You can take a guy out of the Berkeley ’60’s, but you can’t take the ’60’s out of the guy. As a graduate of the California ’60’s, I still believe in and work for profound social change, I still love flowers, and I still organize
peace-gatherings. I cannot grow long hair anymore. I’m 71, but sometimes I wish it was ’71 again.
In the spring of ’71, together with my brother Jon and five others, we had a group that played political rock ‘n roll called “Contraband.” Our pianist had played with jazz great Chet Baker. We tried to tame him into rock ‘n roll, and he pulled us toward jazz. We sometimes found a groove, where the power of the people became a thumping rhythmic melodious harmony, and we felt that anything was possible. The band went acoustic for street-actions, and I remember the Berkeley cops chasing us through back-yards when we demonstrated to stop an eviction, and Jon threw his trombone ahead of him over the fence he then scaled. At the July 4, “Hot Town, Summer in the City Peoples’ Political Festival,” with people dancing all through the band, because there was no stage, singing Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.” We wrote new lyrics and the chorus was “Fighting in the Street…” Some fierce communal love energy, wine, smoke, congas, all kinds of workshops, with one about how to make a rope-climbing playground for your kids. “Uncle Ho’s” garage mechanics were part of the community, freaks who brought their tools to events and taught people how to fix their own cars. We were making the revolution!
Or not. Things haven’t played out as we imagined they would. Trump is not what we had in mind back then. And Netanyahu is not what we Israelis had in mind 26 years ago, when Yitzhak Rabin won the ’92 election. Frumit and I drove up to the Sea of Galilee just after the election, and as we held each other, looking down from the hills across the wind-blown lake, the sun was setting on what felt like a country we peace-lovers had just taken back. The year before, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had been forced to attend the Madrid Conference, and he even rose to the occasion, issuing the following at the conference’s close: “With an open heart, we call on the Arab leaders to take the courageous step and respond to our outstretched hand in peace.” Then Rabin came in, enabled the secret Oslo negotiations to take place, and we were on the way to peace. During the Oslo years, we were moving toward what looked like a transformed future. Doors were opening, the Foreign Ministry was alive with young folks competing to advance contact with the Gulf States and other corners of our region. Hope was in the air, hearts were opening.
You could still drive through downtown Jericho back then, and as I made my way through the city one day in ’94, I came upon on a shared jeep patrol of Palestinian and Israeli soldiers as they smoked cigarettes together. I leapt out of the car to shake their hands, and we drank strong coffee, congratulating each other on the breakthroughs that seemed to be happening everywhere. Those days now seem as far away as the Berkeley ’60’s, and today we are facing a grim reality.
Half a million settlers now lay claim to land that has been in dispute for 51 years, with Netanyahu doing everything he can to please and appease them. Last week, the government passed the “Nation State Law,” which removesthe status of Arabic as an official language in Israel, and will allow the establishment of separate communities based on ethnicity or religion. Another ruling denies gay fathers the right to bring a child into the world through a surrogate, and a Conservative rabbi was hauled in for questioning for performing a wedding not sanctified by the rabbinate. Dark times.
At such a moment, it is tough to keep alive the vision of a better future. Yet, while dark times drive some of us to despair, some of us are inspired to become more active. This is happening here, and apparently a lot of Americans have re-engaged, thanks to Trump. We must not succumb to the cynicism and defeatism rampant even among liberals. We must bang out our rock ‘n roll and strive for jazz. We must stand proud and take the steps, one at a time, that will renew our hope as we struggle to return our beloved countries to us. The Sulha Peace Project will gather 100 Palestinians and Israelis in Bethlehem in a couple of weeks, where we will probe issues of constriction and freedom in quiet listening circles, sharing a meal and our prayers. We’ll join hands and sing our songs, looking into each other’s eyes, and to the horizon.
Yoav Peck is director of the Sulha Peace Project, bringing Palestinians and Israelis together for people-to-people solidarity-building.