In 1995, the musician Stevie Wonder traveled to Israel for the first time to promote his album, “Conversation Peace.”
Over the course of a late summer week, he toured the country, visited holy sites, met with Israeli and Palestinian political officials and performed for “some ten thousand fans,” Reuters reported, outside the gates of Jerusalem in Sultan’s Pool.
“I'm very excited to be in this part of the world for many reasons,” Wonder told the news agency. “Many years ago when I was a little baby and my mother was still troubled with the fact of me being visually impaired, she wanted to take me to the holy city in the hopes that maybe I would get my sight again,” he said.
During his final concert, then-Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert presented Wonder with a medal of Jerusalem. Wonder expressed his gratitude by ad-libbing through one of his best-known songs: “I’m only here… in Jerusalem… because I love you.”
The following day, he met with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s aide, Ahmed Tibi at Tibi’s East Jerusalem home. After presenting Wonder with gifts, the PLO spokesman reportedly said, “[Stevie Wonder] is loved by all – Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs. He's a symbol of study for equality, peace and freedom and we are very proud that you are here between us. We like your songs and we like you,” he told Wonder.
But fast forward to 2012, and Stevie Wonder wouldn’t be caught dead even at a Los Angeles fundraiser for Israel. So the question must be asked: What happened? How in Wonder’s world did Israel go from Holy Land – that can cure blindness! – to hornet’s nest?
Among the various reasons for his withdrawal — and there were many – it was reported on this blog that internal pressure from the African-American community may have played a part. And while it would be irresponsible and brash to extrapolate from this one occurrence, of which we know so little, any sweeping conclusions about the current state of relations between the Jewish and black communities, it does seem like a good time to revisit this historic alliance and ask serious questions about its perdurability.
Whatever the status of the macro-relationship between Jews and African-Americans, Jews have shown themselves to be a strong voting bloc for Obama, the first black President. In the aftermath of yet another historic moment when the American people (and indeed a majority of Jews) have chosen to re-elect a black President over a patrician white guy, and who, coincidentally, will inaugurate his second term on Martin Luther King Jr. day, there's evidence that we are entering a post-racial world.
Furthermore, the Jewish holiday of Chanukah is yet another reminder of the power of individuals and groups to take a stand and change the course of history. There was a time when Jews and blacks were united in their dream for civil equality, bonded by a shared past of enslavement and the miracle of worldly redemption. During the civil rights era, these partners walked side-by-side. They worked together tirelessly to realize not a goal, but a civic good: the American political affirmation of b’tzelem elohim – that all men are created in God’s image.
But just a few weeks ago, someone prevailed upon an old friend not to express his friendship for the Jewish ancestral homeland. The same place this man once walked and sang, bringing with him the light of peace, the illumination of music and the possibility for healing has now become a moral morass.
Was Wonder’s pullout a critique of Israeli policy? An act of cowardice or fear? Or just a quiet opt-out? If he wasn’t acting of his own volition, what does it tell us about the resounding effects of behind-the-scenes influencers and their values? Does it reveal something about the status of the relationship between blacks and Jews?
To be sure, the relationship between the two communities has evolved, sometimes messily, in the years since 1963. But is that alliance now broken? Or simply a reasonable disagreement between friends? It would seem that if reasonable Jews can disagree with each other about Israel, than reasonable people outside of the Jewish community also have that right.
To be fair to Wonder, it is understandable how the perpetual politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be a muddled mire for a star, but it is also a quandary in need of new light.
For now, it is too soon to know what all of this means, if this will prove a standalone event or a portent of further discord. It is the black hole, the space not seen, its presence revealed by the glittering dust particles floating around it. And yet, now that that perimeter has pushed up against politics, what do we do?
Do we write off the abandonment of a friend as a victory for our enemies? Or do we try to win our friend back? Do we try to fill the frozen silence with words, with compassion, with the virtue of our cause and with love?