“…when I’m sick and kids bring me my homework.”
“…when they ask me how I feel.”
“…when they let me borrow things I need.”
“…when they play with me.”
“…when I say what I think and they listen to me.”
Fourth graders in Lod are playing a new version of “Spin the Bottle,” called “Who Cares?” A small circle of students sit on the rug in the center of the classroom, watching the bottle spin, surrounded by their classmates – classes in Israel run large, with up to 40 students per class. The object of the game is simple. Complete the sentence: “I feel that people care about me when…” The game is part of Operation Respect, a project that began with a song, “Don’t Laugh at Me.” Initiated by Peter Yarrow, the program nurtures an atmosphere of tolerance and empathy in the classroom through a curriculum of music and communication. Yarrow visited two of the participating schools – Ganei Ya’ar (a Jewish school) and Al Rashadiya (an Arab school), along with David Broza, Amal Murkus and singers from the Voices of Peace Choir to celebrate the launching of Operation Respect as a pilot program in four Israeli schools.
Can singing together and talking about feelings bring about social change?
Peter Yarrow, of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, performed at the 1963 march on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave the historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Before singing “We Shall Overcome” at the Al Rashadiya School in Lod, Yarrow said, “We sang it with love and inspiration, America at the time did not allow blacks to vote, now we have an African American President. I sang with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. I saw this dream come to pass…my dream is that all the children will be friends and will embrace each other, right here in Lod.” Obama is indeed President of the US, but Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet. To quote Peter, Paul and Mary: No easy road to freedom.
The excitement of the children, educators and performers at both Ganei Ya’ar and Al Rashadiya was touching and contagious. As the loudspeakers played “Don’t Laugh at Me” while the musicians set up, a boy came up to me and said, “I know this song!” The song has been translated into both Hebrew and Arabic, and children at both schools know it well, singing it for their guests. Their eyes shone as they gazed at the famous musicians visiting their school, some even daring to approach them after the performance. Lod, one of Israel’s few mixed cities shared by Arabs and Jews, is a city burdened with multiple problems – the interconnected loop of poverty, drugs, crime and violence. Any hope of change requires a sustained collaborative effort. The principals of these schools – Eduardo at Ganei Ya’ar and Amin at Al Rashadia, along with the teachers and parents – are the ones who bear the brunt of the burden and on their shoulders lay the responsibility. The warm rapport they have with the students is an inspiring source of hope.
There is a potential for programs such as this to have an impact. “We also come from a place where there is hatred,” said Iman Huni, a member of the Voices of Peace Choir, led by Idan Toledano, who performed with Yarrow that day. “The choir is half Arab, half Jewish. When we first joined the choir we saw the Jews as something strange. I had participated in leadership programs and other workshops at the Arab Jewish Community Center in Jaffa. The director suggested I try to come to the choir. It really connects people. We’ve toured abroad – eating together, sleeping together. We’re really connected. At first it was strange, but now, it’s hard for me to hear people saying “Arabs” or “Jews”.
Music has the potential to inspire and create a common language that is beyond nationality. Professional musicians can meet onstage for the first time and jam together, understanding one another through the music. Jews and Arabs in Israel do not typically interact much, even in mixed cities. Although they attend different schools, as I heard the children join in the chorus of “Don’t Laugh at Me,” in all its different versions, each voice singing in a different language, Arabic, English and Hebrew merged together into a collective voice.
Songs become part of our collective memory. Amal Murkus recalled singing “We Shall Overcome” – “I sang this song in English as a child and did not understand the words – it’s about people who want to strive for peace and freedom,” she told the children in Ganei Ya’ar. Introducing David Broza at Al Rashadiya, she said, “He sang for peace before you were born.” Broza sang the anthemic “Things Will Get Better” (lyrics by Jonathan Geffen), adding another, more optimistic verse:
We will learn to live together in a grove of olive trees
Children will live without fear, without borders, without bomb shelters
…and we have not lost our hope
Midnight East says: Inshallah
“Operation Respect” will be implemented in Israel by the Center for Educational Technology (CET) which adopted it for the Israeli school system in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. The details of the program, in Arabic and Hebrew, may be found on this site: http://itu.cet.ac.il/respect/. Musician Kevin Salem, who accompanied Peter Yarrow, made recording throughout the tour which will, in turn, become part of the Operation Respect program, creating worldwide connections of friendship and understanding through music.
Image credit: Elizur Reuveni