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1989: Israeli protest song is born of three mothers

In the midst of the first intifada, patriotism in Israel was on the rise. It was us (The Israeli military) against them (rioting Palestinians and the hostile international press). Few dared to challenge that axiom.

The music scene certainly didn’t seem eager to do so. With a market as tiny as this, local musicians tend to feel that they have a lot to lose by being controversial. Consequently, Israel had little in the way of a protest song tradition at the time. There was authentic satire in Chanoch Levine’s political cabarets of the 70’s, but these tunes were confined to the theatre stage and never became hits. There was wry criticism in the works of songwriter Yankal’e (Jacob) Rotblit, who lost a leg in the Six Day War, but his material tended to be mild. Even Rotblit’s “Song for Peace”, which criticizes Israel for obsessing with fallen soldiers rather than working to prevent future loss, is palatable to the general public. Many sing it without paying attention to what it actually says.

Then, in the midst of 1989, three very different artists went on to redefine the Israeli protest song with great courage. All three of them were female singers, and all three got sharply criticized for taking a stand. Two of the three actually hurt their careers, and while they both recovered, the memory of drama stuck to their names.

Chava Alberstein was already a hugely acclaimed folk singer. In 1989, on her album “London”, she released this version of “Had Gadia”, an ancient Aramaic song usually sung at the end of the Passover seder.

The original “Had Gadia” recounts a long chain of violent acts: The father buys a lamb, a cat bites the lamb, a dog devours the cat, a stick hits the dog, fire burns the stick, water extinguishs the fire, a cow drinks the water, a buther slaughters the cow, the angel of death kills the butcher and God himself kills the angel of death.

Alberstein sang all of this in a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic. Then, at the end, she offered a new verse, one which alludes to another Passover song: “what has changed”, the song of four questions. A translation of this verse follows.

Why am I singing Had Gadia?
Spring isn’t here and passover hasn’t arrived.
And what has changed? what changed?
This year, I changed.
On all nights, all nights,
I would ask four questions
Tonight I have another question
How much longer will the circle of horror last?
The chased chases, the beaten beats
When will this maddness end?
And what changed? what changed?
This year, I changed.
I was once a sheep and a peaceful lamb
Now I am a leopard and a predator wolf.
I was a dove and I was a deer.
Now I don’t know what I’ve become.

Listeners did not miss Alberstein’s point. She dared to reference the irony of the occupation being maintained by the nation that suffered the holocaust. That was an absolute first. The Israeli public was shocked.

Singer Nurit Galron was also an established star by 1989. She came from a jazz background and sang beautiful musical renditionss of works by modernist Hebrew poets. Her 1989 single “After we’re gone, let the flood come” wasn’t one of these poems. Galron herself wrote its lyrics.

there is a country of stones and Molotov cocktails
and there’s Tel-Aviv, ablaze with nightclubs and obscenity.
There is a country of rebels, who bandage their wounds
And there’s Tel-Aviv, where we party, live, eat and drink.

No, don’t tell me about a little girl
who lost her eye.
It just makes me feel bad, bad, bad.
It just makes me feel bad.

I have no patience for the depressive, tortured types
and I don’t care what’s happening in the territories.
Don’t tell me about “the Yellow Wind”, about detainees and dissenters
We’ll make love, live life
Tel-Aviv is life.

No, don’t tell me about a little girl
Who lost her home.
It just makes me feel bad, bad, bad
It just makes me feel bad.

I have no patience for moralistic types
Lets devour the bustling streets of Tel-Aviv

No, don’t tell me about a little girl
who lost her childhood.
It just makes me feel bad, bad, bad
It just makes me feel bad.

Let’s live Tel-Aviv, it’s right here.
After we’re gone – let the flood come.

Galron’s song was banned on Galei Tzahal (IDF Radio), the dominant, army-run radio network.

A third protest song of the same year stood no chance of being played by Galei Tzahal to begin with. Inspired by punk-music traditions and having nothing to lose to begin with, A young, openly lesbian singer named Sharon Ben-Ezer (who goes today by the name “Eliot”) went further than both Alberstein and Galron. “A Hero from the Defense Forces” was included on the the first album of Ben-Ezer’s band, “Polianna Frank.” She put feminist theory into the mix and truly broke ground.

Here on the clip is a small reminder that not only women expressed outrage. The man seen at its very beginning is Yoav Kunter, a Galei Tzahal DJ. At around the same period he got suspended after dedicating Bob Dylan’s “With God on our side” and Pink Floyd’s “One of these days” to the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane.

The male likes death
It makes him sexually aroused.
Anyway dead from inside – the male wants to die
to cruise in the Jeeps
to complete the training camp
to smoke cheap cigarettes, to improve his tan
to fuck quickly, to always climax first
to get rid of her in two weeks
to pay the bill.

Yes, I’d also like to be a hero in the defence forces
and I’ll also have a beautiful woman waiting for me in bed
and when I’m done taking care of everything
She will give me a hand job and say: ahh! you’re amazing.

To find the one who’s easy, to run and tell the guys
to make a lot of money, to drive the fastest car
to screw the secretary, to drink without worry
always to smell badly and never to cry

Yes, I’d also like to be a hero in the defense forces
and I’ll also have a beautiful woman waiting for me in bed
and when I’m done taking care of everything
She will give me a hand job and say: ahh! you’re amazing.

To be a high ranking officer, to kill the enemies
and always have a hard-on, no problems and no complications
If I could, I’d been a farmer
but meanwhile I’m a violent, happy pig.

Yes, I’d also like to be a hero in the attack forces
and I’ll also have a club to club with.
and when I’m done taking care of everything
She will give me a hand job and say: ahh! you’re amazing.

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    1. sh

      And one of the two national divas since the State’s inception, Yaffa Yarkoni (the Vera Lynn of Israel) didn’t even sing protest, she just talked it. She was promptly dropped like a hot brick by Israel’s ungrateful Union for Performing Artists, never mind the Broadcasting Authority, after a career spanning more than half a century. Luckily for everyone, she succumbed to Alzheimer’s a few years later and her exhortation to soldiers to refuse to serve rather than abuse Palestinians was attributed to that.

      When you look back and see for how long important people have been protesting abuse and comparing it to the big N (if I remember correctly, we’re not allowed to use the word here) to protests infinitely larger and more numerous than we can muster now, to little or no effect, you see how politically useless art and protest songs are. They’re good to chart decline a posteriori, but not to reverse it;

      Reply to Comment
    2. zvi

      What about Corinne El Al and Si Hyman? They had some excellent ‘protest’ songs back than too. For me, Si Hyman’s Shooting and Crying is the quintessential intifada song:
      “Shooting and crying,
      burning and laughing,
      when the hell did we learn to bury people alive?
      burning and laughing,
      when did we forget that they did that they did that to our children too?”

      יורים ובוכים

      ‘Big Hero’ is not bad either

      סי היימן
      גיבור גדול http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpBixMc3PJs

      Reply to Comment
    3. Tom P.

      which Corinne El Al song?

      Reply to Comment
    4. zvi

      There is “אין לי ארץ אחרת” (I don’t have another country) which she did the music for. And also “ארץ קטנה עם שפם” (small country with a moustache) and also “זן נדיר” (a strange breed) which were all rather politically motivated.

      Reply to Comment
    5. It’s true that Hyman deserved a mention (On her album jackets her name is spelled “Hi-Man” in English, but I think as a rock musician she could have afforded to embrace the original). Shooting and Crying” was released already in 1988, but to be honest, I didn’t really register it during that period. The song wasn’t strong enough and only the term, “shooting and crying” stuck. “Big Hero” is a better tune, but doesn’t make a very coherent statement.
      Alal, in my book, falls into the Rotblit category. Her songs hint at political complexities, but never truly grab the dragon by its neck. Having said that, I consider her an amazing musician and her contribution to Israeli culture invaluable.
      As for SH’s comment on futility of such songs. The situation we’re dealing with is dragging on for a mighty long time. By now it seems that everything may be fulite, from peace initiatives to human rights efforts. I refuse to accept this as truth. The first intifada eventually caused unrest in the Israeli psyche, the unrest, expressed through such songs, changed public opinion on the Israeli street and set the ground for the Oslo accords.
      These accords, while they did fail, present an important precedent. We must try again and we have past goodwill from which to draw inspiration. Such songs, as long as they remain in the culture, will not let us forget that what’s hapenning here is a great crime. If and when decent change will come, they will be its seed.

      Reply to Comment
    6. zvi

      I remember a very amusing interview with some politician on galatz about banning these songs. The politician explained why he thought that the songs should be banned (I think it might have been Raful – Rafael Eitan – talking, so some of you can imagine the ‘style’ of the conversation), the DJ asked a few provocative questions, thanked him politely, and then put on one of the songs!

      Reply to Comment
    7. sh

      Yuval, re your point about optimism that some day it will come right, I share it. Music is my world too (level “playing” field :)). But I’m not sure how influential it is in changing things – shir lashalom was written in 1969 and first sung by an IDF army troupe, no less.
      “Don’t look back, let go of those departed. Lift your eyes with hope, not through the rifles’ sights. Sing a song for love and not for wars”

      Maybe instead of looking back at what promised and never delivered, we should be looking at what’s around now. I’ll make a tentative lunge at that dragon’s neck by first considering everyone who holds Israeli nationality as Israeli. Watch this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIo6lyP9tTE
      Today’s Israeli protest song, then, is born of three brothers?

      Reply to Comment
    8. That’s a really outstanding clip, SH, thanks for sharing it.
      I was ever so slightly involved in the struggle surrounding its subject matter, the village of Dahmash, near Ramla in Israel proper, where houses are periodically demolished. We actually got the court to stop the most recent planned demolition, but it’s still a very unlucky place under the sun.
      I first went to Dahmash with “Culture Guerilla”. We put together a poetry event there in order to show solidarity and draw media attention to the struggle. I translated two songs for that event: “In the Neighborhood” by Tom Waits and “Black Boys on Mopeds” by Sinead O’connor. Here’s some bad footage showing Israeli protest song born of foreign parents.
      And here is a post from my old blog about the Dahmash situation.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Nuli

      Why ‘mothers’?

      I say women.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Poliana Frank wrote her song way before the first intifada…

      Reply to Comment
    11. sh

      “These activities bore fruit in the past, especially in matters of labor disputes. Most recently, a judge quoted one of the poems while ruling in favor of the Eckerstein factory laborers, who sought to organize. ”
      From seeing the blog and the clip, Yuval’s modest I think. Fun idea to translate foreign protest songs. I was just thinking this morning when the spoken media talked about Dylan (now kicking off his world tour in China at almost 70 and, we’re told, due here in June) and played a snatch of Blowin’ in the Wind, about its relevance – words in this link: http://www.lyricsfreak.com/b/bob+dylan/blowin+in+the+wind_20021159.html

      Culture Guerilla http://www.gerila.co.il/he/Content.aspx?iid=14
      managed a great poetry evening under the stars in somewhat adverse circumstances (the settlers must have captured and occupied the street lamp switch as well as the house in front of which it took place) in Jerusalem last year. I hadn’t seen them before and it’s great to learn here that stuff they do has actually helped persuade a judge in a legal battle. Such a flood of creativity, courage and goodwill here and still, such a steep climb…

      Reply to Comment