict arena. The Ma‘had is not the only cultural institution in Palestine to take on the establishment of national institutions and events, in what Chiara De Cesari (2012) terms “anticipatory representation” of the Nation(-State). Like the PA’s moves at the UN, the importance of the work of cultural organizations such as the ESNCM lies in their performative agency, a message contained in much smaller and continuously unfolding dramas that provide a cultural mapping of Palestine to actors and audiences within and without. However, this mapping diverges from that of the PA, which by the very terms of representation, is bound to a “Palestine” based on territories Israel conquered in 1967 and to Western states’ discourses and imaginations of Palestinian futurity. The Ma‘had’s national representations encompass a Palestinian human geography that reaches much deeper into history, and much wider geographically than Oslo’s agreements. By bringing together Palestinians from the West Bank, ’48 territories now Israel, the diaspora, and, whenever possible, Gaza into representational projects, the Ma‘had (as do other cultural organizations) is blurring Oslo’s accepted boundaries for Palestine. Inwardly, Palestinian music organizations work to consolidate unifying practices and symbols of national identity inclusive of all Palestinian populations. And outwardly they lobby for international recognition and legitimacy, but in ways that are distinctly untethered to Oslo’s “peace-building” mandates.

The alignment of cultural institutions with the BDS/PACBI movement and its narratives of anti-normalization—which is grounded in both strategic and psychosocial registers—marks another prominent difference between post-Oslo era ethics and practices of cultural institutions and those of the PA. Initially, the homecoming of the exiled PLO leadership and the establishment of the PA following the 1993 Accords signaled a return to building everyday “normal” lives, rather than subjugation to Israeli repression. This was accompanied by arts activities that foregrounded “collaboration” and “dialogue” between Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian artists as a means of promoting peace. But the promise of “normalcy” was soon shattered. Israel installed multiple systems of controls that further corralled Palestinian lives, leading to the eruption of the second intifada. In the post-Oslo era, resisting “normalization” came to mean opposition to Oslo’s false promises of Palestinian sovereignty and life-as-the-coercive-normal (Tamari 2013).

BDS launched its campaign in 2005 in response to post-Oslo realities. The movement interprets normalization as a constructed form of oppression, rather than a normative path to peace or alternatively, a politically necessary set of relations, a position maintained by the PA. BDS’s official statement likens normalization to:

a colonization of the mind whereby the oppressed subject comes to believe that the oppressor’s reality is the only “normal” reality that must be subscribed to… Those who engage in normalization either ignore this oppression or accept it as the status quo that can be lived with. In an attempt to whitewash its violations of international law and human rights, Israel attempts to re-brand itself, or present itself as normal–even “enlightened.” (PACBI website 2011)

The multiple registers by which the terms “normal” and “normalization” are deployed here all frame dialogic encounters under the oppressive regime in Israel-Palestine as abnormal.

Such terms of representation are muted in the PA’s platform. The 1993 Peace Accords that led to its establishment require the PA to “normalize” with Israel in many spheres, security and economy among them. To maintain its legitimacy as Israel’s partner in potential peace dialogues, the PA has distanced itself from BDS (Elgindy 2011), deferred discussions on the right of return for refugees and left Palestinian citizens largely outside its spheres of political engagement (issues that are foregrounded in BDS discourses; see BDS n.d.). Independent cultural organizations and NGOs have no such constraints, even if they do need to consider the politics of international donors. This gives them the freedom to deploy the Palestinian cultural renaissance in the promotion of Palestinian national imaginaries and frames of resistance on terms that they and their audiences resonate with.

The alignment of local cultural institutions with BDS is also intertwined with the central role of culture in the process of internationalizing the conflict in the post-Oslo era. BDS has focused its attention on global stages from its inception. Drawing inspiration from the history and strategies of the international boycott of South Africa during Apartheid, Culture has taken on a central role in BDS/PACBI narratives. The boycott on South Africa began as a grassroots mobilization focused on sports and culture, a strategy understood as having eventually spurred global divestment from South Africa, despite various countries’ initial reluctance to intervene (Barghouti 2008, 2013). Following this logic, international artists and cultural organizations have been asked to boycott events that involve Israel and promote “the normalization of Israel in the global cultural sphere, whitewash Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights, or violate the BDS guidelines” (PACBI website 2014).

BDS/PACBI’s campaigns have led to the cancellation of international artists’ tours in Israel and disruptions of performances by Israeli musicians and theater groups abroad.[15] While during my time in the field these cultural battles seemed relatively inconsequential, receiving little response from Israeli or Western mainstream media, in time such moves have brought the Palestinian cause to the public eye as never before. They placed the Palestinian struggle at the forefront of international debates on moral and political legitimacies and they fueled public opinion around the world that increasingly views Israel as a regional bully rather than as the sole democracy in the Middle East. Boycott politics are now debated in the media; within academic associations, trade unions, and church organizations; on college campuses; at FIFA; and among politicians and legislators in Israel and abroad. Debates aroused by the cultural campaigns have prepped the ground for economic divestment policies, however partial, enacted by some European municipalities and countries on international and Israeli companies, banks, and institutions implicated in the occupation economy in the West Bank (Case Brynat et al. 2014; Kuttab 2015; Reuters 2015; The Economist 2014). With growing risk of economic sanctions, the Israeli government has come to consider BDS as an existential threat, diverting extensive resources to combat it and triggering backlash responses (Thrall 2018).[16] All these developments testify to the role of culture in political spheres. Culture is where narratives are created and given life, and narratives generate epistemologies that may eventually be translated into policy. While BDS’s cultural wars aim primarily at raising debates on global stages, Palestinian music organizations play an important role, locally and globally, in the production of narratives that sustain the movement and its goals.

The Concert for Life and Peace, which took place just months after the PA’s moves at the UN, and the discourses surrounding it, exemplifies how a local cultural institution negotiates the political moment and the aid economy in Palestine, in which it is enmeshed. This economy is shaped by an Orientalist gaze, a discourse of development attached to neoliberalism, culture and education as a means of producing the “right kind” of (docile) citizen, and a framework for peace that disregards the lopsided power structures and ongoing violence. The LPA’s conduct also exemplifies how the “peace industry” in Palestine fosters NGO work that becomes evermore invested in its own economic base and in discourses that are detached from the reality on the ground, rather than in creating the basis for local development or channeling new pathways for ending the conflict.

Some scholars view the cultural interventions in Palestine enabled by foreign investment as a framework in which the aesthetic content is both the product and the instrument of the colonial project. El-Ghadban and Strohm (2013) cite the numerous instrumental ensembles founded by the ESNCM as evidence of a trend that caters to global tastes, metropolitan stages, and UNESCO’s take on appropriate cultural ambassadorship. For Rachel Beckles Willson, in a context in which “Palestinians face a type of globalization without their society being postcolonial” (2013:314), the history of Western music education in Palestine, which prior to 1948 was entwined with Christian institutions, can be read as a colonial progression moving from Orientalism to “Mission” and from “Mission” to the current Western bent of “neoliberalism.”

While these writers may be right about the nature of Western interventions in Palestine, this framing accords little agency to the Palestinians involved, as well as to what playing Western music might mean to them. It also disregards the important role of national orchestras, arts institutions, and archives in the productive construction of modern nations, which have at times preceded sovereignty (Bohlman 2004). Palestinians who engage in Western music are not puppets on a stage manipulated by unseen powers, but are actors choosing to participate in cosmopolitanized cultural forms that they like, and that also allow them to advance their personal and collective agendas. The Christmas Concert for Life and Peace showcases a much more complex dynamic than the power of hegemony over the subaltern. While in some ways the Ma‘had accommodated the LPA, it also fought (successfully) to do so on its own terms of representation, locally and globally. And for the participating youth, time spent in preparation for the concert was also time spent bonding with Palestinians from different personal, spatial, and civic status geographies, thus providing a space for national consciousness to form past occupation restrictions, and past the geography and map accorded to Palestine through Western interventions.

The exponential growth of a network of music institutions, festivals, concerts and outreach programs in Palestine in recent years was enabled by foreign aid, but it would not have been thus sustained had it not resounded with local needs and aspirations. This expansion aligns with the internal changes that occurred in Palestinian society following the chaos and devastation incurred during the second intifada (2000–2005). In the following period, the currency of popular (non-violent) resistance and the buildup of national infrastructure had, at least in the West Bank, greatly replaced that of armed struggle. This statement is not meant to negate a history of popular unarmed resistance in Palestine nor of arts-focused resistance practices (Jawad 2011; McDonald 2013; Qumsiyeh 2011). But the exceptional institutionalized growth of cultural production, and the ways that it articulates discursive political frames, points to specific uses of culture in the post-Oslo era globalized context, that resonate well past the interests and mandates of the aid economy in Palestine. It also points to a more complex and contingent reading that “resistance” or “oppositionality” are awarded in much of the contemporary literature on cultural resistance, especially literature on Palestine.

The story of the Christmas Concert for Life and Peace is a testament to the ways that a Palestinian cultural institution apprehends, conceptualizes, and performs “resistance” and “liberation” on internationally valorized cultural ground. It also showcases the new, cosmopolitanized ways in which Palestinianness is constructed and projected on its own terms, rather than solely as a response to, or as a derivative of, colonial interventions, be they Israel or Western powers.

Coda: «Today an orchestra, tomorrow a State”(?)[17]
While reviewing a Palestine National Orchestra (PNO) concert in Haifa (April 1, 2011), (Jewish-) Israeli music critic Noam Ben-Zeev reflected on the Palestinian process of nation-building, noting the “meteoric musical development” in the oPt and the ways in which this particular concert was “a declaration of cultural-artistic-musical independence. An independence prior to independence.” He ended his article (2011) stating that:

As though to emphasize national longing, this orchestra performed in Haifa as well. The managers of the Haifa Krieger Arts Center have never before witnessed such an event: a mature symphony orchestra, along with its Palestinian players, who have come from the Occupied Territories and from the diaspora, and even from Syria, declaring through its performance inside Israel the erasure of borders and barriers. As throughout history, so it is today: music is ahead of its time. One only needs to listen to hear what it prophesizes.[18]

Ben-Zeev’s reflections resonate with Jacque Attali’s (1985) theorizations on the capacity of music to predict the future. Attali argued that the process of organizing sound is by its very nature a violent process of inclusion and exclusion that imposes order over “noise”— the sonic representation of chaos. The history of music can therefore be read as a series of battles for legitimization of what is accepted as “sound,” which are essentially battles over the monopolization of violence. Such struggles both reflect and participate in the construction of changing social orders; because music is a communal practice, it is an arena in which power struggles that shape and change society take place:

Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually … impose itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the image of things, but … the herald of the future (1985:11).

Applying Attali’s argument to the Palestinian context in the way Ben-Zeev apprehended the PNO’s Haifa performance—that cultural production is the herald of the future independent Palestinian State—forecloses the transitory, contingent, and fleeting nature of performance-based cultural production. Yet, his impression speaks to the ways in which a musical performance can become part of a cultural text, a narrative that lives past its representation in the moment, and hence, withholds its own power and potential for changing “material reality.”

Whether or not the musical representations of Palestinian organizations are predictive of the outcome of Palestinian national aspirations, only time will tell. The on-the-ground situation created by Israel’s settlement and “securitization” project continues to constrict the lives and freedom of movement of Palestinians and to erode the possibility of realizing Palestinian national aspirations in the context of a two-state solution on which the 1993 Peace Accords were based (Benvenisti 2010).[19] Bethlehem provides a good case in point for how the construction of cultural imaginaries contradicts “material reality.” While the Concert for Life and Peace had been turned into a potent project of Palestinian emancipation, life around Bethlehem is only becoming increasingly circumscribed by settlement and wall enclosures.

Such developments are glaringly visible to any recurring visitor. On the morning after the concert I left Bethlehem via Beit Jala, the adjacent town and part of the Bethlehem district, en-route to Jerusalem. The nearby Har Gilo settlement, where months before only a dirt road had marked its upcoming expansion, had by now grown to include multiple housing units that practically hung over Beit Jala’s western boundary. This would not only curtail any possible westward development of Beit Jala, but as customary with all settlement expansions, it would inevitably “warrant” security measures that further restrict movement for area residents. Indeed, by 2018 a new checkpoint was under construction right by the settlement. Likewise, the 2011 Jerusalem District Planning Committee’s approval of the expansion of the Gilo neighborhood, a satellite suburb of Jerusalem established in 1968 past the Green Line (Hasson 2011) and located just north of the Bethlehem, would further corral Palestinian life in the area.

Settlement expansions are buttressed by the continued construction of the yet-unfinished separation wall. The village of Al-Walajeh and the Cremisan monastery and convent— established in the 19th century—are located four kilometers northwest of Bethlehem, in the valley between the two hilltop settlements of Har Gilo and Gilo. By 2018, the construction of the separation wall had encircled Al-Walajeh and separated the villagers from their lands, water sources, and livelihoods; their beautiful terraces were conveniently repackaged as a national park for Jewish visitors (Hasson 2016, 2018). The Cremisan monastery and convent were given the option of remaining on the Israeli side or the Palestinian side of the wall, a choice that brought on much contention (Rosenberg 2012). The final “solution” for Cremisan was the construction of a segment of the wall that runs right through its grounds and divides the monestary (on the Israeli side) from the convent (on the Palestinian side). This fragmentation of Palestinian life caused by Israeli policies pertains to just one area among many in the West Bank. In Palestine today, cultural world(s) and reality on the ground point to a dialectical process in which as Palestinian living space becomes ever more constricted, the role of cultural life becomes diametrically expansive.



I thank Michele Cantoni for his input and a decade of friendship, the ESNCM students and staff for integrating me into their musical and social life during my fieldwork, the anthropologists’ writing cohort for their commentary, and Galia Press-Barnathan for her generous input.


[1] This article was adapted from a chapter that was cut from my book Music in Conflict: Palestine, Israel and the Politics of Aesthetic Production (Routledge 2020). I am greatly indebted to Michele Cantoni for opening the ESNCM’s doors and Bethlehem scene to me. Michele has since left the ESNCM and founded the Amwaj choir school in Palestine.

[2] In effect, this was the ESNCM Orchestra—the conservatory’s principle training orchestra, whose members come from the oPt and Israel. Agreement between the ESNCM and the LPA was reached too late for travel permits to be secured for diaspora-based PYO members. The orchestra was nonetheless billed as the PYO to maximize cultural and political capital.

[3] Averaging $150 per capita following the Oslo Accords and $308 per capita with the onset of the second intifada, this was the highest rate of per capita disbursement to an aid recipient since WWII (Taghdisi Rad 2011).

[4] This was US policy for two and a half decades after Oslo. In 2018, President Trump initiated a series of moves intended to showcase US support for Israel, to undermine previous US plans for the two-state solution, and to pressure the PA into submission and acceptance of his administration’s “peace plan,” presented in 2020. USAid programs in the West Bank and Gaza were eliminated, contributions to UNRAW were withdrawn, and aid to East Jerusalem hospitals was cut. The US embassy was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the PLO’s mission in Washington, DC was closed. The only thing the US has not divested from in Palestine was funding for the PA’s security forces, whose role remains that of a sub-contractor for Israel’s occupation apparatus (Rabbani 2018).

[5] I was then a graduate student at Columbia University conducting research on music and conflict in Palestine-Israel. Funding for my fieldwork came from Columbia and the Palestinian American Research Center (PARC). This was a multi-sited project encompassing Israel and the West Bank (Gaza was closed to research). I worked with multicultural music organizations promoting coexistence and civic partnership in Israel, West Bank music conservatories invested in the politics of resistance and nation-making, individual artists or bands and the (ethical, aesthetic, political) communities that coalesced around them, and grassroots initiatives—including sites within the 2011 social protest in Israel that engaged Palestinian and Jewish citizens. In all these scenarios, I studied the ways music making was implicated in the construction, affirmation, transformation, shifting, or dismantling of socio-political boundaries in a context of profound imbalances of power and perennial violence.

[6] The year 2011, the year of this edition of the Concert for Life and Peace, marked a certain peak in this process, as it included the campaign for Palestinian state membership at the UN, Palestine’s acceptance as full member into UNESCO, threatening Israeli responses to UNESCO’s move, the US withholding of funding from the organization (Irish 2011), and Israeli legislation and allocation of funding intended to combat BDS.

[7] Arabic: Ma‘had Edward Said al-Waṭani li’l-Mūsīqā (aka Al-Ma‘had).

[8] There are three prominent multi-branch conservatories in the West Bank: the Barenboim-Said Foundation, the ESNCM, and Al-Kamandjâti. While the first provides instruction solely in Western music, the latter two, which are local initiatives, teach both classical Arabic music (ṭarab) and classical Western music and have also created permanent ensembles and orchestras representing both traditions. The dual focus on the “Great Traditions” is a means of embedding Palestinian modernity in both the “Orient” and “Occident.” For an analysis of how these music genres are implicated in the ideologies of different music institutions and within the nation-building project, see Belkind (2020).

[9] This observation is based the 2012 competitions I attended and on commentary by others about previous competitions.

[10] Information on the Ma‘had’s negotiations of the concert is based on personal communication with Michele prior to and during the life of the event.

[11] Personal communication, December 20, 2011.

[12] A tradition of Western music education developed in Palestine via missionary institutions starting in the 19th century (Beckles Wilson 2013). In 1948, many locally trained musicians went into exile, and between 1948 and 1993—when the ESNCM opened—there was no formal Western music education in the West Bank.

[13] Since 1945, the international minimum standard for sovereignty had evolved from recognition of a territorial community to inclusion of a comprehensive governance code of legal and administrative requirements (Reisman 2007).

[14] The PA’s moves were not unanimously supported among members of music institutions in Palestine. Many felt these moves muted the issue of right of return for Palestinian refugees, and that the PA’s decisions did not necessarily reflect the national consensus, because elections in the oPt have been deferred since the 2006 split between Fatah and Hamas, and also because the PA is seen as a puppet government installed to support the Occupation.

[15] In 2011–2012, Bon Jovi, Roger Waters, Pete Seeger, Cassandra Wilson, Zakir Hussein and Macy Gray were among the artists BDS takes credit for their cancelling of their performances in Israel. London performances of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra and ha-Bima Theater were disrupted (PACBI Website 2012, 2013).

[16] Israel’s responses to BDS include outlawing boycott campaigns in Israel, barring BDS supporters from the country (Maltz 2017), placing economic sanctions on Israeli human rights NGOs (Levinson 2017), and battling BDS internationally through hasbara (propaganda) and legalistic channels (Cohen et al. 2015). The battle over narratives of legitimization has become a matter of lawfare, international pressure, and intensive hasbara campaigns.

[17] Title of a PNO concert review by music critic Noam Ben-Zeev (2011).

[18] Some of the diaspora players received permits for their stay in the oPt, but not Israel. They were “smuggled” in for the Haifa concert.

[19] As International Relations scholar Pinar Bilgin has pointed out, conceptions of what national security means in the Middle East are often a reflection of discursive moves and practices made by those in power—largely the United States and its regional allies—rather than by those marginalized from dominant discourses. Per Bilgin, “securitization” for the United States has meant the unhampered flow of oil at reasonable prices, diffusion of the Israeli-Arab conflict, prevention of the emergence of a regional hegemon, curbing of Islamism, and the maintenance of “friendly” regimes, all of which are established through military dominance. In Israel, “securitization” has meant supporting Israeli expansionism at the expense of Palestinian national aspirations, territorial claims, and basic human rights. As Toufic Haddad (2015) writes, under the Oslo framework, the PA’s security apparatuses were envisioned as subcontractors of the Israeli military occupation—designed to ensure the security of Israeli citizens, settlers, and army personnel and to discipline Palestinians domestically. Bilgin calls for an alternative IR disciplinary template for thinking about regional security that incorporates emancipatory practices, a top-down and bottom-up approach, and a conception of security that does not come at the expense of others but incorporates their needs, as a means of achieving long-term stability.



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