Promoting Peace Through Song, Jewish-Arab Women’s Choir Teaches World to Listen

Members of the Rana Choir in rehearsal | © Courtesy of Rana Choir
Photo of Ben Jakob
8 March 2017

Tel Aviv has long been a beacon of coexistence in a sea of tensions. From Jewish-Arab hip-hop groups to mixed theatre troupes, Jaffa – the city’s southern half – is at the forefront of using art to bridge cultural divides. One Jewish-Arab women’s choir is paving a way in promoting peace through music – and the world is sitting up and taking notice.

As one of the world’s oldest port cities, Jaffa has always been an amalgam of people and ethnicities, home to Muslims and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, and immigrants from across the world. This diversity has bred a unique local musical scene and the sounds emanating from it are as quaint as they are cosmopolitan.

Perhaps the most ethereal of these voices is the Rana Choir, a group of Arab and Jewish women of all ages who have met weekly for the past nine years to do what they love most: sing. “We just love to sing together,” one of the choir’s Jewish members says. “Doing something we really, really love together creates a strong bond – the politics comes later.”

Founded in one of Jaffa’s community centers, the choir serves as a safe platform for women to let their voices be heard – both in speech and in song. Founder and conductor Mika Danny explains the goal is “to use the power of music and women to make a small change in the world.”

But there have been challenges. Every time the local conflict rears its head, ripples are felt in the microcosm that is the Rana Choir. “Once, there was a terror attack right next to where we rehearse, but we decided to meet anyway and we just talked it out,” says one of the Arab women.

“It could have just blown up, but it didn’t,” another recalls. “When you sing together, your heartbeats sync up, so after that, the rest is easy.” Even when war broke out, shaking the group’s foundation, they overcame: “Singing breeds the ability to listen. If we would all just learn to listen like you do when you sing together, then no one would be fighting anyone.”

With an impressive repertoire of folk songs in Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Persian, Turkish, and Ladino, the choir doesn’t just forge a link between Jews and Arabs, it also taps into the plethora of identities that Jaffa comprises, recently incorporating a song in Yemenite, too.

“My family has been in Jaffa for nine generations. All of my neighbors are Jewish and I have lived with Jews as well as Christians for all my life,” says a Muslim woman who sings in the choir with her daughter. “It wasn’t weird for me to sing with different types of women. Over time, we just became a big family.”

And audiences in Israel and across the globe are responding. The choir is currently performing locally with a traditional Moroccan orchestra and will soon return to France for a second show. A concert is also planned in New York this summer.

“At the end of almost every performance someone comes up to us and says: ‘You really made me feel coexistence is possible’. You can see it in their eyes. It’s not that we are creating some bubble for ourselves – we’re also projecting outwards. And if we succeed in creating a crack – even for a second – in the idea that there will never be peace, then we’ve done something very powerful.”

The choir’s signature song is Chad Gadya, a Jewish folk song that can be interpreted as a tale of overcoming oppression. But that doesn’t bother any of the Arab women, quite the opposite, in fact: “I hope everyone in the Middle East will hear us sing. My dream is that we’ll perform in Arab countries, so they know that peace will come from here. Only women can bring about peace.”

Much like Jaffa, the Rana Choir’s secret is the authenticity of the human connections it creates; the simple beauty of real people really living together, yet another stone in the complex mosaic that is Tel Aviv’s older and cooler big sister.