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Jewish Journal

Puff the Political Dragon

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

April 27, 2010 | 10:13 pm

Peter Yarrow’s children’s concert at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA on April 26 took a turn for the political when Yarrow’s between-songs banter focused on the plight of Palestinian children.

In singing “I’m on My Way to Freedom Land,” Yarrow, of Peter, Paul & Mary fame, explained to the crowd — mostly young children and their nostalgic parents and grandparents — that if a Palestinian boy in the West Bank wanted to be on his way to the zoo, he couldn’t, because there is no zoo in the West Bank. There is a zoo for the children of Jerusalem, he said, but little Palestinian boys can’t go to the zoo in Jerusalem, because there is a big, ugly wall keeping them in the West Bank.

“We brought the kids to hear ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’ and he is suddenly spewing anti-Israel rhetoric, and that was very disappointing,” said Matthew Lefferman, a Los Angeles physician who was there with his family.

But other concertgoers, familiar with Yarrow’s long-time civil rights activism and his blending of art and politics, didn’t feel quite as blindsided.

Last year, Yarrow visited Israel to seed a branch of Operation Respect, an organization he founded 10 years ago to teach tolerance and compassion in schools around the world. Operation Respect’s signature program, “Don’t Laugh at Me,” uses folk songs, videos and a detailed curriculum to engage kids in social and emotional learning to create atmospheres free of bullying and cruelty.

More than 150,000 “Don’t Laugh at Me” programs have been distributed to educators in the United States, Croatia and Hong Kong free of charge, with help from The McGraw-Hill Cos. More than 22,000 schools have used the program.

Israel’s Ministry of Education adapted “Don’t Laugh at Me” for a pilot program in two Jewish and two Arab schools this academic year. Teachers have attended workshops and implemented the curriculum to great success, according to Operation Respect educational director Mark Weiss.

Yarrow traveled to Israel again in January, where he visited the schools with Israeli pop singer David Broza and Arab icon Amal Murkus. The trio sang “Don’t Laugh at Me” in Hebrew, English and Arabic.

Yarrow believes children are key to making peace.

“The children must lead, because the adults frequently are stuck with their fear and their hatred,” Yarrow told Israel21C. “So I am very, very hopeful.”

Yarrow tried to open up his UCLA audience to those same messages, but Lefferman fears the venue didn’t leave enough room to develop the context and nuance that complicates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yarrow didn’t mention the thousands of children who can’t visit the playgrounds in Sderot that have become targets of missiles launched from Gaza, Lefferman pointed out. And Lefferman was particularly offended by Yarrow referring to the West Bank as a ghetto — a word loaded with Holocaust connotations.

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“Is this something kids can hear and make decisions about?” Lefferman said. “Can he use his soap box for a political rant or should he just play his music?”

Earlier in the concert, Yarrow, who is Jewish, was riffing with the kids, and he told them he was getting crazy and carried away, “like at a Jewish wedding.”

In 1983, Yarrow released “Light One Candle,” a song about Israel’s quest for peace:

Light one candle for the Maccabee children
With thanks that their light didn’t die
Light one candle for the pain they endured
When their right to exist was denied
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
Justice and freedom demand
But light one candle for the wisdom to know
When the peacemaker’s time is at hand.


For more information on Operation Respect, visit operationrespect.org.

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