Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israeli musicians transcend political divides to connect with Middle Eastern fans

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Boycotting and isolating Israel culturally, economically, and politically has long been one of the goals of many of Israel’s neighbours in the Middle East, and more recently, of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The aim is to delegitimise Israel and discourage any type of “normalisation” with Israel or any Israeli - they must be always treated as beyond the pale.

Protests against anything perceived as constituting “normalisation” with Israel abound throughout the Middle East, and calls by Egyptian presidential candidates to reconsider the 1979 peace treaty with Israel emphasise this reality. For example, just last week an Algerian rower pulled out of a heat in a competition in Germany because one of his competitors was Israeli.

Meanwhile, activists in Western countries place tremendous pressure on artists not to perform in Israel, or allow Israeli performers in their own countries (a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” by Israel’s HaBima Theatre theatre in London was recently disrupted by anti-Israel protesters , an ABC radio report on efforts to force musicians to cancel tours of Israel is here, and Irish writer Gerard Donovan explains the bullying he was subjected to in an attempt to force him to boycott an Israeli festival here.).

It is revealing, then, that growing numbers of people throughout the Middle East are themselves disobeying the call of the anti-normalisation and BDS movements by listening to music by Israeli artists.

Several Israeli musicians have recently succeeded in developing large fan bases throughout the Middle East, building bridges between societies through their music. Their ability to transcend boycotts and hostility is a testament to the power of music to unite in spite of all that could otherwise divide. It is also, perhaps, Israel’s best weapon against delegitimisation campaigns. Their success in creating extended networks of music fans has also caught the attention of the region’s most despotic leaders - who see it as a dangerous threat – and exposes the hollowness of the BDS message.

One such example is Iranian-born Israeli singer Rita Jahanfarouz (generally known simply as “Rita”), whose popularity in Iran has raised the ire of the Iranian government. Her Persian-language songs have struck a chord with many Iranians who don’t care that she is Israeli but enjoy her modern twists on beloved classic Persian melodies. Her Persian songs are also popular in Israel. The fact that Iranians consume her music at great personal risk and with much discretion only proves the depth of Rita’s popularity there.

The Iranian government has attacked Rita as the “latest plot in a soft war” to undermine the Iranian people. American commentator Matthew Ackerman sees Rita’s musical appeal as also having a political aspect in that:

“Rita’s existence – and the personal liberty it implies for both herself and her many Israeli fans – is the force most likely to permanently dislodge the Ayatollah’s grip over his country. For it is the yearning for a similar freedom that drew millions of Iranians into the streets three years ago, and that is driving some of them now to seek out her music.”

Watch Rita singing her 2011 Persian-language hit single "Shaneh" here. (YouTube)

Another example is the Israeli hard-rock band Orphaned Land, which draws on Jewish, Christian and Muslim liturgical sources as inspiration in their music. They too have found a large following throughout the Middle East. Orphaned Land performs several times a year in Turkey, and fans flock to their concerts from countries from North Africa to Iran, exposing the band to audiences that may have otherwise never heard their message. The band enjoys such popularity that it was even awarded the Turkish Friendship and Peace Award in 2010 by Dr. Huseyin Tugcu, one of Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan's official advisers.

Watch Orphaned Land performing their song "Norra El Norra" from their 2004 album "Mabool" here. (YouTube)

While it would appear that this trend of Israeli musicians finding willing audiences, however discrete the listeners must be, in the Arab and Muslim world is recent, its origins actually date back several decades to the music of Ofra Haza. One of the first Yemenite Jewish popular singers in Israel and considered one of that country’s first pop stars, Haza drew heavily on her Yemenite roots and did much to popularise Middle Eastern music in Israel. She also developed a broad international following. Her Yemenite and Middle Eastern music in particular gained popularity throughout the Middle East, with her song "Im Nin’Alu" becoming a major hit throughout the region. (Haza sadly passed away in 2000 at the age of only 42, just as her international career was peaking.)

Watch Ofra Haza performing her hit song "Im Nin'Alu" here. (YouTube)

While Rita and Orphaned Land are among the most prominent Israeli musical artists continuing to enjoy success in the Middle East’s ever-changing political tides, the works of Israeli artists Noy Alooshe and Amir Benayoun have been swept up by precisely those tides.

Noy Alooshe's YouTube mash-up "Zenga Zenga," which mocks Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, was popular among Libyan opposition fighters and inspired Syrian opposition leaders to ask Benayoun to write Arabic songs for their opposition fighters, which he did.

Watch Noy Alooshe's "Zenga, Zenga" here. (YouTube) 

Listen to Amir Benayoun's "Zini," one of the songs written on behalf of the Syrian opposition fighters here. (YouTube)

All of these artists have achieved what still eludes politicians and diplomats. They have been able to do so largely because they have Israel’s dynamic, multicultural musical heritage to draw on.

Israel’s Middle Eastern immigrants, who along with their descendants make up roughly half of the country’s Jewish population, brought their musical traditions with them to Israel from around the Middle East.

Today’s artists can thus build bridges between cultures kept apart due to conflict, and they have introduced a positive face of Israel and its free society to places whose leadership would much prefer otherwise.

What’s more, Israeli artists are able to show their newfound audiences that they share far more in common, particularly regarding their Middle Eastern cultural heritage, than advocates of boycotts would prefer them to realise.

It is a trend that will hopefully bear fruit for the chances of peace between Israel and its neighbours in the future. For that reason it should be welcomed and even celebrated.

- Andrea Nadel

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