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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Egyptians refuse Jewish references in music festival

From the Forward:
Wendy Sternberg was thrilled when the organization she founded, Genesis at the Crossroads, was invited to perform at the eighth annual International Music Festival at Egypt’s Alexandria Library.

She looked forward to achieving the goals of her group, which seeks to bridge cultures in conflict through the arts and prides itself on stellar musicianship and cross-cultural dialogue.

Yet, despite her dream of the festival as a perfect fit with Genesis’s aims, Sternberg pulled out on June 4, after her group was barred from performing in Hebrew and from describing the religious backgrounds of its members in festival literature.

Sternberg said Genesis was informed a year ago that performing songs in Hebrew would be viewed by the Egyptian public as an extension of a Zionist agenda.

“You can love music and not be a Zionist,” Sternberg said. “The arts are safe. To really embrace the diversity is our greatest asset.”

Even at that, the situation was acceptable but not desirable, Sternberg said. Though the group’s Jewish members were upset, GATC decided to replace Hebrew songs with others in Ladino and Arabic.

The real trouble arose when Sternberg received an e-mail May 24, informing her that GATC would be required to eliminate biographical references to members’ religions. This meant that Alberto Mizrahi, cantor of Chicago’s historic Anshe Emet Synagogue, could not refer to himself as a hazan, and GATC could describe itself as comprising only “different musical trends,” not different religious backgrounds.

That demand, Sternberg says, struck at the core of her group’s purpose and identity.

When Sternberg asked American University Islamic studies professor Akbar Ahmed for advice, she said he told her, “Walk away.”

Ahmed told the Forward he reminded Sternberg that moderate Muslims must speak out for dialogue among the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

“But if one party or another is not involved, the notion of an Abrahamic dialogue is not realized,” he said.

Sternberg outlined her position in a May 25 e-mail to five staff members of the Alexandria festival: GATC had accepted the restrictions on Hebrew songs out of respect for the current political climate, but would not agree to omit all religious references.

“We welcome a conversation with you to either further pursue this summer’s opportunity with you without diluting Genesis at the Crossroads’ mission and message, or to close this chapter without our involvement in your 2009 festival,” Sternberg wrote in the message.

Eldin’s reply came a few days later, Sternberg said, in just three words: “Thank you. Goodbye.”

The Egyptians didn't reject the group because of perceived Zionism, but because they wanted people to know they were Jewish.