The most optimistic video about Israel and the Palestinians was not made by an Israeli non-profit group like the New Israel Fund or an Israeli-Palestinian initiative such as Seeds for Peace. It was created by YouTube singing sensation Sam Tsui, who’s not Jewish or Palestinian and has never even been to Israel. But the result is rock-your-socks-off gorgeous with a story that will inspire and uplift even the most cynical observers of relations between this region’s perpetual sparring partners.
The Internet seems to agree. In the first 24 hours after Tsui’s cover of the Phillip Phillips’s song “Home” was released last week, it racked up 35,000 views. It’s been climbing upward of 15,000 views a day (by press time, it was already well over 100,000). If it performs anything like Tsui’s past videos on YouTube, it won’t be surprising if this magic message on coexistence ultimately reaches the million-views mark sooner rather than later.
The four-minute video (you can watch it here: http://bit.ly/1z0JnIv) is a collaboration between Tsui, who lives in Beverly Hills, California, and the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an Israeli-Palestinian teen choir that meets weekly for a cappella rehearsals and facilitated “dialogue sessions.” In the midst of Operation Protective Edge, this group of 32 Jews and Palestinians flew together to Japan for 10 days of touring and concerts in Tokyo and Kyoto.
Before that, they sang back-up on Israeli rocker David Broza’s most recent album, East Jerusalem West Jerusalem.
In the video, 16-year-old Shifra Woodbridge, one of the chorus members, is shown writing a letter asking Tsui if he would consider recording “Home” with the group. The lyrics from “Home” are wonderfully appropriate for the chorus’s mission: “Settle down, it’ll all be clear, don’t pay no mind to the demons, they fill you with fear. The trouble it might drag you down, if you get lost you can always be found. Just know you’re not alone.
’Cause I’m gonna make this place your home.”
Tsui agrees to her request, and the video then shows him in his home studio recording the lyrics to the song, juxtaposed with scenes of Jerusalem and two members of the chorus – Jewish Evyatar and Palestinian Ameer – as they walk through their respective neighborhoods of the city before coming together in song and dance with the other chorus members.
It’s clear that Tsui, who has parlayed his Internet fame into a lucrative career, invested a significant amount in this video. He sent a camera crew from the US to Israel to capture the chorus in action, and the backing tracks were recorded in a professional studio.
The resulting shots are dazzling, with both sides of Jerusalem shining, intercut with lots of smiling close-ups of the kids. Yes, there are a few shots bordering on cliché – Ameer walks past the graffiti-strewn separation barrier in east Jerusalem looking pensive; Evyatar dons a kippa and says prayers at the Mount Herzl military cemetery; there is the obligatory shot of black-hatted ultra-Orthodox men pushing tefillin on passersby at the Mahaneh Yehuda market.
But the video more than compensates for these quick stereotypes with its irresistible music, which will have you tapping your toes no matter on which side of the political divide you reside, and with images of the kids coming together to build a bonfire (and then to toast marshmallows around it) in the Jerusalem hills. A personal prayer is layered onto the original song, first in Arabic – “Safety, go in safety” – then Hebrew – “Our home is here and you and I will yet change the world” – and then in unison – “We are here together.”
How did Tsui become an unlikely promoter of coexistence in the Middle East? The story of Woodbridge’s note to him, in turns out, isn’t entirely accurate.
The real back story is that Tsui and Jerusalem Youth Chorus director Micah Hendler attended Yale University together, where both were in The Duke’s Men of Yale, an all-male a cappella singing group on campus. Hendler reached out to Tsui; the letter came later.
Tsui started his Internet career recording covers of pop songs in his high, clear, expressive voice. Through a collaboration with a fellow Yale student, producer Kurt Schneider, the videos hit YouTube and went viral, with the most popular one (a cover of the Nelly song “Just a Dream”) racking up an astounding 80 million views. So a prediction that the “Home” video might hit a million may actually be quite modest in the end.
Hendler hasn’t achieved the same level of online fame as Tsui, but his offline accomplishments in Jerusalem are nevertheless impressive. The chorus, now going into its third year, has served as an oasis of sanity in an inflamed region, where participants can communicate their hopes and concerns, dramas and pain, in a safe, mediated space, while literally singing for a better future.
Hendler first discovered the power of communal singing and coexistence as a teen camper with the Seeds for Peace organization, which brings Jews and Palestinians into dialogue. He returned as the group’s music counselor during summers while in college.
“Performing together creates a sense of shared identity and a tangible feeling of community,” he says. “Communities created through a musical bond have something special that is not found in a random group of friends. Singing has the power to break down boundaries.”
There is an ongoing debate about whether coexistence groups like the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, Seeds for Peace and others have an actual impact beyond the hundreds of social workers and researchers who have found gainful employment in the “peace business.” A 2008 survey of Palestinian participants in such programs, for example, showed that 91 percent were no longer in contact with any of their Israeli teen counterparts, and a mere 5% agreed with the statement that their program helped “promote peace culture and dialogue between participants.”
Hendler says his own anecdotal evidence suggests a different outcome for his project. “The chorus has become important to a lot of people, and the teens have learned about things they never would have seen before, especially in terms of meeting people from ‘the other side.’ And I know that a number of kids are more confident in their singing, which is also a sign of success.”
Tsui’s collaboration with the Jerusalem Youth Chorus on “Home” captures that success and displays it proudly for all who troll YouTube to see. It is a triumph, exuding exuberance. It inspires through its simple message that individuals can transcend their situation, whether through dialogue or song or both. Of course, the reality is much more nuanced and fraught with challenges, but “Home” invites viewers to suspend their inner critics and believe that these 30 or so teenagers represent a brighter, truer future. Because at the end of the day, this is our home. And we are not alone. ■
The author is a freelance writer who helps companies, brands and organizations become their own publishers in order to rank higher in social media and search engines. www.bluminteractivemedia.com.