A Battered Song of Peace

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From his Jerusalem roof garden, Ya'acov Rotblit gazes up at the blue starbursts in the night sky as Israelis celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, and the conquest of the Holy City. It's hard for Rotblit, now 62, to share in the euphoria. "Wars are like football games," he says, "when you win one, that's it. You don't wallow in nostalgia. You prepare for the next one."

Rotblit's wariness is understandable. Like many Israelis, he is convinced that a "next one" is inevitable, and maybe one after that, too. One of Israel's most renown songwriters, Rotblit has seen his liberal attitudes harden against the Palestinians.

It wasn't always that way. As a young reservist, Rotblit took part in the battle of Jerusalem. It seemed that military victory against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, would forcibly bring peace. And left alone by the Arab states, the Israelis and Palestinians could get along with each other.

But in its far-reaching political and personal consequences, the battle for Jerusalem ended up being worse than Rotblit could have possibly imagined. He remembers coming across a dead Jordanian soldier lying in the road and thinking, "But he's only a child." Shortly after, Rotblit's platoon was hit by a mortar round accidentally fired by another Israeli unit. His leg was blown off. "For a few seconds, there was an intense light, and I lost my fear of dying. Then the light faded and was replaced by a flooding pain. And when the pain comes, you want to live. Life is pain," says Rotblit.

From a hospital, his buddies wheeled him down the descending stone lanes of the Old City to the Western Wall, the sacred remains of the Jewish Temple of the Mount. The mood of his comrades was ecstatic. ("Remember, says Rotblit, "a few weeks before there was talk of Jews being annihilated by the Arabs, another Auschwitz.") Maybe it was because he'd lost his leg, and wasn't particularly religious to begin with, but Rotblit found himself curiously unmoved. "All this euphoria was misplaced," he says. And, he couldn't shake the pictures in his mind of the dead boy soldier lying in the road, and of his many Israeli friends killed and wounded. He went back to his guitar and composed "Song to Peace." It was a cautionary tune , warning Israelis not to exult too much in victory and in killing the enemy.

"Back then," he muses with a chuckle, "I was na´ve enough to think that peace was in reach."

Initially, the song was considered "defeatist", and banned by the army radio station. But Rotblit's disarmingly spare and heart-piercing lyrics resonated with his countrymen, and "Song to Peace" became an anthem for a people thirsting for peace. He became famous, an Israeli Bob Dylan of his day. The dream for Rotblit and many other Israelis was that the newly occupied land could be bartered back to the Arabs for peace and recognition.

Rotblit tried to live his own message of co-existence. He moved into the Old City, learned some Arabic and made Palestinian friends. Like many leftists, he abhorred the continuing Israeli presence in the conquered territories. "With this occupation, we've become powerful and contemptuous. It's rotting us."

His hopes and those of many Israelis were raised by the 1993 Oslo accords, that created a framework for trading the occupied territories for peace and recognition. When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who led Israel into the Oslo Accord, was assassinated in Nov. 1995 by an Israeli extremist, Rabin had in his pocket a page with the lyrics of "Song to Peace," which he had read out at a peace rally. "For me, that was the turning point. I couldn't imagine that so much hatred existed within Israel," he says glumly.

A similar hatred radiated from the Palestinian side. Rotblit's meetings with Palestinian intellectuals had become increasingly sulphurous. He came to believe that the Palestinians' struggle against Israeli occupation had widened into a religious jihad. "I realized that Islam's refusal to recognize the existence of a Jewish state was deeper, far deeper, than I'd imagined," he says

Then, in late 2000, came the suicide bombings. "They'd go off every week. First I'd hear the blast, then the police sirens, followed by the ambulances. Then there was the ritual of calling the kids to make sure they were OK. It was terrible," he says. Today, he shuns the 40th anniversary hoopla surrounding his Jerusalem apartment. Does he still believe in peace? He says with a grin, " A Palestinian writer coined the word 'Op-tessimist' — someone who is both optimist and pessimist. I'm that, too. I still have hope, but now I'm more realistic."

With reporting by Aaron. J. Klein/Jerusalem