This past January, I hosted my close friend Steve Greenberg, a Grammy-award winning record producer who discovered the Jonas Brothers and Joss Stone, before founding S-Curve Records. We were in Machaneh Yehudah around midnight, enjoying the market’s revival into a hotspot, when Steve’s phone rang. It was the Israeli superstar of song David Broza. Broza was very excited: "Said''s going into the recording booth to play."
We scurried back to Said Murad’s comfortable recording studio in East Jerusalem – not state of the art, but not what you would expect in the stereotypical UN pictures of the suffering Palestinians – which are as condescending to them as mere victims as they are to Israelis as supposedly brutal oppressors. We arrived to see Broza’s latest dream come true – recording an album uniting Israelis and Palestinians singing about “peace, love and understanding.”
Said Murad started improvising, playing the small daf, a Persian drum, and the nei, a Middle Eastern wind instrument, on the song "Key to the Memory.” Murad wrote the song with Broza, who then recorded vocals in English, Hebrew and Arabic with the Israeli Arab singer, Mira Awad.
Given the Palestinian boycott against Israel, it was not clear that Palestinians would play on his bridge-building peace album. But Broza being Broza -- meaning a visionary who lets the facts catch up to his dreams – he had charged ahead. As he wrote in dedicating the resulting album, “East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem,” which will be released next month, it is “to all those who care and help make the ‘improbable-probable’ and ‘unspeakable-speakable’ and the ‘hopeless-hopeful.’”
During eight magical days and nights, a dozen artists accompanied by a changing cast of friends, worked together, sang together, played music together and – added bonus -- ate tasty food together.
“You’re a history teacher, this is history NOW,” Broza told me when I visited. Not surprisingly, the guy who sang “yiheyeh tov,” it’ll be good,” decades ago – when it often wasn’t -- is an incorrigible optimist. And, not surprisingly, the guy who weaved together the Hebrew words “shamayim,” “shnayim” and “eynayim,” in the lovely lyric, “We came here/ Under the sky/ The two of us/ Like a pair of eyes,” is a clever phrase-maker. He often speaks in pearls, extemporaneously. “You have to live long enough in hell to appreciate a moment in heaven,” he rejoiced.
Rodrigo Bravo, representing the abc* Foundation which is underwriting a documentary telling this special story, spoke about “the “healing power of music as a catalyzer for social betterment,” appreciating music as “a universal language that brings people together.” A compelling movie clip captures Broza in the Shuafat refugee camp, entrancing a group of kids, using his guitar and his Pied-Piperish charm to get them singing, laughing and clapping in a joyful chorus celebrating peace in English and Arabic.
“This is not ghetto tourism,” Steve Greenberg explains, or off-off-off Broadway theatrics. Even without cameras or microphones, Broza still visits Shuafat and continues the work. Broza’s real, he lives his idea and ideals fully, sincerely.
“In the studio, a spirit of brotherhood and hope pervaded the proceedings, and we were all swept up by it,” said Greenberg, who produced two songs and is the album’s executive producer with Broza. “When I left, I thought to myself that the project was already a success, in that it brought together people who never would have had the opportunity to meet, much less work together, under normal circumstances.”
Each track on the album celebrates peace. The producer of most of the songs, the impressive singer-songwriter-activist Steve Earle, helped create what Broza calls “Country-and-West Bank music.” Mischievously, Broza covers Elvis Costello''s Every Day I Write the Book, and Cat Stevens'' Where Do the Children Play –letting those singer’s peace-loving lyrics trump their respective anti-Israel politics.
Heartbreakingly, Broza captures the anguish of the martyred journalist Daniel Pearl’s father, by putting to music words which Judea Pearl wrote after his son’s kidnapping and beheading, caught in a nightmarishly real Islamist “Lion’s Den.” And, delightfully, Broza joins with the YMCA’s Jerusalem Youth Choir, mixing Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, to cover Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” That track’s videois being shared broadly, wherein you cannot tell who are the Israelis and who the Palestinians – and, drumroll please, wherein I make my music video debut, although if you blink you might miss my cameo!
Cynics and ideologues from both sides of the great divide will find Broza’s “why can’t we live together” politics naïve and will find nits to pick. For example, most Israeli partisans prefer not to face Shuafat’s squalor, just as Palestinian partisans prefer not to face the Pearl family’s suffering.
Ironically, the album itself, while emphasizing Jerusalem’s dysfunctionality, is a tribute to the city’s functionality. Night after night, Arab and Jew crossed the invisible borders easily, peacefully, to sing, play, eat and schmooze together. That ease of crossing – along with its rareness -- highlights the magnitude of Broza’s achievement. If we can do it so effortlessly, don’t we owe it to ourselves to try harder and more frequently?
Broza understands that “Culture is culture but when it gets involved in politics it gets complicated.” He builds on an insight that supposed peacemakers from Shimon Peres on down missed because they refuse to acknowledge Oslo’s failure. Oslo failed partially by fostering elite alliances rather than people-to-people ties.
Broza and his merry band of music-making dream-makers deserve credit as shatchanim, matchmakers, transcending politics with love and hope, bopping to a hip beat, challenging us all to imagine other bonds we can build. We should view each other as neighbors and potential friends, rather than rivals and perpetual enemies, even before the politicians make whatever decisions they make – or don’t make.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of eight books on American History, including, most recently, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!