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Israeli and Palestinian singers bring their hope for peace and justice to U.S.


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Amid the ongoing trauma in Israel and Gaza, singing a different song.

The Jerusalem Youth Chorus is trying to do what few others seem able to do these days, see each other as people and to enjoy each other through a love of music.

Jeffrey Brown spent a day around the nation's capital with them recently for our arts and culture series, Canvas.


Jeffrey Brown: The Jerusalem Youth Chorus, Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims and Jews, residents of the same city experiencing life and the ongoing war in vastly different ways, disagreeing about fundamental issues and policies, but singing with and speaking to one another across a great divide; 17-year-old Dahlia Jaouni is a Palestinian Muslim from East Jerusalem.

Dahlia Jaouni, Jerusalem Youth Chorus: I joined for the music. I stayed because it was so much more.

Jeffrey Brown: How is it more?

Dahlia Jaouni: We have dialogue. We talk. I think, if it weren't for the choir, I wouldn't have interacted with Israelis, like, ever.

So it offered me that, and it offered me also a space to share my voice. I feel like, as a Palestinian, you don't have many of those places where I live.

Jeffrey Brown: Fifteen-year-old Hadas Sabbah is from a Jewish family living in West Jerusalem.

Hadas Sabbah, Jerusalem Youth Chorus: I thought it was only singing. And then we just kind of like got separated into groups and we started talking and sharing. And it was -- at first, it was kind of shocking, but it was so interesting.

Jeffrey Brown: You said it was shocking at first?

Hadas Sabbah: A little bit, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Because?

Hadas Sabbah: It's just things I never thought I'd hear and people I never thought I'd get the chance to talk to.

Jeffrey Brown: It's hard to conceive at this moment of enormous trauma that there they were amid a recent four-city North American tour titled A Different Song, a mix of high schoolers and older alumni speaking and rehearsing in three languages when we joined them on a day across the Washington, D.C., area.

The chorus was founded in 2012 by Micah Hendler, a Jewish American, as a project focus on building community through music, traditional choral training paired with professional facilitator-led discussions that run from the personal to political.

The group gathers once a week, even through the months of the war, its members coming from different parts of the city. But, from the beginning, Hendler wondered if anyone would join.

Micah Hendler, Founder, Jerusalem Youth Chorus: I knew from some of the research that I had done that I shouldn't go to schools and try to recruit singers by telling them that this is going to be some, like, peacemaker program because everyone would laugh me out of the room, but looking at sort of why young people from East and West Jerusalem might actually want to join a program like this.

Jeffrey Brown: You can't go and overtly say this is about peacemaking?

Micah Hendler: No, because people will just be like, get out of here. Like, do you understand that that's insane?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Micah Hendler: but you can say, hey, we have got this youth program. It's an opportunity to learn to sing, to make new friends, to travel the world, to grow your own sense of yourself, to be able to listen to others.

Jeffrey Brown: One person who took up the call, Amer Abu Arqub, who joined as a teen, later studied and practiced law and is now the executive director of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, or JYC, a firm believer in its ideals, but also someone who lives the realities of the region.

Amer Abu Arqub, Executive Director, Jerusalem Youth Chorus: For me, growing up, I have never shared with my friends that I'm doing this amazing project. And, until today, I work at the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, and I'm not very loud about what I do because...

Jeffrey Brown: You don't tell people, friends?

Amer Abu Arqub: I choose where to tell, because I need to choose my battles, because many people would view what the Jerusalem Youth Chorus is doing, especially in the Palestinian community, as normalization work, as, like, look how Israel is a beautiful country, look how nice we are, Israelis and Palestinians singing together, and life is flowers.

But the Jerusalem Youth Chorus isn't that. One of the things that I always say, that being the executive director of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus is the most Palestinian thing that I can ever be doing.

Jeffrey Brown: Because?

Amer Abu Arqub: Because I use the platform that JYC creates to, one, help the youth in Jerusalem develop their own agencies as Palestinians and understanding of the situation, because JYC gives me a platform to humanize Palestinians, where many Palestinians are being dehumanized now in Jerusalem and all over the world, and because that I believe that the circle of violence will never end.

And we just need to find those who we can be partners with.

Jeffrey Brown: The group traveled across the city talking and singing along the way. Their visit coincided with the solar eclipse, which they watched on the National Mall.

And then, like tourists, they enjoyed ice cream from a truck and visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Then, as always, they talked of what they'd seen and felt, making connections, here to the treatment of African Americans, particularly after the Civil War during the Jim Crow era.

Man (through interpreter): This reminded me of what happened with the ethnic cleansing of the Orthodox Jews in the Holocaust, as well as the ethnic cleansing currently happening for those Palestinians who don't have an I.D. card.

Woman (through interpreter): Some of the Black people that live here now, they have centuries of ancestors living here. It's their heritage. For us, living in Israel, it's like a sanctuary. And, here, they do not have it.

Jeffrey Brown: That evening, they shared their traditional Ramadan iftar meal, hosted by the Rumi Forum at the American Turkish Friendship Association in Northern Virginia and watched and cheered a performance by ADAMS Beat, a Muslim American youth choir.

The next night, the JYC performed at the Adas Israel Congregation, all this while Israeli hostages continue to be held by Hamas and the deaths and horrific living conditions of Palestinians in Gaza mount. This tour was originally scheduled for the fall, but had to be put off following the escalation of violence.

Micah Hendler and Amer Abu Arqub were determined to pull it off now.

Micah Hendler: Ultimately, what we're seeing right now is Israelis and Palestinians are both losing. The extremists are winning, and normal people are losing. And that is not a zero-sum game. That is a different type of reality that most people don't want to acknowledge.

But, ultimately, what we're trying to show, and I think what we are showing, is that there's an alternative, because we are the alternative. We're like, look, we're doing it. It is actually possible, and it is so much better than what is currently happening.

Jeffrey Brown: Hadas Sabbah told us that family friends were killed on October 7 and others held as hostages. Her earrings say, "Bring them home."

Hadas Sabbah: It feels right to wear the earrings. And, also, I believe that the hostages are important to the entire country, because they're all our brothers and sisters.

It's not something that I hide. People know that this is something that's important to me, and I'm not ashamed of it.

Jeffrey Brown: Dahlia Jaouni spoke of family in the West Bank who were unable to leave beyond closed checkpoints and the personal trauma of watching what's happening in Gaza. Of the chorus, her friends, she says this:

Dahlia Jaouni: We do not share the same opinions, and it is not easy to come to this choir and kind of talk about this. It takes a lot of strength and it takes a lot of courage, but I think we all agree on the fact that the world right now is very, very ugly.

And this shouldn't -- this does not have to be the reality that we live in. We're not going to change how wrong the system is, but we're going to -- like, we're building peace between individuals.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Washington, D.C.

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