On November 8, 2013, I met with members of the musical group and interfaith organization Heartbeat, before their concert at the George C. Marshall Center at the State Department. These young Israelis and Palestinians are working together to build trust between their communities by creating music that calls for peace and understanding from both sides. Together they compose songs in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, and use both traditional instruments, as well as rock staples like electric guitars.
Heartbeat’s founder, Aaron Shneyer, a Fulbright mtvU alum who returned to Jerusalem after his grant to continue working with Heartbeat, spoke during the Q&A period about his work with the group. Speaking candidly about why he has continued on with the project six years after his grant was over, he said that he has become ‘hooked’ and is committed to exploring more deeply the power of music for creating a peaceful solution to the issues in these communities.
The commitment Shneyer and the members of Heartbeat have to the group is clear. I was moved by how these young people explained the importance of Heartbeat in their own lives:
Guy Gefen, who writes many of the lyrics and also sings and plays the guitar, said that “HEARTBEAT is my sanity, it’s my sanctuary. It’s my light of hope.”
Kela Sappir, a vocalist, who said that “spaces like this are so rare back home. I come from a background that I consider absolutely segregated and this is a place to be a part of something that is moving to something else. That’s what I want to be part of.”
And Tamer Omari, who plays the Oud and percussion, commented that “Back home we’re in trouble. We have conflict. Somebody needs to do something about it. A lot of people do a lot about it in different ways. I choose to do something about it through my passion.”
These young people who played their hearts out for us—an audience that included many Department of State colleagues, a group of junior high students visiting from a Model UN conference, and several Professional Fellows Congress participants from Israel and the Palestinian Territories -- had everybody dancing and singing along by concert’s end.
The ability to unite people through music and to get everyone in a room all singing the same song, even if it’s in an unfamiliar language is quite remarkable. The energy and optimism that flows from Heartbeat’s songs is contagious, and I can’t help thinking about how wonderful these young people are as examples of cultural ambassadors. These five youths are working together to increase mutual understanding between their own communities, just as Aaron Shneyer shared his unique American perspective with them.
Collectively they may contribute to more peaceful relations in the region if more people take on the attitude of Moody Kablawi, the rapper of the group, who says he chooses to use music as a “peaceful weapon.”
Shneyer discussed using music as a way to connect with people who may not be aware of the possibilities for reconciliation in their region, and as a means to give the “silent majority a voice” by turning up the volume for peace a little bit louder.
We certainly got a strong dose of this during the show, and I am looking forward to watching their progress and to following up with the group on their next visit. Shneyer’s creation of Heartbeat while participating in an academic exchange via the Fulbright Program is just one example of the many ways ECA is working to foster mutual understanding around the world.
About the Author: Evan Ryan serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs.