Weizmann Institute Honorary Doctorate

Keynote Address

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests.

It is my great honour and pleasure to be here today to accept an Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy from the distinguished Weizmann Institute, one of the finest academic institutions in the world today. The Weizmann Institute is renowned for its extraordinary research and its academics in the natural sciences, and I find it remarkable that many of the Institute’s senior scientists and professors hail from all over the world, including countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. It is a special privilege for me to be recognized here today as a thinking musician.

18 years ago today, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv by a right-wing Orthodox Jew because of Rabin’s search for a solution to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We have no way of knowing whether Yitzhak Rabin had had a real change of heart, and to what extent he had turned from being a victorious general of the wars against the Arabs into somebody who truly felt the need to make peace, or whether his change in attitude was primarily a strategic decision. I imagine it was probably a bit of both. But this, we will never know. In a way, it is not so important because I believe that in no other conflict in the world’s history have morals and strategy gone as hand in hand as they have in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I would like to take the opportunity to share some personal reflections; reflections which I do not pretend bring any hitherto unknown arguments but which I nonetheless hope you will find worthy of some attention.

For over twenty centuries, the Jewish people were dispersed all over the world. On certain occasions they were well-received, as for instance under the Muslim rule in Andalusia, and that for seven centuries. But more often than not they were criminally persecuted: by the Spanish Inquisition, during the pogroms in Ukraine and Russia, and by the Nazis. Then, on the 15th of May 1948, the State of Israel was declared and it represented the fulfillment and formalization of a century-old Jewish dream. Let us leave aside for just a moment the injustices which were committed towards the non-Jewish population of Palestine at that time, and concentrate purely on the Jewish side.

The transition from being a persecuted minority to formal statehood was a remarkable achievement. The new state required the creation of a new Jewish profile, different to the stereotypical profile that had dominated for centuries prior. Now, there were not only Jewish artists and bankers but also Jewish farmers, soldiers and civil servants. But only 19 years later – as opposed to 20 centuries – Israel and its Jewish population found itself in control of another minority. I think one can say that if the transition from often oppressed minority to formal statehood was a successful one, the second and much more difficult transition which entailed control over another people was not even attempted. The reasons for not even attempting this second transition were, on the one hand, the failure to accept that the beautiful, old dream of returning to the Jewish homeland did not coincide with reality, because the land was not empty. On the other hand, such a transition would have required a deep reassessment of what were considered Jewish values and traditions because up until then, the Jewish people had only existed in relatively closed Jewish societies and were never faced with being a majority.

From a moral point of view this failure to accept reality turned out to be a grave mistake because, willingly or unwillingly, it turned victims into culprits. And strategically, maintaining the occupation and depriving Palestinians of basic and fundamental rights is at best very short-sighted. Already now, in 2013, what Israelis called Greater Israel and Palestinians called Kull Filastin – in other words the area encompassing the State of Israel and the Palestinian Territories – is almost evenly populated by Jews and by non-Jews. And I maintain that it is both humanly wrong and lacking in strategic vision to expect a whole people to accept being occupied in what they consider to be their own land and to live as second class-citizens.

In my experience, the Israeli-Palestinian-conflict has been treated both within the region and outside of it as any normal conflict which requires compromise. 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. It is already questionable whether a two-state solution even remains a possibility.

In addition to this, we are faced with the question whether Israel should be a Jewish-religious state. If this is not the case, if the ambition was to create primarily a secular state, then we owe ourselves and the Palestinians a clear definition of what is a secular Jew and even more importantly, in what way a secular Jew is different to a secular Christian or Muslim.

The gravest mistake Israel can commit is to make a connection between the lack of acceptance of the State of Israel by many Palestinians, and European anti-Semitism from the last centuries. The cruelty and criminality of Nazi-Germany, the creation of concentration camps and the attempt to extinguish the Jewish people cannot in any way be connected to Palestinian lack of acceptance of the occupation of their own territory.

My friend Edward Said and I co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999. He gave and continues to give the musicians many important intellectual impulses outside of the musical realm, impulses which are essential for their development both as musicians and as human beings. Edward Said once coined a new understanding of the role of the public intellectual, asserting that his mission must be to advance human freedom and knowledge. He defined the role of the intellectual as being in opposition to government especially in the Middle East where governments are widely regarded as without credibility and popularity, or culture and thought. He was also very critical of governments which create an atmosphere of fear among the population and rely on its tacit acquiescence in order to execute and justify governmental policies. The intellectual’s mission must be to challenge these forced silences, he must discern the possibilities for active intervention and act as a lookout for the rest of society.

During our annual symposiums in Spain, the members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra regularly engage in animated discussions with academics, publicists and activists from the Middle East who seem deeply committed to Edward Said’s vision of their function as figures of inspiration and challenge. They certainly are an inspiration to the members of the orchestra and these discussions lead us to re-acknowledge, again and again, the basic truth that the more one understands one’s opponent, the more one can accept him and be accepted by him.

Our adventure is not tied in any way to political developments in the area. This is way I feel more and more that we, the orchestra, are in collective exile. Should the miracle happen and peace be achieved between Israelis and Palestinians we will already have, as of today, 15 years of practicing precisely this way of living together. And if, as it seems to me more realistic to think, the situation continues to deteriorate, we will continue to limit ourselves to develop our ideals away from the region.

I am deeply grateful to all the members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs, for participating with me in this unique adventure that defies all accepted norms of political thinking and is willing to spare itself no effort in order to achieve the highest degree of musical excellence paired with the acceptance and participation of the other.

Daniel Barenboim was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy Honoris Causa by the Weizmann Institute of Science on 4 November, 2013.

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