Ever since I started my new teaching job as a music lecturer at Sapir College in the south of Israel, I’d had the itch to drive at the end of the day and watch the sunset—a beautiful desert sunset, with its giant red orb glowing in a light that is particular to the Negev district. As my students were dispersing after the lesson ended, at around five in the afternoon, I hurried to my car. In the autumn the sun sets fast, sinking as if in free fall towards the Mediterranean Sea.

I headed west towards the water. The beach was only 14 kilometers away, so theoretically I should have been able to reach it in no time. Then again, I might as well have been planning to go to the moon. Between my college in the city of Sderot and the beach lies a forbidden land. A land barred by fences and walls and army barracks and signs, warning me to keep my distance. A land where no Israeli is permitted to enter; and now, a few years after this journey, a ruined, bombed, burnt land: the Gaza Strip.

I drove as far as I could. Very quickly the scenery changed from villages and fields to deserted, frightening roads. Suddenly my little car was the only moving thing around. After about four kilometers, I stopped at a gigantic sign reading “No Entry.” I drove off the road, parked, got out of my car, and looked to the west. The sun was so big I thought I could reach out and touch it. It descended over the roofs of Gaza, not so far away.

I called a dear friend of mine, a Gazan named Muna. She was surprised to hear from me. We don’t talk much; the distance between us is unbearable. She’s trapped in the Strip, forbidden to leave, and so the last time we met in person was 10 years ago. “Muna, I’m here, very close to you,” I told her. “Just opposite your house. 15 minute drive.” She understood immediately and laughed. “I promised you once we’ll watch the sunset together, right?” I said. “So here I am: what a beautiful sunset you have!” She agreed. We both watched it silently till dusk, together, separated. Then Muna asked, “Are you sure you’re safe there? I’m worried about you, maybe you should keep away, go back.” We said goodbye, and as always confessed how we missed each other, and promised to meet soon, very soon. Just a little over an hour later I was already at home in Tel Aviv.

Teaching music at Sapir involves a mess of contradictions. It means that in the middle of a lecture about Beethoven, listening to the “Pastoral” Symphony, I’ll suddenly sense a commotion among the students. They’ll show each other their cellphones, saying that rockets have been landing in the area—and sure enough, we hear a siren and have to flee to the nearest shelter. It means that you’re trapped in a senseless, cruel fighting; that your Gazan brothers fire their rockets at you, and your own people bomb them with war ships, cannons, tanks, and fighter jets. It means that life in the south of Israel, only 67 kilometers from Tel Aviv, is conditional. It can stop abruptly, as it did in the summer of 2014. People practically live in shelters—if they have them at all—losing their livelihoods and even lives on both sides of the border.

But teaching music at Sapir is also sheer joy: the joy of encountering an insatiable hunger for knowledge. In Israel, the academic colleges that are located mostly outside the big cities are alternatives to the four universities we have: Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Haifa University, and Ben Gurion University in the southern “Negev Capital” city of Beer Sheba. True, Israel is a very small country, and its distances may seem insignificant compared with European or American ones; but mental distances have always been large, everywhere; so for the students, studying at Sapir, far away from the center (67 kilometers, but who’s counting), means creating a home away from home.

What adds to the mental distance is the climate. In my dwarf country, climate zones are condensed and extreme. Driving to Sapir College, you pass mountains, then moderate Mediterranean climes, and finally the desert: a yellow landscape, scorching hot, extending seemingly to the ends of the earth, thirsty, barren in summer, but strangely offering green relief in winter. If you’re not a native of Negev, it must feel like discovering new, unknown terrain.

This must be explored, topographically—but mostly socially. The students at Sapir are explorers, and not only of academic subjects. That’s what I encountered when I first met them and started teaching music there. They have a hunger for knowledge combined with a special kind of social awareness. They are talented, inventive, and curious—but with a unique feeling of being all in something together, not just individuals who happened to find themselves gathered for a limited time before going their separate ways.

My music students are not musicians. They take music as a special section within the Culture Department, as a liberal art. I teach them Western Classical music, and my colleagues fill in the curriculum with courses of Ethnic Non-Western music, mostly of the Middle East, and popular music. They can participate in choir, take theory and ear-training, and other seminars. We are all looking for the right balance between high-level academics and the absolute beginner level of the students.

Of course they, like everybody, know a lot about music. Their music. The music they love. And their knowledge is a treasure when trying to teach them about music they don’t know—which raises other questions entirely. How can it be that young people in their 20s, from all over Israel, from every sort of background, have never heard a violin or a cello in their lives? That they’ve never played a musical instrument, ever? That they can’t recognize orchestral instruments by their names? That they plug their ears when they hear opera, and recoil from any “classical” sounds?

A significant part of the Zionist revolution in the first half of the 20th century was based on music. (This was true of Europe during the 19th century as well.) We went through the phase of music as a part of the national identity. During that phase, the teaching and learning of music, the creating of new Israeli music, the founding of performing ensembles, mainly choirs who could sing new messages—that was considered a vocation, a duty. Of course, the weight was put on Western European art music, the mirror of a hegemonic and powerful culture, thus shadowing and shutting off the myriad sounds of other Jewish inheritances—not to mention Palestinian ones. Still, the cultural asset was immense.

Now, as in many parts of the world, the importance of music in Israel is dying. Music education has dwindled. Very little has remained of the magnificent golden age of music from 1940 to the end of the 1960s. Music teachers have to reinvent themselves as pioneers in every generation. The same is true of us at Sapir. When we demand that young people have a chance to experience the diversity of musics; to practice communication with others and themselves in non-verbal abstract ways; to enter the art form as something that must be learned; we are providing them with something we see as a basic human right.  

Maybe, by encountering foreign, strange art that had always created a strong opposition and aversion, students will look at their “enemy” across the border—so close and let light-years away—differently. Estrangement comes from a lack of knowledge. It’s not inherent in us. If studying music makes us reach out further, that will be more important than the music itself. ¶