Tour shows Berkeley students a different face of Israel

Joel Covington, aka Rebel Sun, steps up to the microphone on Lower Sproul Plaza at U.C. Berkeley.

“C’mon everyone, we want to show you a different side of Israel,” he says to the 40 or 50 students who have come 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 made aliyah in 2000, shakes his dreads and begins rapping about the law, freedom, fighting and life in J-town. Jerusalem, that is.

Lee Reed, a local resident passing through campus, admits he doesn’t know much about Israeli music, but he “expected something more traditional sounding.”

That’s the point.

Coolooloosh is part of Isreality 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 usual formula: Instead of bringing American Jews to Israel, as Birthright has done with more than 110,000

people ages 18 to 26, the tour brings Israel to them.

“The arts is a vital connection for this age group,” says Rabbi Daniel Brenner, the vice president of education for the Birthright Israel Foundation. “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.”

Accompanying the musicians are three young Israelis, soldiers and ex-soldiers, acting as unofficial ambassadors, talking to people about what life is like in a country known better for suicide bombers than cutting-edge music.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to reach people who are not attached to Israel, to bring our side,” says Itay Mor, 23, who did his compulsory military service as an Israeli air force medic.

“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 gets his chance after the concert when he deftly defused what was about to erupt into a shouting match between a couple 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 says 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.

The concert 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.

“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. “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.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].