Essay: If dialogue is a crime, we are all guilty

I would certainly expect my neighbors to respect my values and culture. Younis understands this. Unfortunately, her leaders do not.

The Holocaust is undeniable. Unquestionable. Irrefutable. If the remains of the bodies aren't enough to prove it, then one could visit a concentration camp, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem or the Holocaust Museum in Washington and see with his own eyes what it means to be deported, humiliated, tortured and slaughtered. This is history, no matter how one tries to dissect it. But this article isn't about whether or not the Holocaust happened. It's about people who don't want their children to know about it. It's about the people who skim over the Holocaust during history lessons. Not surprisingly, these are the same people who make violent threats against anyone in their community who dares to challenge these practices. And they are the same people with whom Israel is trying to negotiate peace. So ironic, so impossible, so tragic. Last week, Palestinian authorities in the northern West Bank banned the director of a youth orchestra called Strings of Freedom from entering Jenin because her group had just played a concert in Israel honoring Holocaust survivors. The hour-long concert was a central event of Israel's annual Good Deeds Day, sponsored by philanthropist and businesswoman Shari Arison. Holocaust survivors clapped and smiled as the Palestinian orchestra played Arabic classical tunes and songs of peace. Wafaa Younis, the Israeli-Arab conductor who led the group, also took the children on a short tour of Israel, showing them the glistening Mediterranean waters. It was, for the briefest moment, a time of peaceful coexistence. But all that changed when Younis returned to Jenin with her youth orchestra. THE 51-year-old musician was condemned for her so-called "exploitation of the children for political purposes." Younis was blocked by security from entering Jenin because of "concerns for her safety." She said her town now has a fearful atmosphere, with public address messages telling residents not to send their children to her musical project, Strings of Freedom. "People are afraid," she told BBC News as she prepared to leave Jenin after 10 men apprehended her. Still, Younis insists she was not kicked out, but rather "asked to leave." From all her news interviews, including one given to The New York Times, it is clear this brave woman has very strong opinions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is fine. And legitimate. But I would certainly expect my neighbors to respect my values and culture. Younis understands this. Unfortunately, her leaders do not. When the story broke, Ramzi Fayad, a spokesman for various political factions in Jenin told reporters that these groups strongly oppose any form of "normalization" with Israel. If normalization means bridging the gap between Israelis and Palestinians and establishing a dialogue between the two societies through the gift of music, then Younis and her youth orchestra are "guilty." If "exploiting the children for political purposes" means remembering a time in history when millions were wiped off the Earth in a flash of cruel inhumanity simply for being of a particular race, then they are "guilty" of that as well. Maybe I'm guilty, too. After all, I work as an Israeli diplomat in New York, and part of my job is to reach out to different communities in the US in hopes of promoting cross-cultural awareness and understanding. Maybe we're all guilty for living in multicultural societies that encourage understanding and acceptance. It's disheartening that such a remarkable gesture by a brave Palestinian woman would be so inappropriately condemned by the authorities in her own community. One could ask, what happened to freedom and democracy? What happened to the hope for everlasting peace and the commitment to make it happen? Of course, the solution is not so simple. But one thing I am certain of is that it begins with dialogue. If we want to bring peace to the region, we need to promote communication between Israelis and Palestinians and learn to find a common ground. After all, we're not questioning whether the Holocaust happened. We're just trying to understand how we've all been affected by it. And isn't that a better place to begin? I still believe there is hope for peace in the region. As long as people like Wafaa Younis exist, there is a chance that one day more Palestinians will stand up and raise their voices, take their future into their own hands and say: "We want to understand why we've been taught to hate. We want to get to know our Israeli neighbors and teach them about us in return." Maybe all it takes is a simple gesture to make impossible things happen. The writer is the consul for media and public affairs at the Consulate-General of Israel in New York.