When all eyes turned to New Orleans, I thought, finally, things will change.
In 1949, I loved the shining ideal of the new State of Israel, a brand new democracy, a spark of hope in the developing darkness of the Cold War. My folksinging partners and I, the Weavers, sang the joy of the fledgling country in Hebrew: Tzena, Tzena, habanot urena. Come out, come out, girls, join the dancing, greet the soldiers.
Tzena, Tzena, Tzena. The exuberant little Israeli dance tune was a highlight of our repertoire in 1949. When we were hired for a short stint at the Village Vanguard, a popular club in downtown Manhattan, patrons more used to sophisticated jazz and comedy picked up on the rhythm and exhilaration and kept us there week after week.
Sometime during our six-month stint at the Vanguard, the Weavers signed a contract with a major record company and recorded the Israeli song, fitted out with a set of appropriate English lyrics: Tzena, Tzena, Can’t you hear the music playing in the city square? The recording was an explosion of fun onto a moribund popular music scene. From jukebox to jukebox, people stamped their feet and clapped their hands. It made stars of us.
Tzena, Tzena, join the celebration, there’ll be people there from every nation. Wasn’t that everyone’s vision of peace, after the terrible war?
The public loved it. But this was 1950, and such sentiments were to have no place against the whipped-up hysteria of the Cold War. With our songs of fellowship and international solidarity, the lefty, top-of-the-charts Weavers were fair game for the House Un-American Activities Committee and its minions. In two years, via radio and TV blacklists, the McCarthyites wiped Tzena, Tzena and everything else by the Weavers from mainstream consciousness.
Yet somehow, with the help of persistent friends and fans, the Weavers managed to survive on a modest scale, and in the summer of 1959, we were booked for a concert tour in Israel.
Ha Orgim, the Weavers were called in Israel, the literal Hebrew translation of our name. You would never have known we were pariahs in our own country. It seemed that outside the U.S. nobody gave a darn about America’s blacklist.
We toured “from Dan to Beersheva,” Lee Hays, our bass, familiar with scripture, loved to say, in a caravan of three or four autos, carrying a crew and our own lights and sound systems. Everywhere, we were welcomed with great excitement, the American recording stars who had introduced young Israel to the United States. Concert halls in Jerusalem and Haifa filled to overflowing. At an outdoor Tel Aviv auditorium, mobs of young people who couldn’t afford tickets climbed over walls to get in, causing a near riot. Armfuls of flowers and love greeted us at the kibbutz amphitheaters. We were told at one that our concert would be heard by soldiers in a Syrian military encampment just over the hill.
“Marvelous,” I said. “A civilized approach to peace—sharing music.”
“Yes,” said one of our hosts wryly, “also warning them that the flashlights coming up the road at night are concertgoers, not the Israeli army.”
Once, driving between appearances, one of the cars had a flat. Horns honked; the cars stopped. Drivers and crew leaped out. The concert producer reached into the glove compartment and took out a pistol. I had never seen a tire changed so fast. As we roared away, the producer explained we had been caught in a narrow stretch of land between Israel and Syria, “a favorite spot for Arab infiltrators.”
Like an all-too-typical tourist anywhere, I had only the vaguest idea about the violent history of this land, could not fathom the animosity of the Palestinians for the Jews. Didn’t they each have their own territory? Hadn’t the Israelis been doing a fine job “modernizing the wasteland”? I didn’t press our new friends for information, not wanting to reveal how ignorant I was. When I raised the question once to a member of the crew, I was met with an impatient shrug and, “Oh, they’re crazy, the Arabs.” His friend said, with more passion, “Don’t you know? They’d like to drive us into the sea.” I accepted what I was told.
Then, in 1967, Israel went to war against Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. Jews everywhere held their collective breath. Would Israel survive? It hadn’t been clear who actually started the fighting, but in six days it was over—the Egyptian air force decimated, the Syrians decisively defeated, the Jordanians surrendered. Clearly, the combined strength of her surrounding Arab neighbors was as nothing before the military might of Israel. The State of Israel was safe!
Everyone cheered. Three against one. David and Goliath. Good for little Israel—she showed ’em. I jingoed with the rest, despite my certain knowledge that won or lost, war is a disaster for humanity. And then went on with my life of commitment to peace—in Vietnam.
1982. We stood in a half circle in a garden, forty or fifty people from the Berkeley folk community gathered together in celebration of Nueva Canción, the New Song movement that joins the musical genius of indigenous Latin America with the social awareness of its contemporary youth. The entertainment for the event was Lichi Fuentes’s terrific band, and it was impossible to stand still to their bouncing, dimpling rhythms. Just as I was about to go ahead and start dancing, a woman standing next to me whispered something my way.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the attractive, dark-haired, dark-eyed woman with the unfamiliar accent. “I didn’t quite hear what you said.”
“Nueva Canción, yes,” she repeated, “but it makes me wonder.”
“Wonder about what?” I said, still trying to hold onto the feel of the music.
“Why don’t the songs of my people have a place in the movement, if it’s about musicians calling up their culture from under the heel of the oppressor?”
That little speech stopped me cold. What could I do but smile—in a friendly manner, of course.
“Your people? Who are your people?”
“I’m Lebanese,” she said.
Silly, was my first thought. What can Arabic music, based on an entirely different set of harmonic and rhythmic principles have in common with the deliciously complex but familiar music of Latin America? And Lebanon? She could have said “Outer Asturia” for all I knew about Lebanon.
“OK,” I gave in, “so why do you think there’s no Arabic music in Nueva Canción?”
“Racism. What else but racism?”
Ugh, racism, everything is racism. I was annoyed.
“But how can it be racism? Look at these people. Dark-skinned, light-skinned, different kinds of hair, female, male . . .”
“Yes, but never an Arab among them.”
“Now wait a minute,” I said. “How would Arabic music relate? I certainly don’t know how to listen to it. I bought a tape of Umm Kulthum, and I simply couldn’t fathom where a song starts and where it ends . . .” Embarrassed, I could hear the racism squeezing out of me like toothpaste.
She smiled, held out her hand, and introduced herself.
“I’m Tina Naccache,” she said. “And I know who you are, my dear. But Umm Kulthum? Hers is the most difficult music, even for Arabs. OK, Ronnie, if I taught you an Arabic song, would you sing it in public—an Arabic song?” A challenge.
“Uh, certainly, of course, absolutely, why not, uh . . . I mean, yes, if I could learn it. I’m pretty slow these days. You’d have to teach me—from scratch.” And so she did.
And that’s how it began, a new friend, and a crack in my wall of ignorance about the Middle East. I didn’t know it at the time. I thought it was “only” about music.
The song Tina found for me was from a play written and performed for children in the Palestinian refugee camps, she said.
Camps? What kind of camps, I wanted to know. Like the interim Displaced Persons Camps at the end of World War II where thousands of refugee Jews had waited to be sent anywhere but back to Europe?
The camps Tina spoke of were meant to be temporary, too, but for decades they had been the inhospitable home for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, waiting to go back home to their villages and towns. Driven from Palestine in 1948 and again in 1967, women and men grew old and died in the camps. Children were born and grew up there and bore another generation. Tens of thousands of children had been living in abject poverty under Lebanon’s reluctant sufferance, and, like their parents, dreamed of going home to Palestine.
Meanwhile, inside the camps, life went on. A mothers’ group devised a play for children about a fox who refuses to eat meat, and the group recorded a sweet little song. I learned it in a few weeks and sang it at a concert in Berkeley’s Greek Theater, Pete Seeger accompanying on banjo:
Sing with me, let’s sing to her,
call to her, and she will come.
Don’t be afraid, don’t talk in whispers.
The light of the moon and of the
the countries of the five continents
are but a drop, a small drop in her
oh freedom, oh freedom.
In 2001, two women’s groups, Jerusalem Women in Black, and Serbian Women in Black, were co-nominees for a Nobel Peace Prize. The Balkan women had banded together in brilliant opposition to their war-thirsty leaders and compatriots during the conflagration. Serbian Women in Black were inspired by the Jerusalem organization, which had been coming out into the streets for three years to protest the Israeli Defense Forces’ occupation of Palestinian territory. Although irate patriotic citizens threatened and insulted the Jerusalem women, the movement had spread throughout Israel.
Awareness of the Israeli women’s activism sent me to the Internet to educate myself about the occupation from the Palestinian point of view, rarely expressed in our TV and newspapers. My ghostly feeling of “disloyalty to Israel” faded as I read reports from European newspapers and Israeli peace groups about the hell that is the occupation: the use of U.S. helicopter gunships and F-16 war planes in densely populated areas; demolition of homes in the middle of the night by bulldozers designed and made in the U.S.; massive uprooting of farmers’ olive and fruit orchards; children shot for throwing stones at armored tanks; the sudden arbitrary curfews; the cruelty of the checkpoints—sick people, women in labor, refused transport to hospitals, women giving birth there in the open under the eyes of Israeli soldiers, a preemie dying for want of a hospital incubator less than six miles away. The vicious suicide bombings and the heartless occupation are equal partners in crime against both peoples and against any hope for peace.
“In the kingdom of death,” wrote Israeli peace activist Nurit Peled-Elhanan, whose thirteen-year-old daughter was killed in a suicide attack by a Palestinian youth, “Israeli children lie beside Palestinian children, soldiers of the occupying army beside suicide bombers, and no one remembers who was David and who was Goliath.”
Five years ago, I helped start Bay Area Women in Black, following in the footsteps of two other local Women in Black groups. Coming out publicly for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine is complicated, especially for American Jewish progressives, unlike, say, speaking out for gun control. Anti-Semitism, shamed into dormancy for a time by the horrors of the Holocaust, is again on the rise in the world. Indeed, sometimes it seems our whole species is sick with racism, anti-Semitism, tribalism. One doesn’t want to give aid, even inadvertently, to xenophobes for whom the misdeeds of the State of Israel are an excuse to unleash Jew-hatred. I cringe, for instance, at the sight of a placard in a peace demo showing the Nazi swastika superimposed on the Star of David of the Israeli flag, as if the evil is in the ancient Judaic symbol itself.
And yet I feel compelled to protest the policies of the State of Israel, even today, even after the withdrawal from Gaza. For the occupation of the West Bank, which is actually expanding, continues, as does the denial of real statehood for Palestinians.
At these silent vigils, I have met the defenders of Israeli policy. One accused all of us of “doing the work of Hamas.” Another spat at us. And a man in a three-piece suit used his briefcase to smash a sign I was carrying. (Enraged, I turned to yell at him, but managed instead to take a couple of deep breaths, clamp my teeth, and hold back the expletive. My God, nonviolence asks a lot from us!)
More than once, I’ve been asked, “Why pick on Israel when there is so much other injustice in the world?”
Why not? Are Jews supposed to self-criticize only at Yom Kippur, and then forget about it? And where does it say that a crime is cancelled by a crime elsewhere?
Jewish members of Women in Black hold with the centuries-old Judaic tradition of “bearing witness, railing against injustice, and foregoing silence,” to quote an Israeli peace activist brought up by parents who survived the Holocaust. Our silent mode is a shout to ourselves and to the world to pay attention.
And more than once I’ve been called a “self-hating Jew,” or an “internalized anti-Semite.” My answer is this: Can one call herself a Jew and not take action when she recognizes oppression and injustice? “Justice, justice,” demands the Talmud. “Justice shall you pursue!”
Ronnie Gilbert, one of the original Weavers, is writing her memoirs. She also performs on tour with her latest show, “Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life with Songs.” See www.ronniegilbert.com.