His heyday as a performing artist may be behind him, but 70-year-old Peter Yarrow is still making important waves across the globe. Yarrow, a member of the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary, best known for the 1963 hit song Puff the Magic Dragon, recently spent a week in Israel furthering local implementation of his highly successful Operation Respect program in the Middle East.

Once feted for his contributions to the 1960s Civil Rights movement – Peter, Paul & Mary marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and performed at King’s rallies – Yarrow has kept up his social activism over the years and in 2000 founded Operation Respect in the United States and other countries around the world, including South Africa, Croatia and Hong Kong.

Quite simply, the program aims to nurture and enhance understanding and tolerance among schoolchildren by promoting civility and conflict resolution. According to Yarrow, the program has been highly successful since its introduction in the US in 2000 where it has been applied in over 20,000 schools.

Hand in hand

Yarrow’s busy schedule in Israel included visits to the Hand in Hand Arab-Jewish bilingual school in Wadi Ara, in the Galilee; a recording of the Operation Respect anthem Don’t Laugh at Me in Hebrew and Arabic; five concerts and a visit to the Shalva Center for Mentally & Physically Challenged Children in Jerusalem.

Yarrow was visibly moved by his visit to the Shalva Center where he sang for, and was entertained by, some of the children. “I have been to places all over the world, and met some inspiring people in my time, but I have never felt anything like this before,” he told ISRAEL21c. “These children are just so full of love and have so much to give.”

Yarrow’s tour in Israel, which was organized by the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, was prompted by an op-ed piece which appeared simultaneously in the Jerusalem Post and in Palestinian newspaper Al Quds following the Acre riots last fall, when Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis fought battles in the streets of this world heritage city.

Yarrow’s crowded agenda in Israel included a performance in Acre with local pop-rock icon David Broza, at the opening of a new American Corner in the Old City of Acre. The American Corner – a mini cultural center – is a partnership with the US Embassy, Acre Community Center, and the Municipality of Acre.

Broza’s grandfather conceived the idea of the highly successful peace village, Neve Shalom, shortly after the 1967 Six Day War. The community, which includes Jews, Muslims, and Christians is still thriving today.

Teach them early to make a difference

Yarrow says that Operation Respect aims to engender values of mutual acceptance from as early an age as possible.

“If you teach kids early on, you can make a difference, there is the possibility of changing things,” says the septuagenarian troubadour, adding that his Jewish upbringing come into play here too.

“Many years ago I realized my Jewishness gave me a sense of carrying on the traditions I had articulated in the songs. Jewishness means to live according to justice, and that’s a burden. That means we have to form our own set of morality and values, and live by them,” he explains.

The Operation Respect material, which can be downloaded for free at the organization’s web site is now being translated in Hebrew and Arabic, and there are plans to introduce it into schools across Israel in the near future.