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A Musical Literacy Program Combating Violence in the Middle East

The Heartbeat program aims to open productive, peaceful dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

This story is part of an ongoing campaign called the Alphabet of Illiteracy. By using letters themselves—the foundation of reading and writing—Project Literacy examines the ways illiteracy underpins some of the greatest challenges facing the world today. Below, we explore the letter V for “Voicelessness.”

Heartbeat, a musical literacy program for Palestinian and Israeli musicians, performs in Boston. Photo courtesy of Avi Salloway

It was the end of Heartbeat’s first nine-month pilot. The program, which brings together ensembles of Palestinian and Israeli musicians aged 14-22 for weekly music-based dialogue programs, had just put on a performance in which Israeli and Palestinian youth performed their original compositions for 300 people at the Jerusalem YMCA. “The New York Times showed up to cover the event,” says Aaron Shneyer, founder and executive director, 32. “There were 300 people celebrating nine months of really powerful cooperation from young people.”

The next day, Shneyer walked to pay the sound technician at the border between West and East Jerusalem, where he was met by sirens and shouting. “There had just been this incident, an 18-year-old Palestinian man had driven his father’s car into a group of Israeli soldiers crossing the street and they fired and killed him. There was a mass mob and tons of media. That very much stuck with me in continuing to move Heartbeat forward. Here’s one man using violence and he’s able to influence so many people and capture the world’s attention, but the night before there were 300 people stating peacefully who wanted to work for a better future. All those people’s voices drowned out by violence. This is fundamentally the struggle we’re in – to amplify voices to be more powerful than violence.”

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is sustained in large part due to ‘illiteracy,’ if you want to call it that,” says Avi Salloway, 30, Heartbeat’s Global Ambassador. “There is a deep lack of awareness of the other, and segregation, fear, inequality, and lack of opportunity for trust-building connections which are enforcing the status quo.”

It is exactly this ‘illiteracy’ that keeps people from knowing that Israeli and Palestinian youth can come together as equals and foster deep empathy and support for one another through facilitated dialogue and musical co-creations. Literacy gives everyone a voice and Heartbeat provides that safe space.

The literacy Heartbeat teaches and practices is one of non-violent dialogue as well as artistic and musical skill and fluency. Its core program, Heartbeat: Amplifying Youth Voices, is guided by Israeli and Palestinian facilitators who draw from non-violent communication, the pedagogy of the oppressed, the civil rights movement, and the anti-apartheid movement. Participants have a chance to create and perform music and engage in facilitated dialogue, as well as form lasting relationships with peers across the conflict who deeply believe that peace is possible.

Guy Gefen, 21, an Israeli guitarist and singer from Rehovot, says, “I have a lot of friends who keep saying stuff like, ‘Eh, it's impossible. Peace can't be achieved.’ But I'm asking them, ‘How many Palestinians did you ever talk with? How many Palestinians did you create something with?’ Every Heartbeat rehearsal I experience peace in real life...[which] is not only something that the governments will sign on a paper; it can be created through people without any governments getting involved.”

Moody Kablawi, 21, a Palestinian rapper from Haifa, agrees. "My hope is that people will see Arab Palestinians and Jewish Israelis playing together and realize that we can work together towards peace. It's important to show people that this can really be done."

Their sucessful results show that their hopes might be feasible. So far, more than 100 Jewish and Arab youth musicians have participated in Heartbeat and performed and led workshops for over 15,000 people in Israel, Palestine, Germany, and the United States. Their original songs and music videos have been downloaded or viewed by over 100,000 people. Bolstered by the support from Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam, Neil Young, and their GoFundMe Campaign, Heartbeat’s youth ensemble will tour Europe this summer and in the US this Spring and Fall.

Shneyer founded Heartbeat in 2007 under a Fulbright-mtvU fellowship. A musician (guitar, base, singer/song writer) raised in a family of activists and musicians, he long dreamed of using music as a vehicle for social justice and change. As an undergrad at Georgetown during the second intifada, Shneyer created opportunities for Arab-Jewish dialogue on his polarized campus, and organized falafel fests and peace cafes. “But most powerful by far was the Jewish-Arab band,” he says.

When he graduated in 2005, he worked as a music counselor at international peace-building youth organization Seeds of Peace, where he honed his skills using dialogue to empower youth and create empathy and understanding between them. In 2006, he worked with Seeds of Peace follow-up programs in Tel Aviv and Ramalla when he came across the Fulbright-mtvU fellowship to study the power of music to build mutual understanding. “I basically fell out of my chair and couldn’t believe this existed,” he recalls. “It felt too perfect.” His fellowship was Heartbeat’s pilot program, in which he formed an ensemble of six Israeli high school students from West Jerusalem and six Palestinian high school students from East Jerusalem. For nine months, the group met weekly, spending half their time on music and half working with Palestinian and Israeli dialogue facilitators.

Salloway traveled to Israel-Palestine to learn more about the escalating situation in 2011. “I’d been to the region twice but never to the West Bank,” he says. “I had limited consciousness of what life was like as a Palestinian.” He was deeply troubled by the segregation and injustices he saw. “There were separate schools, buses, neighborhoods, privileges, and military and psychological occupation. There’s demonization on both sides. I wanted to see if music could help bring these two sides together.”

A professional musician – he plays guitar, piano, bass, harmonica, banjo and sings and writes songs – Salloway was raised with a strong foundation of the power of music for social change. He went to summer Camp Killooleet, directed by Jon Seeger, brother of the legendary Pete. “I was deeply inspired by Pete’s legacy of using music for mobilization and challenging the status quo through community,” he says. Salloway considers Heartbeat’s work to be that of dismantling systems of oppression. “We take them out of the victim-victimized loop to develop ongoing sustained understanding of each other. Musicians have this deeply transformative experience during the year and then we create spaces for them to amplify what they’ve learned and the sounds coming from both voices together to perform in their communities, illuminating what reality could look like if we invest in person-to-person initiatives. There’s an upward spiral of change.”

Heartbeat hopes to create more equalizing opportunities - they are developing a music academy to provide music education to thousands of youth in the Middle East. “We hope to open chapters in cities across Israel and Palestine,” Salloway says. They are working on a new recording studio in Haifa and are creating a graduate program for Heartbeat participants over 25.

Shneyer, believes that the type of dialogue he offers in his programs is a social literacy that’s not taught in a deep enough way in the Middle East and abroad. “There’s limited understanding without being exposed to the realities of the other,” he says. “Everyone in this conflict is hurt by not being fully aware of who it is they’re in conflict with.” He hopes that the participants in his program will take their connections and insights from Heartbeat into their communities and the world at large.

Neomi, a 20-year-old Israeli guitarist and singer reflects the efficacy of this model. “I always knew that there was another side and a lot of injustices. I knew there were a lot of bad things, but I never met someone… who was close to me who told me, ‘I’m suffering because of that.’ When I got to Heartbeat, I met those people, and it became personal. You can’t actually make change if you don’t meet the people on the other side and build those relationships,” she says.

Shneyer feels, “What’s happening in Israel and Palestine is a symptom of what’s happening on Earth, which is that people have a long way to go to embracing each other as equals. Heartbeat participants walk away with critical awareness, deeper understanding of the other and themselves, and greater responsibility to be change agents. We want to build a global movement of people using music and arts for social change.”

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