BERKELEY, Calif. (JTA) – Joel Covington, aka Rebel Sun, steps up to the microphone on Lower Sproul, an open space at the University of California, Berkeley.
“C’mon everyone, we want to show you a different side of Israel,” he says to the 40 or 50 students who are milling around to see what’s on offer at today’s free noon concert. “Come in closer, Jerusalem style.”
With that, his band Coolooloosh launches into “Music Business,” a hip-hop, funky jazz number punctuated by a lilting, shifting-sands-in-the-desert Arabian melody on the soprano sax.
Covington, a black Jew from Baltimore who immigrated to Israel in 2000, shakes his dreads and begins rapping about the law, freedom, fighting and life in J-town. Jerusalem, that is.
Many in the audience are taken aback. It’s not what they expect to hear from an Israeli band.
Three female students, who decline to give their names, are shocked.
“No!” one exclaims when told the band is Israeli. “But they’re not speaking Hebrew.”
Lee Reed, a local resident passing through campus, admits he doesn’t know much about Israeli music, but nevertheless “expected something more traditional sounding.”
That’s the point.
Coolooloosh is part of Israelity Tour, a 10-day, six-city tour of the West Coast that is bringing new Israeli music and one-on-one discussions about Israel to college campuses and nightclubs.
The newest project of birthright israel, it’s a reversal of the group’s usual formula: Instead of bringing American Jews to Israel, as birthright has done with more than 110,000 people aged 18 to 26, this tour brings Israel to them.
“We wanted to bring Israelis to the U.S. to encounter young people who may not go to Israel – Jews and non-Jews,” says Rabbi Daniel Brenner, the vice president of education for the Birthright Israel Foundation.
“The arts is a vital connection for this age group. We believe that face-to-face cultural exchange is the only way you can change someone’s image about Israel, an image that may have been completely skewed.”
The tour, which began Feb. 6 in Seattle and ends Feb. 17 in Las Vegas, includes concerts by Coolooloosh, folk-rock singer Michelle Citrin and Israeli hip-hop artist Subliminal and the TACT family.
Accompanying the musicians are three young Israelis, soldiers and ex-soldiers, who are acting as unofficial ambassadors, engaging people they meet in discussions about what life is like in a country known better for wars and suicide bombers than cutting-edge music.
Berkeley is the group’s second stop, and the first time the Israelis are going to be talking to passers-by in an open format. Their handlers are a bit nervous. They’ve heard some anti-Israel activists might show up, and they wonder if it would be wiser to cancel the informal walk through campus they had planned.
But the Israelis aren’t worried. This is why they’re here.
“I don’t want to get into politics with anyone,” explains Itay Mor, 23, who did his compulsory military service as an Israeli Air Force medic. “This is a wonderful opportunity to reach people who are not attached to Israel, to bring our side.”
“I’m a person, not a uniform,” agrees Oren Tzuk, 25. “I believe if they get to see us as people, it creates a dialogue. If you know the person in front of you, it’s easier to talk without hostility.”
Tzuk got his chance after the concert when he deftly defused what was about to erupt into a shouting match between a couple of Muslim students and some of the Isreality entourage.
Stepping in front of an angry young Muslim woman, who was complaining that some in the group were laughing at her views, he said quietly, “I’m here now, talk to me. I’m listening to you.”
Tzuk, Mor and the third Israeli on the tour, 30-year-old Yoli Shwarts, are alumni of Birthright’s “mifgash,” or Encounter program, which brings Israeli soldiers onto birthright buses for half of each 10-day trip.
More than 4,500 Israeli soldiers have taken part in the program. For many this intensive encounter with Diaspora Jews proves as eye opening as the Israel trip is for the Americans.
“I grew up completely secular,” Mor says. “Birthright changed me. I started to learn about Jews around the world, how they think. It made me feel I belong to something bigger than Israel. I’m a lot more connected to my Jewish side now.”
The concert at Berkeley is very low-key. There are no Israeli flags, and one has to look hard even to see the word “Israel” on the sign announcing the show. While the band is playing, a guy quietly hands out flyers about birthright, whose summer registration season began Tuesday.
“This project is not about slogans,” Brenner says. “With all the horrific stereotypes people have about Israeli soldiers, this face-to-face contact is essential.”
Berkeley student Chima Nwankno listens to a few songs before rushing off to class. He’s a hip-hop fan, he says, but this is the first time he’s heard an Israeli band take on the genre.
“Some of the themes might be a little offensive to some people,” he says, referring to Coolooloosh’s lyrics about living close to hostile borders. Nwanko listens to Pakistani hip-hop, he says, which often describes oppression by Israel and the West.
“You don’t usually hear the Israeli point of view when it comes to hip-hip. I’m pretty surprised they got a platform on this campus,” he admits. “But it is good music.”
“That’s exactly what we want,” says Tzuk, when he hears about this student. “He doesn’t have to agree with us, but he listened.”
“I want to break some stereotypes,” she says. “I don’t want them to think Israel is just about ‘Hava Nagila.’ ”