Peter Yarrow had a dream.
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The 75-year-old folk-music legend has spent the past four months planning Israeli-Palestinian “concerts of good will and friendship” in Jerusalem and Ramallah. He hoped they would offer a spiritual and cultural boost to the peace efforts his old friend, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, was working so tirelessly to promote.
The details of the June concerts were set to be announced on Thursday at a gala press conference. Instead, caught in the complications of the fracturing peace process, they are being postponed. Yarrow was told by Kerry on Wednesday that “the timing isn’t right,” so he’s looking to September as a possible time to revisit the idea.
Yarrow and Kerry go back a long way — they met in 1968 when Kerry was making his name as a young activist in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Yarrow was at the height of his fame as one-third of Peter, Paul and Mary.
The friendship grew — Yarrow is godfather to Kerry’s oldest child and sang at his wedding. He also put his celebrity and guitar at his service during Kerry’s Senate and presidential campaigns.
“We are more than just being friends because something happened accidentally to connect us. We are people who believe in similar things,” Yarrow says of Kerry. “I worship him both as a friend and because of what he does.”
How perfect it would have been for Yarrow to cheer on Kerry’s peace efforts with a musical celebration, just as Peter, Paul and Mary encouraged the civil rights movement when they performed and created “the kind of feeling that people had at the March on Washington in 1963 when people sang ‘Blowin' in the Wind’ with us,” Yarrow told Haaretz.
That spirit, he believes, would help “amplify John’s valiant attempts to do something concrete to bring these hostilities and this occupation to a close.”
Sadly, things haven’t exactly worked out the way Yarrow planned, with the process Kerry nurtured for months in a shambles. After consulting with Kerry and U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, another friend, he decided that it was “too volatile right now.”
But that wasn’t enough to dim Yarrow’s ‘60s spirit. ”We have all the parties ready to go and enthusiastic. All the work is going to pay off,” he says. “Am I discouraged? Not in the least. I feel encouraged — everybody is on board, everybody is excited.”
For many people the concept “music can change the world” might sound like a naive cliche, but for the man who wrote “Puff the Magic Dragon,” it’s a life’s mission. He believes music did a great deal over the civil-rights journey that brought African-Americans from the back of the bus to the White House. And he believes music has the power to make a difference in the conflict-scarred Middle East.
At the time of an interview with Haaretz in a Tel Aviv hotel lobby a few weeks ago, Kerry’s peace efforts were stumbling, but Yarrow was still forging ahead with his concert plans. He explained why he thought he could act as a grassroots catalyst for the peace negotiations.
“I believe when there is a musical moment when people’s hearts are connected, change is possible — you make a change in people’s hearts if not in their intellects …. What I want to do is create that kind of inspiration through music … where everyone will say, whatever else is happening, there is something very tangible in the air that says there is another possibility,” he says. “This contradicts the naysayers, the people who are too weary, too frightened, too disaffected. This can change the dynamic.”
The idea for the concerts was spawned two years ago when Yarrow held a small private performance in Jerusalem for peace activists sponsored by Christian educator Ross Byars. As the Jerusalem audience sang together, “the enthusiasm and the warmth was so positive, it dispelled the weariness, the disappointment and the kind of disaffection that has plagued these circumstances for so long,” he says.
Yarrow and Byars began dreaming of a Woodstock-style “Jeru-stock’ — a multiday concert festival in both Israel and Palestine. (“I call it Palestine deliberately,” he says.)
Originally, Yarrow thought big, picturing stadium concerts with names like Paul McCartney, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen. These giants would jam with Israeli and Palestinian musicians — creating “musical moments” of reconciliation that Israelis and Palestinians in the audience could share.
But after initial contacts with the Palestinians — including Palestinian Authority ministers — it was clear this vision was unrealistic in the current environment. This kind of happy “normalized” cultural cooperation with Israel wouldn’t fly.
“I understand and I empathize with it, but I think it is really unfortunate,” Yarrow says about Palestinian resistance to his let’s-hold-hands-and-sing approach. “Is it constructive? No. Is it destructive to the peace process? Yes. Is it terribly unfortunate? Yes. Is it understandable? Alas, it is understandable,” he says.
“For instance, if you have a bunch of people in the U.S. who are learning nonviolent tactics who are going to come up against a bunch of police, what do you tell them to do? You don’t tell them to pick up a rock. You tell them to lie down on the ground and go limp. That is the only tool you have, and metaphorically that is the tool they have. We will not cooperate, we will resist.”
So in accordance with Palestinian sensitivities, Yarrow scaled down his vision and planned concerts in Jerusalem and Ramallah with local artists on each side accompanying the international artists. He still held out hope that some artists — and audience members — might end up crossing borders.
Yarrow stands in increasingly lonely territory on the far left edge of U.S. politics — he has played for Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park and made a controversial apology in his rejection of the idea of boycotting Israel as a tool to pressure Israel toward peace.
“I feel that I must be here to be a positive force to rally weary spirits to continue. A nation is not a single human being — a nation is many human beings who have different predispositions,” he says.
“If I want to be a force in the U.S., I’m not going to boycott the U.S., and if I want to be a force in Israel, I’m not going to boycott Israel. I want to be a force to try to help Israel, along with multitudes of others — to take the course that is constructive for its own history that will lead to its being a more moral nation.”
Mean-spiritedness and more
Cracks in his shell of positivity are only visible when he’s asked his opinion of the harsh criticism of his friend Kerry that keeps coming from Israeli leaders.
“The attacks on him — that he just wants the Nobel Peace Prize. I read that in the papers. God Almighty. That is shameful and its destructive,” Yarrow says, marvelling at what he calls “the mean-spiritedness and the pessimism and, if not stupidity, then at least ignorance that drives that kind of critique.”
Countering “mean-spiritedness” is something of a mission for Yarrow. His visits to Israel over the past decade are linked to his project Operation Respect, an educational organization he founded in 1999. A fusion of educational curriculum and music, the project is active in 10,000 schools working “to create an environment in which students accept each other, to learn the tools of nonviolent conflict resolution.”
The curriculum for the program, which has received support from the U.S. Embassy, has been fully translated into Hebrew and English, and the program’s theme song “Don’t Laugh At Me” has been recorded in an English/Arabic/Hebrew version by Yarrow, David Broza and Amal Murkus. They helped launch the program in Israel in 2010, and Broza and Murkus had been slated to perform at Yarrow’s now-postponed concerts.
Threatened by Kahane
Yarrow’s interest in Israel came late in life. He was born Jewish and was raised in Manhattan, but grew up with a universalist orientation. In his Greenwich Village folk-music days, he had no connection with Judaism or Israel except for one Peter Paul and Mary concert at Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool in the mid-’60s.
His Jewish identity, he says, emerged through political activity, beginning in 1989. He was asked to perform at a “land for peace” event in Manhattan and received threatening phone calls he was told came from supporters of extreme-rightist Rabbi Meir Kahane. To learn more about the Middle East – because “‘I said to myself, ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about here’” — he took his family on a tour of Israel, Syria and Jordan.
For him, that meant becoming a peace activist in Israel. “If you want Israel to be healthy and be a refuge and a great democracy, a leading nation morally and ethically, you have to resolve this,” he says.
One dark shadow over Yarrow’s past continues to haunt him — a sex offense for which he was convicted back in 1970, taking “indecent liberties” with a 14-year-old girl, a crime for which he served three months in prison. He received a pardon from President Jimmy Carter, but the issue continues to provide ammunition for his political detractors.
Meanwhile, controversy raised its head in recent weeks over an event scheduled to honor Yarrow at a gala at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. And a fund-raiser for a Minnesota congressman at which he was slated to perform was canceled.
But in the Middle East, he plays on — he’s scheduled to take the stage at a USAID music festival in Jericho on Thursday night. And he continues to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials about staging his dream concerts sometime in the future — he hopes.