Izhar Ashdot is an Israeli rock legend, a founding member of Tislam, the most successful Israeli band of all time, and a solo performer in his own right. He has long been a left-wing activist and often performs at Meretz (left-wing social democratic political party) rallies. Generally an adored musician, Ashdot has found himself in the center of a controversy that is rocking Israeli society in a different way than he is used to.
This week the Director of Galatz גל"צ, one of the two nationwide radio stations operated by the IDF, ruled that Ashdot’s latest song עניין של הרגל “A Matter of Habit” could not be performed or played on the station. While Galatz is an army radio station run by the Ministry of Defense, this has not stopped it being a voice of free expression and a lynchpin in the cultural development of the State of Israel. For Galatz to censor or ban a song is almost unheard of. And banning an Izhar Ashdot song… unthinkable.
I had already heard rumors on the blogosphere as to the problematic nature of the song including a couple of open letters from would-be politicians/minor celebrities questioning Ashdot’s thinking; but until Galatz banned the song I hadn’t taken the time to listen to it. With a fellow Israeli in my office I pulled the song up on YouTube and we watched the official music video. You can find it here.
There is no doubt this is a painful song which sets its sights on Israeli society and in particular the Army for creating a culture of fear and hatred which make killing “a matter of habit”. This exaggerated and one-sided criticism tempers a deeper message in the song, as Ashdot really seems to be saying that we have backed ourselves into a corner, convinced ourselves that it is us against the World and placed our existential threats on a pedestal that has become identity defining.
Ashdot claimed in an interview that, “A song becomes political when it is treated in that way.” But some might argue that a song becomes political when it contains the line, “Patrolling all night in the Kasbah of Shechem. Hey what here is ours and what is yours?”
We have a habit in Israel of making valid points in such strong words, sometimes even extremist, that the original message is lost. (As an aside, in America I have found the exact opposite: valid points made in such weak, consensual language that I can no longer identify the original message.) Peace Now is against Settling the West Bank, a legitimate opinion, yet they often portray Settlers as the enemy and use overly painful terms in describing their opponents. Likud often questions the validity of biased human rights organizations run by Israelis who are funded by foreign governments, again a legitimate opinion, but by framing these organizations as traitors, the argument loses its own validity.
Ashdot has fallen in this trap. He ends the song with the words, “To learn how to love, is a matter of delicacy.”, and it’s a shame that he hasn’t heeded his own advice. For, with all the delicacy of a hammer Ashdot has saddened and angered mainstream Israel with an apparent attack on the most beloved institution (the IDF), when he could have artistically side-stepped naming names and had a deeper effect. We can’t really blame him, it’s all a matter of habit.
As the proud father of a five year-old girl I must be prepared that any loose papers left lying about the house will soon be adorned with hearts, glitter paint and pictures of little girls with disproportionately large heads holding flowers. And this was exactly what I encountered when gathering the newspaper articles I had printed on Friday to take to shul. Every Friday I print a series of articles from the Israeli site of Haaretz to read over Shabbat. In Washington, Yediot Achronot is the only printed Israeli newspaper available and I think I’d rather not be able to read than have to solely read Yediot. So I print my regular columnists and some news pieces, generally opinion articles by people who think similarly to me so that I can shake my head and share their disgust, as I sit in shul. As an aside, I have increasingly noticed that the more pious congregants give me an affirming head nod as they pass me, possibly mistaking the Hebrew text I am reading for a Rabbinic pilpul (sharp analysis) on the weekly portion rather than a rant from an Arab-Israeli journalist or the TV column. This in mind I was somewhat perturbed by the concentric hearts on lollipop sticks that now bordered my Shabbat secret reading. I took a look at the article that had been defaced, expecting to see something about the Iranian threat, or the threat of making empty threats, and found that it was actually an article about the new look of Hapoel Tel Aviv Football Club. This is a story that I have been following closely, not just because I like the team, but the developments in the club represent something very positive in Israeli society.
As in many societies, sports in Israel transcend the activities on the field and meld themselves into our political life and ideologies. Israeli soccer consistently mirrors developments, and sometimes catalyzes them from broader society. Israel may not have won any medals in sports that only enjoy spectators once every four years at the Olympics, but this has been an exciting build up to the Soccer season. Kiryat Shemona almost broke into the European Champions League, and Hapoel Tel Aviv successfully won a place in the Europa League. But more interestingly, after a season of tumultuous fan-owner relations, the club was bought out by a consortium led by none other than the former Government minister and head of the Union Movement, Haim Ramon. Ramon promised a grassroots organization of fans that they could buy 50% of the club through a scheme where every fan is sold a share for 500 shekalim. Since these developments in July, the club has been reinstating management figures from the past and even seen Ramon travelling to Germany to buy back the loved midfielder, Gili Vermouth.
These developments at Hapoel are similar to the grassroots movement by fans to buy the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team and the successful fan-led takeover of the Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball team. It can only be linked to the social protest movement in Israel and the way in which ideology is making a reappearance to counter the rampant consumerism that was starting to get the upper hand.
I took the article to shul as it forms a commentary on the state of the Jewish People today, it is the rich subtext that makes the metatext so tangible, and it is read best when accompanied by the reading of our ancient text in the background.
Our power has been out since Friday night, the temperature is a degree above sweltering, the kids’ day camps are closed and we’re staying at my wife’s uncle’s house. I know that we are not alone in this as millions are still without power, and that it isn’t exactly the Trials of Job; but Im still kinda surprised at the American reaction to a very Israeli problem.
The power outages that seem to be a regular occurrence here in summer and winter and take multiple days to rectify are for American society an anomaly, and a small taste of what is a way of life for us in Israel. To my untrained eye the problem seems to be that it would be too expensive to put the power lines underground; there are pressure groups (environmentalists) who do not want to see tall overhanging trees cut down; and there is a monopoly in the form of PEPCO our electricity provider. I’m starting to feel at home with the classic Israeli equation:
lack of budgets + interest groups + lack of government policy + systemic market failures = a dead end status quo + no hope
Apparently there is nothing that can be done but put up with long regular power outages. Right, you put man on the moon but you cant find a solution for this. The truth is that we very quickly accept the reality we find ourselves in and when the majority is not questioning the legitimacy of this reality, neither do we. I was in shul on Shabbat (no lights, no AC, still whisky – so at least my basic needs were met) and a kid said too loudly “we should stop paying our utility bill!”, there were polite smiles and some nodding but clearly none of these people were going to stop paying for electricity. When this kind of system failure is a glitch in the regularity of your everday life, then apparently people wont go to the barricades for it.
In Israel we may not have power outages but our electricity company חברת החשמל is an illegal monopoly which by order of the Knesset must be dissolved. However this order has been in effect more than twenty years and the very politicians who should be overseeing this process have been keeping the electricity company alive and well in exchange for bloc voting by their unions in the primaries which decide the party list. Let me just condense that for you: the electricity company is not being dissolved in exchange for personal political gain. This has been done openly and is the norm with other powerful monopolies/trade unions. It starts to really sting when you see the cronyism within the electricity company: whole families employed; truck drivers being paid salaries commensurate with Hi-Tech CEOs; and free electricity for employees. I’m getting hot under the collar even with the power on.
You see when inequality and market failure is not merely a flaw in the system or a by-product of incompetence but endemic to society, then people are willing to go to the streets. And here we are at the beginning of a long hot summer, and the Israeli Protest Movement 2.0 has kicked off with a controversial bang. Already having lost its luster as a “festival of democracy” with splinter groups of violent protesters and an overly aggressive reaction from the police at the first major demonstration (it wasn’t Bahrain but people did get seriously hurt); taking to the streets is looking more like what it really represents: a frustrated last ditch attempt at righting some wrongs.
Last week the Birthright Alumni Mission was in Israel. The Alumni Mission is a cutting-edge program which takes future leaders from the Greater Washington community back to Israel on a second, leadership focused Birthright. It is an inspirational group who enjoy an inspirational itinerary in Israel, and one of the components was learning more about the Israeli protest movement, from grass roots activists. The protest movement is a great case-study for those dealing with a generally apathetic generation in America who hav en’t rallied around a cause to protest about. It is also heartening to see the Jewish establishment embracing the right and value of protesting.
However admirable patience and order in society are, we should also appreciate the rawness needed to create change. America may be preserving civil society by being civil; Israel is fighting for civil society and sometimes behaving uncivilly to that end. We have much to learn from each other. If our major goal is not to create a positive stability in our a societies, than what is it? But if we are not fighting to right the wrongs that exist in our societies, then what are we doing?
Either way, I’d really like the AC back on.
Last week I was on vacation with my family in the Southern United States. On Shabbat my kids spent the majority of the day in the motel pool with a Baptist church group from Mississippi. My mind boggled when my wife reminded me that 50 years ago this would not have been possible, as Tennessee State Law (we were in the Smoky Mountains) forbade “integrated” swimming pools. And yet to our naïve and untrained eyes everything seemed so natural. It’s not that I am unaware of race tensions in the US, but for an outsider it is almost impossible to correlate the past and the present.
Apart from Army Service there is no institutionalized segregation in Israeli society between Arabs and Jews. Yet there is a de facto segregation created through fear, racism, cultural differences and history. Israeli Jews may have social interactions with members of minorities but these are often token, or the minority member has become so entrenched in Jewish-Israeli society that they are almost indistinguishable anyway. There are exceptions to the rule - Haifa being an obvious example of real coexistence in Israel - but for the most part it holds true. There is a different school system, language and towns forming a barrier between the populations. This leaves one arena where interaction can take place: work. And with an ever more educated native population there is a broader scope for this to happen.
The Prime Minister’s Office is currently airing a TV commercial to publicize that the Government is encouraging employing minority populations through incentives to employers. The commercial (watch it here with English subtitles) shows a job interview with the employer dreaming of all the successes the prospective candidate can bring to his architect’s office: working late; making presentations and designing the latest Tel Aviv monstrosity. Then the employer’s eyes fall on the candidate’s name: Waleed Abu Kareem, (I’m guessing he’s an Arab) but happily the interviewer makes the right choice and offers the job with a handshake.
The commercial is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Even the few words on the screen bluntly explain that this is a project of the “Authority for Economic Development in the Arab, Druze & Circassian Sectors”. Israel is a society of minorities, there are only about 120,000 Ethiopian-Israelis but they are not considered a minority, the word is saved for non-Jewish semitic citizens: Arabs. We are a society continually struggling with the harmonies and inconsistencies of a “Jewish State” and a “Democratic State”; one manifestation is how Israelis with identities other than Jewish are incorporated. The Government of Israel really is trying to stimulate economic equality and integration, but the language used betrays our underlying problems.
We are on a journey, and there are many rays of hope. When people visit Israel today they are probably as bewildered as I am in America by the reality they find compared with the past they have studied. How has this country been built so fast and moved so quickly? I hope in fifty years time we will continue to ask this question, but not while looking at skyscrapers or electric cars, but when looking at our society.
Anton Goodman is the Jewish Agency Israel Engager Shaliach to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Anton is an English-born Israeli, with an interest in implementing social initiatives in Israeli society, cutting-edge culture, and studies towards an MA in Public Policy. In addition to enjoying a heady mix of local politics and soul-lifting Americana, Anton aims to spark debate concerning the State of Israel’s role in American Jewish life. This weekly blog is one platform for that goal.