Matti Friedman is an Israeli Canadian journalist and author of The Aleppo Codex and Pumpkinflowers.
An article about Israel on the occasion of the country’s 70th birthday seems to demand some or all of the following words: Trump, war, Iran, Gaza, Netanyahu, Palestinians, Syria, Jerusalem. But Israel isn’t a geopolitical problem – it’s a country, and the tendency to limit discussion of this country to those terms renders invisible much of what makes it interesting. What I find most remarkable, having lived here for the past 23 years, is Israel’s bewildering and fast-moving society, the complexities of which are usually overlooked by observers. The question of what “Israeli” means in 2018, and how that’s changing and why, are particularly important ones at this anniversary. One good way to answer is to listen to pop music.
A telling cultural moment occurred at the official anniversary gala, a glitzy musical extravaganza televised from Jerusalem on April 18 (the date of Independence Day on the Hebrew calendar). The opening number was, predictably, a Hebrew classic, From the Songs of my Beloved Land, with lyrics by Leah Goldberg, a revered poet who features on our 100-shekel banknote. The song describes her “homeland, a land of beauty and poverty,” a place with “seven spring days every year, and cold and rain all the rest.” Goldberg came to Israel from Lithuania, and the words describe her old homeland, not this one; Israel has many problems, but cold and rain aren’t among them. The song is an expression of Israel’s founding generation, orphaned children of eastern Europe. That was the song’s spirit when it became a mainstream hit in 1970 as performed by the singer Hava Alberstein, who’d come to Israel as a child from Poland.
But the singer in a shiny white gown who belted out a cover for a national TV audience was Sarit Hadad, one of Israel’s biggest pop stars and the queen of a genre called “Mizrahi,” or “eastern.” In the hands of Ms. Hadad, who has the style and vocal power of the great divas of the Arab world, and with the addition of instruments such as the oud, the poet’s words were transformed into a song of the Middle East.
Ms. Hadad’s reinterpretation of Beloved Land drew more attention here than you might expect, because it was understood to be more significant than just a song. Israel tends to think of itself as a Western country, and still explains itself with stories about Europe: the dreams of the Vienna visionary Theodor Herzl, the socialist communes of the kibbutz movement, the Holocaust. But the country was founded in the Middle East, not in Europe, and about half of the Jews in Israel have roots not in Europe but in the Islamic countries of the Middle East and North Africa, in cities including Baghdad, Aleppo, and Casablanca. People from those Jewish communities – known these days by the generalization “Mizrahi” – were uprooted by Muslim majorities in the mid-20th century amid rising nationalism and a backlash against Israel’s creation. Most ended up in Israel, turning the country into a more Middle Eastern place than its European Zionist founders had imagined.
The division between Jews from Europe and from the Islamic world remains one of Israel’s most painful fault lines, and it has played out in pop music. For many years, the Mizrahi sound was scorned by the curators of Israeli culture and kept on the margins. In record stores, you’d have a section for “Israeli” music, meaning mostly music by artists of European ancestry and orientation, and a separate section for “Mizrahi” or “Mediterranean” music, even though this music, too, was in Hebrew and produced in Israel. There was a time when you could barely get Mizrahi music played on the radio, and anyone who wanted to keep up with the latest hits had to go to a cluster of scruffy cassette shops around the Tel Aviv bus station. That reality was an expression of the broader disenfranchisement of Israelis from the Islamic world, who were rarely spotted in the academy or in the corridors of power.
Recent years have seen a reversal. Mizrahi music is now the country’s leading pop genre. When the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot published a list of the most-played songs of the year in 2017, the paper’s political reporter Amihai Attali remarked on Twitter that all 15 of the artists were Mizrahi: “Anthropologically, it’s an incredible statistic,” he wrote. These days, it’s Mizrahi performers who fill the biggest venues. Stalwarts of the old music scene line up for collaborations with stars such as Ms. Hadad, which would have been unthinkable 10 or 15 years ago.
The Israeli army’s official 70th anniversary song (yes, there is such a thing), released in early March and sung by a military entertainment troupe, is also a cover of an Israeli classic, Don’t Worry, a comic number popular after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the song, a soldier at the front writes to reassure his girlfriend that he has plenty of time to rest “between bombardment and barrage,” and asks her to send fresh underwear. The original is very much a product of the style and sentiment of the young Israel. But the new cover makes it a product of the present by adding a reggae beat and a Mizrahi twist, featuring two up-and-coming Mizrahi singers doing their mandatory army service, and adding warbling Mideastern-style vocals.
Not everyone loves this development, or what it signifies. Asked last month for his opinion of a different Mizrahi cover by Ms. Hadad, this one of a 1974 hit by the beloved Israeli rock band Kaveret, band member Efraim Shamir called the new version “a musical ISIS” – that is, a particularly Middle Eastern kind of desecration. He was echoing an infamous comment from Tommy Lapid, a late politician and Cabinet minister born in Yugoslavia : Asked for his take on a Mizrahi song, Mr. Lapid joked, naming a Palestinian city, that “we didn’t conquer Tulkarm, Tulkarm conquered us.”
The contentious politician responsible for this year’s anniversary celebrations – and for Ms. Hadad’s cover – is the Culture Minister, Miri Regev, a combative voice known for railing against the old cultural elites. Ms. Regev, who is of Moroccan descent, belongs to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, whose political base has traditionally been heavy on Israelis with roots in the Islamic world. Ms. Regev regularly stokes nationalist sentiment and is reviled on the left; the liberal daily Haaretz has called her “Trump in high heels.”
Ms. Regev has said publicly that Arabic music “has something to offer Israeli culture,” and, in her post at the Culture Ministry, has made it her business to push the Middle Eastern sound to center stage. Last year’s Independence Day celebration starred Nasreen Qadri, a popular performer in the Mizrahi genre who is Arab – something that didn’t seem to happen under culture ministers from the left, who might have wanted a peace agreement with the Arab world but didn’t think much of Arab culture, or of the Israeli Jews who share that culture. It’s a useful lesson for anyone who believes that Israel’s politics can be easily understood or categorized.
The rise of the Middle Eastern sound, impossible to ignore on this anniversary, shows how the margins here have moved to the centre. Ms. Hadad’s new Mizrahi cover of a classic about rainy Europe was akin to the planting of a flag, a way of saying, This country is mine, and so is this song. For years, some observers feared that Israel would tear along the ethnic fault line between Jews from the Islamic world and those from Europe, that the country’s constituent parts were simply too different from each other, and the effort to make them one people – Israelis – would fail. Despite regular tremors and jolts, that hasn’t happened. This society and its 70-year-old identity have proven strong enough, and flexible enough, to change and remain whole.