Although the racism and hatred between Israel and its neighbors seems as entrenched as ever, many Mizrahi artists are connecting to their Arab roots. Does this trend portend a brighter future for the Middle East?
In an interview with Al Arabiya several years ago, popular Israeli singer Zehava Ben stated that she was interested in performing throughout the Arab world, and especially in Beirut and Gaza. Israel’s security system forbade her entrance into the Strip, due to the fact that Hamas rules the territory. In a later interview, she said that her dream is to perform in Cairo’s Opera House, where her favorite singer,Umm Kulthum, once regularly performed. Ben’s words express the natural desires of many Mizrahi Jews in Israel to connect to the roots of the Arab culture in which their parents lived for generations. Mizrahi music represents the longing of almost half of the state’s citizens for the elements of Arab culture that they know so well. But beyond the question of origin, history and biography, it is a question of Israel’s place in the Middle East, which affects every citizen, Mizrahi or not.
When Israeli music begins exporting Arabic culture to its neighbors, both near and far, it will be able to grow its popularity and double or even triple its sales. Mizrahi-Mediterranean culture can jump over that barrier and draw new audiences. Today, we know that many people in neighboring countries, and certainly in the occupied territories, know and love songs by Eyal Golan and are well-versed in new Mizrahi-Israeli music. It will be easier to sell Mizrahi music in the Mashriq (the geographical region between Iran and Egypt) and the Maghreb (from Egypt to Morocco) in parallel to cultural exports to the U.S. and Europe. It’s important to mention that more than a few Israeli success stories in Europe maintained their Arabic sound, such as Ofra Haza.
Maor Adri covers Syrian singer Wafik Habib’s 2012 hit “Yalla Yalla”:
Music and culture have an additional role. Should we be able to export Mizrahi culture to Arab countries, it is likely to reduce the tension and hatred against Israel. The Arab bloc will no longer see Israel as a vestige of European colonialism that came to settle on Palestinian land. They will understand that over a million Jews arrived in Israel from Arab countries, and maintained their Arab identity, which is expressed in music and culture.
Israeli society today cannot see its place between Beirut, Amman and Cairo. But anyone who listens to the many versions by some of Israel’s best singers (Sarit Hadad, Omer Adam, Maor Adri and many others) will discover that they regularly release covers of Arabic songs in Hebrew. There exists today a contemporary Israeli culture that is effectively in dialogue with a contemporary Arab culture, but no one speaks about it openly. There is a conspiracy of silence around the issue. Zehava Ben was brave enough to openly say that her dream is to perform in the same auditorium as Umm Kulthum in Cairo. But Ben is not speaking out of nostalgia – she is up to date and wants, like other artists, to update her work and create new art that corresponds, influences and is influenced by its surroundings. This is the reason that Ben’s album of Umm Kulthum songs made it to the Arab world (despite the boycott), along with albums in Arabic by Ofer Levi, Sarit Hadad and Sharif. Even albums by singers such as Yasmin Levy, who is very successful in Turkey, or Rita with her album in Persian, which made it to Iran (among other countries), or the Moroccan-Israeli singers, who transcend musical horizons within Israel and outside of it.
Omer Adam performs “Wai Li,” a song by Lebanese artist Fares Karam which was originally released in 2009:
The awaited change won’t only come from the Jewish side. It was an important event when Lina Makhoul, a Christian Palestinian from the city of Acre, won first place on Israel’s The Voice television show. Professor Yossi Yonah sees her victory as indicative of Palestinian citizens’ desire to integrate into Israeli culture. Nasreen Kadri’s victory on the second season of Eyal Golan is Calling You, which Israeli educator and activist Shira Ohayon called “a revolution on live television,” was a big step in that direction. Our shared lives here are not only full of negativity, racism and loathing – they also portend a new-old cultural development despite years of political and cultural deadlock that has been forced on us from above. Israel will find its place in the Middle East with the development of Jewish-Arab (as exemplified by Zehava Ben), and Arab-Jewish culture (as exemplified by Lina Makhoul and Nasreen Kadri). The success of these mixed cultures will only bring prosperity.
Nasreen Kadri and Ofer Nissim perform “Sawah” by Egypt’s Abdel Halim Hafez:
The publication in Yedioth Ahronoth of a photo showing haredim barbecuing in Jerusalem‘s Sacher Park on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day was a wise move. Freedom of speech is an important value. It would be wrong to suppress a photograph that makes us uncomfortable, especially because it is dangerous to deny the problem and pretend it doesn’t exist.
Many haredim, like many secular people, do not always agree with the hegemonic narrative of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The desire to play down this difference does not sit well with freedom of speech. The media have the right and the duty to print troubling photos pointing to conflicts that occur on sensitive days like Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism.
We must not try to prettify reality. Most of the haredim who held barbecues on Sunday evening knew that it was the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. No one in Israel could miss this. Everyone — Arab or Jews, secular or religious, rich or poor, knows this is a remembrance day that unites the entire nation and should be honored.
But those people knowingly chose to demonstrate disrespect for those Holocaust survivors still among us. We don’t have to compare their actions to sacrilege, as did Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger. After all, this national holiday was created by the state, which is no one’s spiritual authority. People are free to go wherever they want on any day they want. Still, if the celebrants examined their own consciences, they might have decided to behave differently.
Voices will emerge saying that these are merely the bad apples of haredi and Orthodox society. But this is disrespectful toward those who oppose the Zionist narrative. The haredi story is not the same as the story of Zionism. It is a story that is opposed in its thought processes to the hegemonic story of the State of Israel. The symptom — Orthodox Jews who barbecue on Holocaust Day — belies a problem that goes deeper than we think. I am not saying this to incite. I am saying this because the reality is that cultures are not identical and we need to be aware of that.
We have to ask hard questions about education in the haredi world and the place of the Holocaust in it. We must not accept the glib theological answers of Orthodox religious education. The heads of the community and the community itself must do some serious soul-searching about how they relate to Holocaust Remembrance Day. If the opposite were to occur and the values of Orthodox Jews were to be treated with public disrespect, this would generate a furor.
Even if people within the haredi community make light of the barbecue, saying it was carried out by those on the margins of haredi society, we must not accept this explanation. We must be revolted by the deep rejection many haredim express towards the most basic values of Jewish society. I am not saying that everyone has to mourn in the same way, but it is important to honor public space. If the rules of that space were to change, then we would reassess our judgment.
There are different ways of rebelling against Israel and its laws. Some people make their act of rebellion political while others rebel more quietly. We must not make light of such disrespectful rebellions. The phenomenon is widespread and needs thorough treatment.
Poetry made of charms
In order to write, I fill my room with charms. These magical objects transform my simple wooden desk into a space crafted from unknown magic, with no beginning or end. The east opens, and I can see a new world – reaching all the way to the dark edges of town.
I start collecting my charms: a vintage photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron entitled “I Wait”; An old photo of me standing next to Nadav Cohavi RIP, from the time we had a band in LA; A gray plastic elephant my girlfriend Ayala got me, a magical cat standing at the gates of the ancient world of eternity, which I bought during a visit to the Pyramids many years ago; a Palestinian postcard from old Jaffa to complete them all.
I look at them surrounding me, and start hearing an old but new melody of prayer.
A spirit of Love and social change.
Mati Shemoelof, Tel Aviv/Israel
As the end of the year approaches, more and more people speak of the end of the world, but not of the beginning. Where is the hope? How can we create a vision for the rest of our lives?
For a while, the entire world was preoccupied with the question of whether the world would end this year. Children and adults alike engaged in interpretations of the Mayan prophecy. All predictions about the world ending were proved wrong, so this is the best time to mention that hope is not lost. It will be 2013 soon, and our wonderful planet continues to spin.
A century ago, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, hope flooded the world, due to many scientific discoveries. People believed that we would create a new and spectacular planet. Books were written predicting science’s ability to end the stasis and stagnation in place since the Middle Ages. Writer Jules Verne, through his science fiction novels, tried to imagine how science could feed the masses and alleviate their distress. Walt Whitman, one of the great American poets of the 19th century, who practically invented modern free verse poetry, viewed the new era as a harbinger of democracy and human freedom. Art reached new heights of creativity, from Italian cubist futurism to surrealism. Everyone discussed mankind’s great promise. Our imaginations went wild and tried to conceive of a new society of mass transport, industry and big cities.
Two world wars reduced that hope. It was let down from the flagpole and later forgotten. As the 21st century was born, we were not envisioning a renewed spirit. On the contrary, the world was buried in visions of its end and fears of mass suicide. Anxiety took hold of our children’s faces.
In our era, what connects the world’s population is the Internet. New technologies continuously appear, becoming more advanced every day. We have the ability to transfer data from one end of the world to another. Powerful connections and the ability to share through social networks have become central to our lives. The universal vision has become practical, but it has not yet been realized as we form an image of the future.
Lack of imagination is one of the reasons for end-of-the-world prophecies. Our imagination is both flawed and limited. It is so difficult for us to imagine a future. How do we create a new fantasy? What are the components necessary for a daring, progressive, forward thinking and avant-garde ideal for us to hold on to into the future? For any person who envisions possibilities for the brain, mind and human consciousness, these are pertinent questions.
One appropriate solution would be to create a broader horizon for our imaginations so we can construct a suitable vision. We need to have something to look forward to in the future, an anchor of sorts. This vision must contain all of our needs and desires in times as crazy as these. If humanity could agree on a vision, perhaps our children wouldn’t be busy learning dubious interpretations of history written long ago. A true vision would help us see the future more clearly.
This new imagination could be the beginning of a world with prophecies about the future, instead of the end of the world. But where are these prophets and prophetesses? And why don’t they occupy a more central place in our lives? Why don’t they have a loud shofar with which to sound their prayers for the future? Why is the new prophecy in the second decade of this millennium unable to excite the masses?
The night that Hurricane Sandy struck the Caribbean coast, CNN described how the storm hit New Jersey. Only a few sharp-eyed people noticed the small line at the bottom of the screen that mentioned fatalities in the Caribbean islands. None of the reporters in the studio spoke of the destruction there.
The hurricane once again revealed what goes on behind the scenes of the media’s coverage. As it turns out, the hurricane did not skip over the Caribbean Islands on its way to the United States.
The number of known fatalities in the islands currently stands at 70, of which 54 occurred in Haiti, 11 in Cuba, and several in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas. The combined population of the islands is around 40 million people who are exceptionally exposed to natural disasters such as Sandy.
Haiti was devastated by the hurricane. Agricultural crops, those in storage and those under preparation for the winter, as well as the warehouses in which they were stored, were destroyed. In Cuba, more than 200,000 homes were damaged and only a small portion of the country’s renowned coffee beans were saved. In other islands, crops were ruined when the people who harvest them were forced to wait until the storm ended. Throughout the Caribbean there is widespread fear of potential disease from contaminated waters.
In Jamaica, authorities imposed a two-day curfew, which was promptly violated by people who looted shops. More than 70 percent of the people who relied on electricity from the country’s only provider were left without power for days.
Damage to private homes and public infrastructure in the Bahamas was assessed at around $300 million.
Why didn’t the media cover the tremendous tragedy that befell the Caribbean? Was it too hard for people to fathom the damages? Of course not. Are the Caribbean Islanders unimportant? They too are people, but apparently reality proves otherwise.
The destruction in the Caribbean caused by Sandy was a double-edged sword. Not only was there damage to both people and property, but the destitute survivors who reside on the islands now face starvation (supply routes were damaged), endemic diseases (Haitians fear an outbreak of cholera) and rising costs of food products.
The media, which is supposed to take a balanced approach to reporting events around the world, focused on the U.S. and relegated the Caribbean tragedy to a mere footnote, and in so doing possibly denied the islands much-needed world aid.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who went from the storm straight into the elections, symbolizes the upward mobility of the downtrodden. But like other politicians, he too gives precedence to Americans suffering from the results of the hurricane, despite his promises of aid to the weaker elements in society. Take, for example, the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, which is still in operation despite Obama’s promise to shut it down during his previous election campaign. Although electricity was also reportedly down in the prison due to the storm, no media outlet cared to cover the conditions of the prisoners there.
What will happen now in the Caribbean? Who will hear their voices? At the moment, there are no clear answers to those questions. There will be no aid for people living in countries that are not reported as suffering. When the world media and politicians consider problems in the Third World a low priority, helpless people have nowhere to turn.
This article was first published on Israel Hayom