The West Bank Meets Dixie

If and when the West Bank settlers are forced to relocate, there will no doubt be a painful rift in Israeli society. Most observers estimate that at least 70,000 will be forced to move under the terms of any projected Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Writing in The Huffington Post in November, Brent Sasley and I discussed various strategies the Israeli government might employ to get settler buy-in any future peace agreement. But one thing we didn't mention that may help ease the transition is a good song.

Songs have been an important part of Israeli nation building since the earliest days of Jewish settlement in Palestine. Zionism was animated by lyrics such as "Eretz Yisrael sheli yafa v'gam porachat!" ("My land of Israel is beautiful and blossoming!"). Naomi Shemer's "Jerusalem of Gold" came to define the post-Six Day War era as Israelis were reunited with the remnants of the Second Temple. And the night Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by one of his own countrymen, Rabin had just finished leading thousands of activists at a peace rally in a rendition of "Song of Peace." The assassin's bullet pierced the folded lyrics in the prime minister's shirt pocket, leaving a bloody artifact behind.

Soon after, renowned Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer translated Walt Whitman's poem "O Captain! My Captain!" to Hebrew and set it to music. Whitman's commemoration of Lincoln's assassination peppered with Civil War references deeply resonated with both a scarred America in 1865 and a traumatized Israel in 1995 seeking to uphold Rabin's legacy.

Mass settler relocation will entail the settlers needing to translate their collective defeat into a common good. At Jewish summer camp, we spent many nights rewriting Hebrew lyrics to English ditties. If I were somehow to be commissioned to write a post-relocation settler anthem, it might be to the tune of one of my favorite songs, another about the American Civil War: "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," by The Band.

Robbie Robertson's 1969 tribute to the American South served as a point of healing for the Cain-and-Abel struggle of the Northern Union fighting the Southern Confederates. By all accounts, the Union had justice on its side with its anti-slavery mission. But not everyone in the south was fighting on behalf of slavery. Many were trying to preserve what they saw as their collective rights in the face of Northern political and economic infringement. And most were simply drawn into the idea of protecting their brethren in battle.

What The Band's song did so well was enable Southerners to gain a bit of empathy from the millions of others who either were Northerners themselves, or who generally identified with Lincoln's anti-slavery message. 40 years later, the song continues to unify the disparate American narratives.

Hearing Levon Helm singing "Like my father before me, I will work the land; like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand. He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave," helps us understand Southern anguish in a way we might not otherwise. Though many fans of the song have little sympathy for the Confederate position, they are moved by the wail of defeat. So too, a West Bank settler anthem will give voice to those who are forced by their government to give up land in pursuit of peace. This channel of expression might in and of itself serve to ease the transition.

Five years after The Band's anthem, Lynyrd Skynyrd released "Sweet Home Alabama." It was a rebuttal to Neil Young's "Southern Man," Young's scathing indictment of Southern racism. But as musically awe-inspiring as "Sweet Home Alabama" is, it lacks the depth and heft of raw, Dixie emotion that The Band conveyed in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

Who will write the settler's song? Ron Eliran's anthem to the Sinai, "A-sharm-a-sheikh," written as Israel captured the territory from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War, was an ode to the coastal town of Sharm el-Sheikh. We sang the song obsessively at my Canadian summer camp the year Israel withdrew from the Sinai, and we continued to sing it for many summers hence. Whatever side of the land-for-peace view one was on, the song's haunting beauty helped capture Jewish dreams of grainy sand and salty sea, framed by the mountain range where Revelation was believed to have taken place.

The West Bank is similarly evocative. With East Jerusalem and the Old City at its psychic epicenter, the West Bank channeled the longings of even many secular Israelis. But Israel will have to come to terms with its eventual withdrawal of large chunks of the land. Most Israelis are in favor of a two-state solution. No one wants an Israeli civil war, and no one wants another Middle East leader to have to pay the ultimate sacrifice for making peace. A territorial lament might just help.