Singing for peace in Israel
A campaign to stop a Leonard Cohen concert fails to understand the impact of such artists as Joan Baez and Roger Waters
"This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender," reads the famous slogan on Pete Seeger's banjo. The legendary folksinger, who is celebrating his 90th birthday this year, popularised one of the most powerful peace songs ever written: "Last night I had the strangest dream, I'd ever dreamed before. I dreamed the world had all agreed, to put an end to war" – a song that was played for many years every day on Abie Nathan's pirate Voice of Peace radio station based "somewhere in the Mediterranean".Music has frequently accompanied struggles for freedom, equality and peace, like the songs of the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish civil war, the civil rights movement in the United States, and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
For us in the peace movement, many of these songs have been part of the soundtrack of our lives and struggles.
And now a group of academics in the UK – among them Professor Haim Bresheeth, who spent many years in Israel – is urging Leonard Cohen to cancel his concert in Israel, scheduled for 24 September, because "your songs have been part of the soundtrack of our lives". It is not "the right action" according to the Buddhist precepts he identifies with, because it sends a message of support for Israeli military actions against Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
Well, Leonard Cohen's music is part of the soundtrack of my life as well, and I think he is doing the right thing performing in Israel this September, and I will add that I have no idea where he stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, since he usually doesn't voice his political positions either in his music or otherwise.
But there are others who have made their positions very clear.
Back in 1978, Joan Baez was invited to appear at an Israeli Woodstock-type festival in the Sinai desert oasis town of Nuweiba. When Israeli peace activists told her that it was in occupied (ie Egyptian) territory, she cancelled her participation. However, she insisted on coming to perform in Israel and Lebanon, to demonstrate her identification with both Israelis and Palestinians. Her visit coincided with one of the first major Israeli-Palestinian dialogues, organised by the Tel Aviv-based peace monthly New Outlook. It later appeared in book form under the title When Enemies Dare to Talk.
She used the opportunity to meet the Israeli participants in the dialogue at the Jerusalem home of Yaacov Arnon, the former director general of the finance ministry, and one of the first people to enter into ongoing dialogue with the PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. She also met Palestinians at the home of Professor Nafez Nazzal in Ramallah, and academics at Birzeit University.
In 2006 there were calls for Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd leader, not to perform in Israel out of identification with the Palestinians. Waters – who performed The Wall when the Berlin Wall came down, and will hopefully have an opportunity to perform when the separation wall snaking along and through the West Bank comes down (and it will come down) – did not listen to those calls. Instead he chose to make a statement against the occupation and for Israeli-Palestinian peace by performing in Israel at the joint Jewish-Arab community Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam.
And just about a month ago, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) also chose to come to Israel, after the Gaza war, to perform Blowing in the Wind, and to sing with the audience about having a hammer "of justice, of freedom, a song between my brothers and my sisters, all over this world". Yarrow came, together with the educator Charlotte Frank, to promote a programme called Operation Respect which advocates using music to overcome violence in the schools and developing respect for the other. They wanted to introduce it in both Israel and Palestine, since children are the key to a non-violent, peaceful future.
Yarrow told me that he became involved in the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace after appearing at a Passover peace rally on the streets of New York back in 1989. When he decided to come to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, he consulted with his family, including his daughter, who had gone to struggle against apartheid in South Africa. They all supported his decision. "People here are desperate," he said. "They need new sources of hope. We must engage young people, and one of the key ways of doing this is via music and art."
And at all of his public appearances during his latest visit, mainly before educators and activists, he made his positions on war and peace, the need to end the occupation, and the need for freedom and peace for both Israelis and Palestinians very clear. When he was unable to perform in the West Bank because of "the situation", Yarrow insisted on meeting Palestinian journalists in Jerusalem so that he could communicate his message to the Palestinian people.
Professor Bresheeth, one of the organisers of the call to Leonard Cohen, was the founder of the cinema studies department at Sapir College, in the Negev near Sderot and Gaza. Last week I went to the Tel Aviv Cinemateque to see a showing of an impressive feature film called 18 Kilometers, directed by student Avi Levi. It tells a very human story – in both Hebrew and Arabic, with Jewish and Palestinian actors – about the lives of ordinary people in Gaza and Sderot who live 18km from each other. After the film ended, the current department head, Avner Feingelrant closed the evening by declaring: "May the flame of creativity defeat the fire of war."
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 14 May 2009 10.30 BST