Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” has generated headlines by urging singer Alicia Keys to avoid “soul danger” and cancel her July 4 concert in Tel Aviv. Keys and other celebrities should ignore Walker and visit Israel. They may be amazed at what they discover.
I saw Israel for the first time recently, thanks to the America-Israel Friendship League, as did several other journalists on our fact-finding trip. Keys and other artists likely would find Israel as surprising as we did.
Israel’s omnipresence in the media makes it sound like a superpower. But Israel is impressively compact. At just 7,992 square miles, it is slightly larger than Clark County, Nevada (greater Las Vegas) but tinier than New Hampshire.
Israel is not just small. It’s svelte. At its thinnest point, near Netanya — just north of Tel Aviv — Israel spans just nine miles. The land separating Israel’s Mediterranean beaches from its border with the Palestinian Authority covers roughly the same distance as does Manhattan between Battery Park and the Apollo Theater on 125th Street, or Los Angeles from the Santa Monica Pier to the La Brea Tar Pits. Conquer those nine miles, and you chop Israel in two. Given this existential danger, the late foreign minister Abba Eban called this and the rest of Israel’s narrow waistline its “Auschwitz boundaries.”
Nevertheless, Israel is the little country that could. Within a desert that is hostile in every sense, Israel has become a prosperous nation with a per-capita income of $29,512, its Central Bureau of Statistics reports. In 2012, Israel’s GDP expanded by 2.7 percent, while America’s grew just 2.2. Israel’s unemployment rate is 6.9 percent, vs. 7.6 in the U.S.
This start-up nation has pioneered plenty, including drip irrigation, the flash drive and the PillCam, which lets doctors remotely examine a patient’s digestive track after he has swallowed a pill-sized camera.
Alicia Keys might be startled to see the degree to which Israeli Arabs are integrated in this society.
Israel’s official languages are Hebrew and Arabic, both of which appear, along with English (unofficial but convenient), on street signs everywhere.
Fourteen Arabs serve in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. They compose about 12 percent of the 120-member parliament or about half of their approximately 25 percent of the general population. It’s a safe bet that far fewer Jews serve in other Middle East legislatures.
A drive through largely Arabic East Jerusalem reveals a dustier, poorer part of town than Europe-like, mainly Jewish West Jerusalem. Boosting the wealth and influence of its Arabs should be Israel’s urgent priority. But that vital objective will be far easier to achieve with Israelis manning their work stations rather than their ramparts.
Musicians like Keys also should appreciate Israel’s broad, American-style freedom of expression, something rare among its neighbors. Gaza, for example, has prohibited its journalists from cooperating with their Israeli counterparts.
Gazan musicians need permits to play, and the Hamas government grants them grudgingly, at best.
“I spent hours in front of the mirror, singing, dancing and recalling the memories of my concerts in Europe in the summer of 2010, where I performed in many European cities.” Gazan rapper Mohammad Antra complained to the media website Al-Monitor’s Asmaa Al-Ghoul. “However, I could not perform in Gaza.”
Another rapper fared far worse.
“I was supposed to perform at Rashad Shawa theater,” on April 25, 2012, Ibrahim Ghneim told Al-Monitor. “However, a few hours before the show, I was beaten by security officers along with my bandmate, Ahmed Labad, in a bus belonging to the security apparatus. They broke my arm and leg and my partner’s arm as well.”
Meanwhile, according to Arab News, a Saudi program called “Buraidah’s Got Talent” bars musical competition. Instead, contestants face off on athletic events, poetry recitals and religious chants. The show also is closed to women. Keys — and Walker — need not apply.
Alicia Keys could learn this and lots more in Israel. So could Alice Walker.