American stage and screen star Tovah Feldshuh is probably best known for her portrayal of the late prime minister Golda Meir in the play “Golda’s Balcony”, which holds the distinction of being the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history. As an Israeli, therefore, I could not but point to the inherent contradiction between Meir’s contemporary image as a leader who turned her back on offers of peace and Feldshuh’s own enlistment in a new peace-urging Internet drive.
“She started her life hiding under staircases in Kiev for fear of a pogrom,” she replies. “Her first memory was of her mother nailing boards to a door. She was a tough Russian Jew, and her only concern was for the State of Israel to survive.”
But, Feldshuh adds, after a pause dramatic timing: “We’re not in Golda’s world anymore.”
Which is why the 61 year old singer and television, film and stage star - who recently joined the cast of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical Pippin - has lent her voice and her fame to a project dubbed “The Time is Now for Peace” that seeks to organize a grassroots campaign urging American Jewish leaders to support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
A brainchild of emeritus Yale professor Bruce Wexler, the project’s website thetimeisnowforpeace.org asks surfers to write to figures such as Malcolm Hoenlein, Ronald Lauder and others – or to upload their own YouTube version of Shlomo Carlebach’s song Ki Va Moed, The Time is Now, which Feldshuh preforms on the screen along with 12 singers “of different colors and different religions.”
“By Israeli standards, it’s a naïve and innocent campaign, perhaps,” Feldshuh concedes, “but we’re trying to do whatever we can. We’re asking people not to judge and not to obstruct. We’re asking them to give their voices as a substitute for anger and hate and AK-47’s. We don’t presume to speak for the people who actually live there, but every Israeli I know wants to go to the beach and read a good book. Who wants to fight all the time with their neighbors?”
The straightforward Feldshuh, whose responses to questions often come out in gushing, unstoppable streams, has already had a dramatic effect – on the website itself. Originally it called on Jewish leaders to “refrain from criticizing” the peace process, but Feldshuh convinced Wexler that it’s best not to admonish people not to do something or to appear to be questioning their right to free speech. “Tovah is direct and outspoken,” Wexler admits, “and she tells it like it is.”
Wexler says that his initiative stems from a sense of urgency about the current round of American-sponsored peace talks. “If these talks fail, extremists on both sides will be empowered, and moderates will be disheartened. We’re not going to get another Administration that is going to play such an active role for many years. This is a moment that is not going to repeat itself.”
An emeritus Yale professor of psychiatry, Wexler is the author of the book Brain and Culture which Scientific American described as "a fascinating step forward in deconstructing the seemingly universal us/them mentality." Combining psychology and neurobiology, Wexler says his book traces the cause of conflict to “differences in belief systems and an unwillingness to live inside belief systems of others.”
His preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is not new. Over a decade ago he founded an interreligious NGO called “A Different Future” which aimed to “reclaim the public space that has been occupied by extremism and violence” by providing groups dedicated to reconciliation, such as the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Family Forum, with funds to conduct their public relations campaigns. But it was only last year that he was thrust into the public spotlight, with the release of a study on “portrayal of the other” in both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks that he carried out with others on behalf of the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land - which was quickly and harshly condemned by then Education Minister Gideon Saar.
The study’s main findings, by which both sides did not engage in demonization but were equally guilty of negative portrayal of the other side, enraged the government and appeared to undercut its contention that the Palestinians were the only party guilty of incitement. Wexler lashed back at his critics then, and still appears to be smoldering now: “It was extremely disappointing to me as a Jew, it literally brought me to tears, that they would rather maintain a propaganda point that they knew to be false than have change in the Palestinian books..”
“It was blind but it was also stupid,” he adds, “because their attacks sent the publicity for the project through the roof.”
Feldshuh, on the other hand, is more gracious about the current Israeli powers that be. She recounts a recent backstage meeting with Saar’s boss, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who came to visit her at the Music Box Theater near Times Square where Pippin is playing. Feldshuh, who says she “went back to my 9th grade weight of 112 pounds” in order to ride the trapeze as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, said that the prime ministerial visit was “a great honor” for her.
“He told me that I was brilliant, that the trapeze is extraordinary,” she says. “I responded that I was on the trapeze for only a few minutes every night, but he was on the trapeze all the time, 24/7.”
Netanyahu is “irresistible to Americans,” she adds, but “he is who he is”. She then connects Netanyahu’s view of the world to his own personal biography, as she did for Golda. “Don’t forget that he lost his brother at Entebbe. That influenced his point of view. I know that it would certainly influence mine.”