A Better Song For Peace

Why the popular Israeli peace song Salaam was never good enough, and a simple step to make it better!

by Daniel Zylbersztajn

A Jewish synagogue congregation in North London is sitting together in the late afternoon on Yom Kippur, the highest and holiest holiday in the annual Jewish calendar, and after a themed afternoon discussion on old, and new forms of music, the likes of Avinu Malkeinu, Kol Nidre, Sim Shalom is preparing itself for a new version of a quite familiar Israeli tune.

This song is one of the more modern standards, not essentially only sung at Yom Kippur, and also not part of a religious liturgy. Nevertheless, it is found in many services and Jewish youth meetings throughout the world. The last time that song was played publicly to a UK crowd happened to be at the large Manchester Jewish protests against anti-semitism. No, it is not Leonards Cohen’s Hallelujah, sampled to old verses, but another song.

After an introductory explanation, the congregation starts to sing the familiar words and melody. But then there is a sudden change, that is the bit that is new. Was this really a Jewish Hebrew speaking congregation uttering these words? Something with that Hebrew they just sang sounded different. Surely they had a go at an older Aramaic version or something of the kind?

“Salaam” you could hear about 30 voices from the inside.  No, there could be no doubt, it was definitely not Aramaic but Arabic. Whoever listened carefully and attentively from the outside, would have thought that the old building they were passing, hosts an afternoon for Syrian or Iraqi refugees, maybe a Palestinian cultural group, perhaps?“

The Hebrew song Salaam by the Group Sheva and their now independent since time memorial dread-locked Israeli songwriter Moshe Ben Ari has become one of the most popular peace songs in Jewish circles, the Maccabeats a famous Jewish acapella group did a version amongst others.

The song expresses the hope for and self-assuring certainty of a future of peace and presumably is to be understood as a symbol of outreach. It calls not just for peace as “Shalom” in Hebrew, but for “Salaam” in Arabic. Many think of it as a modern song, that is quite progressive. After all, it is unusual to sing a Jewish song with elements of Arabic?   Explain that to the many Jewish communities who used to live for millennia in Arabic speaking areas.

The song reaches out indeed to non-Jewish and Arabic speakers, most likely imagined to be Palestinians. But in spite of its reach and acceptance, the song is missing something that it actually pretends to have, but has not. Yes, in spite of its Arabic, the song does not quite work as a peace song. If you are one of the happy go fans of the tune, read on.

Until 2010 I worked for a stretch of a total of five years as the UK press and education officer for Oasis of Peace UK, the British arm of the peace village Wahat-al-Salam ~ Neve Shalom, where Israeli Jews, Palestinian Christians and Muslims with Israeli citizenship have lived together since the 1970s. The village is based in the former no-man’s – no wo*-man’s land, that once was the border between Jordan and Israel up until 1967. It is owned and leased, literally free of charge, to the community by the Latrun Monastery. If you believe in symbolism, consider that at the foot of the monastery the State of Israel harbours its national tank museum inside the former British fortified station, which after 1949 became inhabited by Jordanians and a trouble spot, until Israel over-run the territory in the 1967-War.

Language is an important aspect to the residents of the peace village. The village, its school and other institutions are all bilingual and binational, serving the local three main faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The conflict transformation centre in Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom, it is called School for Peace, is visited by people from across the region who engage there in mutual in-depth encounters with the other, sometimes for the very first time.  It operates in Hebrew and Arabic on equal terms.

In this mutual village of Jews and Arabs a  lot of thinking has been spent there on the power of language, and so it is no mistake that the original name Neve Shalom, which means Oasis of Peace,  eventually became Neve Shalom ~ Wahat al-Salam, and then the other way around Wahat al-Salaam ~ Neve Shalom, significantly the Arabic first, before the Hebrew after lots of debates.

In Israel at least, Hebrew is now the only official language, a recent change by the Netanyahu-led coalition. Before that, Arabic and Hebrew had, legally speaking, but not in practice, a more equal status.

Most Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and many in the West Bank and Gaza speak Hebrew. This is because it is not only important to get about in Israel,  it can avoid being misunderstood and get into trouble.

In the School for Peace, conflict transformation workers operate in Arabic and Hebrew on equal terms. Arabic amongst Jewish Israelis is less far-spread, although some speak Arabic due to their backgrounds. There are still many people about, who were born in Iraq, Libya or Egypt for example.  Others acquired Arabic as a foreign language, after all, it is the lingua franca in the Middle East. But many do not speak Arabic at all.

Without going further into this, It is clear that speaking each other’s language, in an area rive with conflict, being able to communicate on equal terms is the fundamental basis for any meaningful exchange to take place. In order to live or work in Wahat al-Salam ~ Neve Shalom, one must be able to speak both languages, primary children there learn both languages.

When I heard Salaam for the first time, given my years of working for the peace-village, after actually liking it, because of its aspirational wish, I actually felt it was in fact too one-sided, in spite of its reach. There is but one word in Arabic in the song, Salaam. Hence the song remains clearly a Jewish Israeli song. You would not have an Arabic speaker sing it as their own, because most of it is in Hebrew.  As said, there are all sorts of versions of the song circulating, Yonah Urfali a Jewish religious singer claims the song for a more Jewish internal purpose (see here) that appears to have less to do with seeking outreach with Palestinians, it seems. Still, it has been used in Mexico at an initiative in 2014 as a peace song for all, as it was sung in Australia at the Woodford Festival, and in Ohio during an international peace summit alongside an English translation.  There are many other versions on youtube if you care to look.

However, the question I asked my self, was, that if it was meant to be a peace song that reaches out, Jewish Israelis, Jews, in general, reaching out to Arabic speakers,  how does one allow Arabic-speakers to also take ownership of the song, and to reach out to Hebrew speakers and Jews? How does it become a regional peace song for all on both sides, and not just a song of the ambition of Jewish people and Israelis who sing it, but a song of a shared common future in peace?

Some ten years ago the Israeli singer and musical performer Shlomo Gronich released Havenu Shalom Aleinu – Ma Ana Ajmal Min Salam, an initiative in which Jewish Israelis and Palestinians performed the named peace song together in Hebrew and Arabic.  In February 2018, Jews and Palestinians sang together One Day in English, Arabic and Hebrew in Haifa.  Perhaps then, all that was needed for the song Salaam was a little translation job, to change the language around and set the main part in Arabic, and let the refrain call out for the Hebrew Shalom?

It was worth a try. I decided two Arabic, Hebrew and English speaking real peace-makers for a translation of the song Salaam into Arabic. Rayek Rizek, the Palestinian author of the biographical book Anteater and the Jaguar, published first last year, and long-term resident of the peace village Wahat al-Salam ~ Neve Shalom, who also runs the cafe at the entrance of the village, provided me with a translation. Then I had it verified independently by Raphael Luzon, a famous Libyan Jewish exile in the UK, who is likewise well known for his intense efforts in Arab-Jewish relations and exchange. Already in the translation, the song had thus been operated on by peacemakers.

There it was Salaam in Arabic, with the refrain calling for Shalom, it did not even take long. With the aid of a transliterated version, it found its way first as a modest suggestion as a future contribution for the synagogue’s newsletter. This was until Tamara Wolfson, a US-trained Cantor, who recently became the first Liberal female Cantor of Britain who serves my Jewish community, Kehillah North London, asked me to present the song on Yom Tov, because she was going to discuss musical changes and variations of well known Jewish songs.

After an explanation and a read through the Arabic, on a stomach that had been empty since the evening before, the words became finally a song, first somewhat cautiously, then stronger with the whole congregation part-taking. “Od yavo shalom aleinu – Sayati alslam ‘elayna,” Peace, will still come upon us, the resounding hope could not be clearer.

Peace requires, as the song may have intended, the involvement of more than but one side. But in its original form, the song Salaam was not yet equal. The current change may be small, as the song has not many words,  but it is still quite significant. Now it is the perfect peace song, the Arabic calling out for the Hebrew and vice versa,  and what is more, it leaves anyone singing both the Arabic and Hebrew versions next to each other marvelling at the close similarity between the languages.

If making peace were but the singing of a song, and given the official impasse between Israel and Iran, perhaps future versions will add Persian, then it can not only be sung in Hebrew and Arabic, but also in and Hebrew and Persian and in Persian and Arabic, which could extend to the Yemen conflict. Or you could imagine a Greek and Turkish and a Kurdish and Turkish version, and so on, transforming the formerly Israeli and Jewish peace song into a global peace song, where-ever it may be needed. Singing is not the hard work of peacemaking, but as the song intended, it is an aspiration, a reflective directional orientation.

Back in London, where we premiered the song, it also suited the venue of the London Islington’s New Unity Chapel in which all of this happened. The synagogue had hired the hall for one day. In the past, some 200 years ago, it was the place where Mary Wollstonecraft sparked the British women’s movement. In September as we sang it,  Europe’s first Jewish liberal female cantor was creating space for the premiere performance of the most well known Israeli song for peace to become better, through an Arabic addition.

Immediately after this session, as our Jewish congregation moved into the main hall of the building for Yiskor, the Jewish remembrance service, the room we sat in was taken up for practice by another reformer, who uses song for change, the Navi Collective, a black women’s choir, that performs freedom and resistance songs. Peacemaking and change were in the air as we approached Motza Yom Kippur, the end of Yom Kippur.

It is all about what you believe should be true! Shalom, elyna w’el kul el’e alem!

 

English Transliterated Hebrew Hebrew Transliterated Arabic Arabic
Peace will still come upon us, Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu עוד יבוא שלום עלינו Sayati alslam ‘elayna سيأتي السلام علينا
peace will still come upon us, Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu עוד יבוא שלום עלינו Sayati alslam ‘elayna سيأتي السلام علينا
peace will still come upon us, Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu עוד יבוא שלום עלינו Sayatai alslam ‘elayna سيأتي السلام علينا
and everyone Ve al Kulam ועל כולם waal al’jamia وعلى الجميع
Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat
Peace Salaam סלאם / שלום Shalom سلام
Upon us and the whole world Aleinu ve al kol ha Olam עלינו ועל כל העולם elyna w’el kul el-alem علينا وعلى كل العالم
Peace, Peace Salaam, Shalom סלאם, סלאם Shalom  Salaam سلام,  سلام
Peace Salaam שלום סלאם / Shalom سلام
Upon us and the whole world Aleinu ve al kol ha Olam עלינו ועל כל העולם elyna w’el kul el’e alem علينا وعلى كل العالم
Peace, Peace Salaam, Shalom ,סלאם / שלום Shalom  Salaam سلام,  سلام

 

 

 

War is not a football game!

Mural Peace OasisWar is not a football game, even shortly after the Brazilian World Cup It is not for you to choose one team or another, and incite violence in one or the other direction. The only job you have, if you are not a Palestinian or Israeli, or have family there or even if you are or have, is to support those forces that de-escalate, that understand at least somewhat both sides and especially support whatever means you can, that bring the sides together for peace.

Conflict is never just one sided, or the fault of one side. It is due to methods chosen, and opportunities missed deliberately or without intent. If you do not seek out the peace makers, you are just an extension of war and its propaganda. If you are not Jewish or Palestinian or have family there, and you only get mobilised, when Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East are at each others throats, but remain silent when things happen in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Turkey, Congo, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Nigeria, South-Sudan, Ukraine and other places, than you are biased. Go and help Israelis and Palestinians to share this world meaningfully, support talks and mutual events, peace initiatives, encounter projects, shared study and work experiences, and go and support a comprehensive realignment of the mess that France and Britain created on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1920, in a just and fair way, that is just as just to the Shiites, Maronites and Druze of Lebanon, the Armenians, the Kurds, the Sunni and Shiites of Iraq, the Coptic people of Egypt and other Christians minorities across the Middle East, the Zoroastrians in Iran, the nomadic tribes of North Africa, as it should be to Palestinians and Jews.

 

To my brothers and sisters of Bengali and Pakistani descent, I ask you to seek justice for the left overs of 1971 and 1947 too. To talk just of Israel Palestine, but not what happened to the Indian subcontinent is omitting historical wrongs there, that are enduring to this day. So yes Israel and Palestine are once again in a bloody dilemma. But there are people, organisations and ideas that need more than your disregard when you support but one side. Help people holding hands and understand the wider contexts.

People must not kill each other because of the organisation of the world at the height of colonial imperialism any longer. Let’s move post imperialism, by supporting people, and how they can come up with strategies that allow shared life, coexistence, tolerance, respect, looking out for one another and mutual prosperous growth. Only by acknowledging that the entire Middle East and much of the once colonial world needs to be redrawn, renegotiated can we grow out of all of this. Nobody who wants a Middle East without Israel or without Palestine should be supported. Nobody who can not agree that minorities should be accepted and protected with mutual neighbourly care should be aided.

 

Support two sides for peace, all sides for peace and resettlement and renegotiation. or please stay out. Don’t fire up the literal dead-lock. This is not football, there are real peoples’ lives at risk, and neither will the fantasy of those lunatics be just that visualize all Jews leaving the Middle East and the end of Israel, or all Palestinians going to other Arab lands. This can hardly be what some of your shouts stand for? You want justice for Palestinians? You want to guarantee secure Israel accepted and supported by its neighbours? Then support and help all those who work for mutual exchange, community build, inter-cultural, interfaith and international encounters, who help those with mixed feelings to overcome their fears and reservations and to learn how to live with the other without murder and war.

(originally posted on my facebook 20/7/14, reprinted here due to encouraging comments)

Orden für den Rabbi | Rabbi gets honours for Islamic-Jewish Pioneer Work

Deutsch:

Mein Bericht über Rabbi Herschel Gluck in der Jüdischen Allgemeine.  Rabbi Gluck bekam die ‘Order of the Empire’ Auszeichnung von Königin Elisabeth II, als Anerkennung seiner Arbeit in muslimisch-jüdischen und jüdisch-arabischen Beziehungen und Austausch.

Mehr im Bericht: www.juedische-allgemeine.de/article/view/id/15605

English:

My feature today in the Jüdische Allgemeine.  Rabbi Gluck has worked tirelessly to overcome the divide between Muslims and Jews and Aras and Jews,  and it is because of this that he was awarded with British honours this year.  Furthermore Gluck, and moreso his father,  took the courageous decision to aid German Jewish communities, disintegrated and lost in faith and direction, after the shoa.   Gluck says that the keys to his philosophies of encountering the other are the Noahide Laws.  Further he says:  “Naturally the basis for my life and work is G-d’s Torah,which was give to us by Moshe Rabeinu(Our teacher Moses) in Sinai. ”

Read more here:  www.juedische-allgemeine.de/article/view/id/15605

(Use Google translate to read the article translated if you do not speak German.)