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Joan Baez Walks and Sings a Delicate Line in Israel

May 30, 1988|PHILIP WARBURG | Warburg is a free-lance journalist based in Jerusalem. and

JERUSALEM — An Israeli newspaper recently published a cartoon showing Ronald Reagan, with garland and guitar, flashing a 'V' sign and running toward Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The caption quoted a shocked Shamir as saying, "Oh please! I still haven't recovered from Joan Baez!"

The prime minister had no contact with the American folk singer and political activist during her recent weeklong visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories. Yet he undoubtedly saw the numerous press accounts of her meetings with Israeli peace activists, her well-attended concerts and her visits to Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian uprising, which has been raging for nearly six months, has provoked varying responses among non-Israeli artists. The Switzerland-based Bejart Ballet company issued a harshly worded public declaration before going forward with its scheduled performances at the 1988 Israel Festival, commemorating 40 years of Israeli statehood.

Bejart's declaration, which appeared as a paid advertisement in the Israeli press, called the killing of children--Israeli or Palestinian--a "monstrosity" and stated that "the Palestinian people were right to revolt against the Israeli occupation."

American saxophonist Steve Lacy chose to boycott the festival entirely. When he called to cancel his quartet's performance last week, he told festival officials that he was protesting Israel's handling of the uprising.

Joan Baez, by contrast, came to Israel specifically because of the uprising. Her visit was added to the beginning of a previously planned European concert tour.

Though long a critic of the Israeli occupation, the 47-year-old folksinger was careful to admit the limits of her ability to comprehend the current struggle. "I must have the humility to admit that I will never understand what it would be like to be a Palestinian Arab living in occupied territory," Baez told several hundred Palestinians who had gathered in her honor at the National Palace Hotel in Arab East Jerusalem.

"And on the other hand," she said, "I will never understand what it is to be Jewish (and) feel 2,000 years of homelessness, fear, persecution and desperation."

Throughout her travels, the 47-year-old folk singer urged both Israelis and Palestinians to pursue alternatives to what she termed the "dialogue of death" gripping these two warring peoples. Speaking to the gathering at the National Palace Hotel, she emphasized her longstanding commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience.

"Nonviolence is nothing more than organized love," Baez said. She quoted the advice Mahatma Gandhi gave to his fellow Indians, in their revolt against the British.

"As Gandhi said, 'In order for this to be a real revolution, we must free ourselves from being at the receiving end of the guns and free the British from being at the other end of the guns.' "

Baez's words were received in awkward silence. Just before she had mounted the stage, Palestinian singer and songwriter Mustafa Kurd had performed several of his own compositions, in Arabic.

"We are sending stones against the tanks," he boasted in one song, while in another he declared, "We are the children of the land, and in our hands are stones."

A banner behind the stage further highlighted the contrast between the singer's pacifist vision and the David-versus-Goliath imagery that has come to dominate the Palestinian uprising. "Palestinian Self-Determination Is the Path to Peace" declared the banner's bold letters. Illustrating the slogan was a figure hurling a large stone. One Palestinian whom Baez had hoped to meet was Mubarak Awad, founder of the Palestinian Center for the Study of Non-Violence. By the time of her arrival, however, Awad had been detained pending deportation proceedings before Israel's Supreme Court.

Awad is regarded by Israeli officials as an instigator of the Palestinian uprising. In recent months, he has openly advocated such protest measures as the non-payment of Israeli taxes, a boycott of Israeli commercial products and refusing to carry the identity cards assigned to all Arab residents of the Occupied Territories. Baez also carried her message of nonviolence to the other side of this land's vast ethnic and political divide--to the several thousand Israelis who attended her two public concerts.

Her first concert was held in a restored Roman amphitheater at Caesarea, along the Mediterranean coast. Teen-agers in sandals and cutoff jeans shared the amphitheater's tiered stone benches with older Israelis whose fondness for Baez's music dated from her years as a folk singer in the 1960s. Some simply came to hear a woman whom they regard as a legendary singer. "I hope that the concert will focus on music and not politics," said one 24-year-old Israeli.

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