It should have been a heartwarming scene, plain and simple.
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In the spacious living room of the U.S. ambassador’s residence, Peter Yarrow of the legendary 1960’s folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, was treating a small crowd to a concert in honor of his anti-bullying education program. He was joined onstage by Israeli musician David Broza. The 75-year-old Jewish American singer and 59-year-old Broza looked at each other with affection as they strummed out the civil rights anthems, like "If I Had a Hammer, " "Blowin’ in the Wind" and the theme song of Yarrow’s tolerance program "Don’t Laugh at Me."
But even as they clapped and sang along, everyone in the room was all too aware that as the American and Israeli musicians played in harmony, the U.S.-Israeli relationship was in a state of historic discord. The concert took place on March 19, a day after the Israeli election results were announced, sweeping Benjamin Netanyahu to victory and into his fourth term as prime minister. At that very moment, the top stories were about Obama's failure to make a congratulatory phone call to Netanyahu. Venom was flying between left and right in both Israel and the U.S., and the election was being viewed as a sweeping endorsement of Netanyahu by a right-wing and racially intolerant Israeli public.
My invitation to the event by Yarrow came because of a story I reported last year about his failed efforts to put together dual “concerts of goodwill and friendship” in which he had hoped that he and Broza would perform with Palestinian musicians in front of audiences in Ramallah and Jerusalem. The concerts were intended to accompany what he expected to be a breakthrough in the efforts from his old friend John Kerry (their friendship dates back to the Secretary of State's days as an anti-war activist, and Yarrow sang at Kerry’s wedding). But as the diplomatic initiative fell apart, so did the concert plans. Yarrow scrambled for four months to hold the event together, shuttling between Tel Aviv and Ramallah, firm in his belief that music creates a “joyous vulnerability” that can create “pools of peace” which could bring Palestinians and Israelis together - ultimately, he was told by Kerry that the time wasn’t right, and it was all called off.
A year has passed since then and so much has changed - for the worse. On the heels of the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations came the Gaza War and a spate of terrorism, followed ultimately by the divisive election campaign. But Yarrow, older and visibly more fragile, was undeterred, and had returned to Israel for a concert at the Jerusalem YMCA. Nobody anticipated the circumstances in which the show would take place, as the performance, scheduled more than a year and a half in advance for March 18 and 19.
Between songs, Yarrow reminisced about the original Selma march for civil rights, which he participated in, and the recent commemoration of the event, where he performed at a synagogue. Standing below a banner that proclaimed “Celebrating Respect and Acceptance,” he spoke of love, peace, and decency and warned “if we do not protect freedom and justice, it will go away.”
At the very moment he was speaking, critics in the U.S. were comparing Netanyahu’s “hate speech” to race-baiting politician George Wallace - the symbol of all that the marchers at Selma opposed.
If any of this was going through the mind of the host, Ambassador Dan Shapiro, he didn’t let it show. After praising Yarrow’s program, he told the audience of how both Peter, Paul and Mary and David Broza were the soundtrack of his childhood and adolescence and young adulthood.
Shapiro is a liberal American Jew fluent in Hebrew who attended Reform movement summer camp and spent a college year abroad in Jerusalem. He and his wife Julie Fisher wear both their personal connection to Israel and their support for progressive causes on their sleeve.
Shapiro is a close advisor to President Obama, who would soon harshly criticize Netanyahu’s racial rhetoric on Election Day, saying that “ Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don't believe in a Jewish state, but it also I think starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country."
As I watched the Shapiro-Fisher couple swell in pride as their young daughter joined Yarrow singing his most famous song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” I mused that the 40-something couple, who met in Reform movement summer camp might be members of the last generation of American Jews to grow up feeling that their deeply-held liberal beliefs and an attachment to the state of Israel are in any way compatible. All signs point to a future in which the little girl who was singing would live in a world where she would have to choose between one or the other.
One of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s biggest hits was “Light One Candle” written by Yarrow as a song for Hannukah in 1982, featured the plaintive chorus: “Don't let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years.”
As Yarrow closed his concert with that song, it felt as if the atmosphere in the ambassador’s living room was itself a flickering flame, threatened by the deep freeze in the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu and the harsh winds of partisan politics in both countries - very much in danger of going out.