JERUSALEM — Avital Maeir-Epstein and Muhammad Murtada Shweiki live about 150 yards apart in Abu Tor, a Jerusalem neighborhood that straddles the pre-1967 armistice line, a mostly invisible but politically charged marker of this city’s Israeli-Palestinian divide.
The teenagers live on opposite sides of that divide, but for a few hours each Monday afternoon, they come together.
Avital, 16, is a soprano and Muhammad, 15, is a tenor/bass in the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which brings together young Israelis and Palestinians for singing and dialogue sessions run by professional facilitators. Established in 2012, the chorus is one of the few coexistence initiatives to weather the hatred and violence that have erupted on both sides over the past year.
Meeting in one of the rare places here that are considered neutral ground, the imposing Jerusalem International YMCA on King David Street in West Jerusalem, the group does not ignore the politics but creates an alternative environment where young Israelis and Palestinians can discuss their differences while producing music together.
“It was very hard last year during the war,” said Avital, who was dressed casually in shorts and a T-shirt as she sat with other singers. She was referring to Israel’s 50-day offensive against militant groups in the Gaza Strip last summer, when Gaza was under Israeli bombardment and rockets fired from the territory reached the outskirts of Jerusalem. “We were getting different news: ‘Arab’ news and ‘Israeli’ news,” she said. “It was complicated, but we went through it together.”
Muhammad, looking more formal in a white dress shirt, with his hair shaved and sculpted, immediately recalled the “shahid,” or martyr, Muhammad Abu Khdeir in a discussion of the traumatic events of the past year. A 16-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem, he was kidnapped, beaten and burned to death by three Israeli Jews in early July after the bodies of three Jewish teenagers who had been kidnapped and killed by Palestinians were found in a shallow grave in the West Bank.
Avital and Muhammad, who had not met before joining the chorus, were speaking at a final rehearsal before the Jerusalem Youth Chorus left for its first tour in the United States. The group has performed recently in the Yale International Choral Festival in New Haven and at various other stops, including New York and Washington and Philadelphia.
The Israeli-Palestinian youth chorus was the idea of an American, Micah Hendler, who grew up in Bethesda, Maryland.
Hendler, 25, attended Seeds of Peace summer camps in Maine with Israeli and Arab youths, studied Arabic and Hebrew, and majored in music and international relations at Yale. He said he came to Jerusalem three years ago to see if the sense of community that evolved in the controlled environment of a summer camp in the United States could be recreated in the gritty reality of Jerusalem.
With the bravado — some might say naivete — of an outsider, Hendler went into schools on both sides of the city. Within weeks, 80 youths showed up for auditions, a majority from East Jerusalem, where Hendler had less competition in the realm of extracurricular activities. He picked 35 teenagers aged 14 to 18. There has been some natural turnover over the years, but about half of the original team is still involved.
“What I saw in starting the chorus was that if you look at things only through a political lens, the situation is pretty hopeless,” Hendler said. “But if you consider it, people are not only political objects. They have lives; they want to connect.”
“There are ways,” he added, “of getting beyond the intractable structures we have set up for ourselves.”
Hendler runs rehearsals mostly in English, but also in Hebrew and Arabic. The teenagers translate for one another as necessary.
Political, religious, social and cultural issues add layers of complexity. There is only one Israeli boy in the chorus. Palestinian boys are more naturally attracted to the idea, coming from a more male tradition of mawwal, an Arabic vocal genre based on poetry. (“We have some excellent female tenors,” Hendler remarked.) Conversely, Palestinian girls from conservative Muslim families are more likely to go home after school, not get on a bus to the west side of town to sing with Israelis.
Many Palestinian political activists are also increasingly rejecting what they see as unnecessary interactions that could be construed as a normalization of relations with the Israeli occupier. Some 300,000 Palestinians, about a third of Jerusalem’s population, are residents of East Jerusalem, territory that Israel conquered from Jordan in the 1967 war and then annexed in a move that has never been internationally recognized.
Given the sensitivities, several Palestinian boys said they had told only their closest friends about their involvement in the chorus, and Hendler is careful about where the group performs, avoiding overtly nationalistic events on either side.
Then there are the starkly different musical backgrounds. Parts of the repertoire combine traditions of Western harmony and Arabic rhythms. The chorus performs Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” in the style of the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum and has composed an original song that incorporates rap and mawwal. A highlight was the recording of a special version of a Phillip Phillips song, “Home,” with Sam Tsui, a YouTube star who sang with Hendler in college.
Outside the community they have created, the teenagers keenly feel the turmoil around them. Over the past year, there have been tensions over a contested East Jerusalem holy site, a deadly terrorist attack on a West Jerusalem synagogue, a series of vehicular attacks against Israelis and violent clashes between Palestinians and the police, including in Abu Tor, which is normally peaceful.
“Every single day was different,” said Avital, who lives on a mixed street. “I didn’t know how I felt about it: safe or not safe.”
Amer Abu Arqub, 18, from the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, said that he had found himself in West Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day, when hard-line Israeli nationalists take to the streets to celebrate the reunification of the city, and that he had been careful to speak in English on his cell phone.
Looming in the future are more divisive issues to grapple with.
When the Israelis turn 18, for instance, they will be drafted for compulsory military service.
“That’s the plan,” said Aviv Blum, an Israeli bass. Some of the Palestinians “have very defined views” on the issue, he said, adding, “I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”