Arts & Culture

Mirror to the Crisis: Israeli Media

Whenever I return to Israel, I always make a point of listening to local talk shows and reading as many magazines as possible.  If you want to gauge changes in public opinion quickly, there’s no better way to do it. … Read More

By / July 13, 2009

Whenever I return to Israel, I always make a point of listening to local talk shows and reading as many magazines as possible.  If you want to gauge changes in public opinion quickly, there’s no better way to do it. My last trip back to Israel, in June, is no exception. The following are my incidental observations.

State Broadcasting

When I was growing up in Israel during the 1980s,  Israeli Army Radio, commonly known by its acronym Galatz, was the radio station to listen to. Notwithstanding its designation as a military radio station (and, therefore as a mouthpiece of the Israeli military establishment,) the station presented editorial independence rarely matched by other radio channels, which were all operated by Kol Yisrael,Israel Public Radio.The suspicion Galatz’s producers and announcers had of the formal high-rhetoric that ruled Kol Yisrael was translated into an irreverent hosting style and satirical programs as well as non-traditional (by Israeli standards) musical choices to one would hear nowhere else, neither on the Israeli radio nor, at the time, on the country’s state-run, single television channel.

The approach Galatz took was by no means beyond reproach. In fact, it was regularly censured for its elitism, and for reflecting exclusively the Ashkenazi, secular culture of its Tel Aviv setting (and of the vast majority of its civilian and recruited announcers). Indeed, wide sectors of the Israeli population—namely Mizrahi and religious Israelis—were not represented in the contents the station broadcast. Army Radio was similarly censured for putting into relief a leftist agenda. Right wing politicians were incensed by the liberty announcers took, in particular in the wake of the 1982 war in Lebanon and the first Palestinian Intifada, to criticize military operations and IDF policies and to play songs that articulated the same spirit. Such criticism is still voiced today.

Given its reputation, the changes Galatz underwent in recent years could serve as a parable of a sort to the changes underwent by the so-called “liberal-secular-Ashkenazi” Israel. Music-wise and politics-wise, the station holds now to a much more conservative appearance. In 1993, Galatz started operating a subsidiary station, Galgalatz, which broadcasts non-stop pop music and traffic reports. The greatest contribution of the new broadcaster seems to have been the introduction of the “playlist”: a list of a limited number of mainstream songs, selected by the chief musical producers of the station, to be played over and over again. Songs not included are condemned to public amnesia. Notwithstanding its conservative musical choices, or perhaps precisely because of it, the station has become extremely popular.

Politically, Galatz has undergone what is arguably an analogous change. Two recent examples, both in the wake of Obama’s Cairo speech, should suffice to exemplify the nature of that change. The host of a music magazine interviews an Israeli jazz musician who enjoys international success, mainly in the US. After the musician is introduced, the conversation goes something like this:

Host: were you ever invited to the White House?

Musician: Nope, but we really would love it if we were invited.

Host: If you play for Obama, would you hit him on the head with your instrument? He’s getting on my nerves. I despise Republicans, I truly do, with their conservative agenda, and I am usually for Democrats, but Obama, oh, he’s too much with his anti-Israeli sentiments.

Musician (a bit bewildered): don’t believe in violence

Host: Sometimes this is the only answer.

At which point I reached for the dial to search for a new station.

This exchange points not only to Obama’s diving approval rating among Israelis (6% according to a recent poll), but even more so to the ever-growing presence of a language of intolerance, violence and even bigotry, a language that has swept what is still considered by wide sectors of the Israeli population to be a bastion of elitist liberalism. Another example further brings to light the implications of such a language. It is from Hamila Ha’achrona, (The Latest Word), a daily magazine that examines the news from a supposedly humorous perspective and that is hosted by teams of two announcers, one supposedly a spokesperson for the secular-liberal-left, the other for the religious right. While the positions articulated by the “conservative” members of each team are often predictable, those expressed by the “liberal” ones are less so. This is what one such “liberal host” had to say about Obama’s speech:

What disturbs me the most about this speech was that it was full of lies: the way he sucked  up to the Muslims. After all, we all know that they contributed nothing to world culture: they plagiarized everything; everything of value in their culture they took from the Greeks and Romans and the Jews and the Christians

The fact that the co-host had no comment on this exhibition of racist ignorance is, perhaps, not surprising. The fact that no disciplinary measures were taken against the host is more disturbing. Most surprising is the fact that these comments elicited no public outcry. The silence with which the Israeli public responds to such comments merely shows the bon ton of “liberal” Israel these days. In light of such liberal comments, one can only wonder about the chances of success the Obama administration has in convincing the Israeli political establishment to reengage with Palestinians in an attempt to restart the peace process.


Israeli Music

The latest trend in Israeli music this year seems to be musical renditions of the medieval Jewish poetry of Spain.  Some of Israel’s leading musicians came up with new albums whose lyrics are all taken from the great poets of the period. Etti Ankri, a leading Israeli vocalist, issued a CD of Judah Halevilyrics. Rea Mochiach, a former member of the Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordellojoined Berry Sakharof, a founding member of the post-punk Minimal Compact, to issue an album with the lyrics of Solomon ibn Gabirol. And Micha Shitrit, a member of Hachaverim shel Natasha, one of the most influential Israeli rock ensembles of the 1980s and 1990s, collaborated with the liturgical poet Lior Elmalich and the music arranger Haim Laroz to set poems by Halevi and Gabirol, as well as by the 16th-17th century liturgical poet Israel ben Moses Najara .

The Iberian peninsula, which was under partial Muslim rule between the 9thand 13th centuries, offered Jews social, economic and political opportunities not available to them elsewhere. Indeed, Muslim Spain was much more tolerant towards Jews than Christian Europe, and as a result, a steady flow of immigrants made its way from the Christian north to the Muslim south. Under Muslim rule, Jewish culture in general and Jewish poetry in particular, enjoyed unprecedented freedom, designating the era a “Golden Age,” by which it is commonly known today.

The period marks extraordinarily close contacts between Muslim and Jewish cultures. Jewish literati were highly influenced by Arab philosophy and literature, which reached new heights during the same era. This had a double impact: on the one hand, as Jews became ever more integrated into the local society, they produced works not only in Hebrew but also in Arabic. On the other hand, under the impact of Arabic culture, they introduced themes and forms popular in Arabic cultural production into their Hebrew works, and produced religious alongside secular poetry.

What is curious about the latest wave of popular interest in medieval Jewish poetry is that these intense Muslim-Jewish exchanges are elided. Thus, in the same program of The Latest Word, just a few minutes after the Obama comment, the two hosts discuss the new Mochiach and Sakharof CD, and note that this is a prime example of authentic Israeli music, which relies on Jewish sources, and shies away from foreign influences such as Madonna, Depeche Mode, Suzan Vega, and other international musicians who had plans to give concerts in Israel this summer. No mention is made of the debt both Mochiach and Sakharof (and, indeed, Israeli popular music in general) owe to the international music scene, and the way their extended stay in Europe and the US has shaped their music.

Another radio magazine presented an interview with Chetrit and Ankri, coupled with an academic whose field of research is medieval Jewish poetry. The efforts of the academic to underscore the Jewish-Muslim cultural exchanges that shaped that poetry, and the debt Hebrew poetry owes to Muslim poetry encountered fierce resistance by Chetrit and particularly by Ankri, who protested that this poetry is the pure articulation of Jewish sentiments and spirituality, that were shaped exclusively by Jewish history and religion. This poetry, she exclaimed, is directly linked to the sentiments of modern Israeli Jews and had nothing to do with the Muslim milieu in which Jews were residing at the time.

Notwithstanding, thus, the divergent approaches taken in each of these projects and their critical evaluation, their reception seems to follow a similar pattern: the interest in medieval Jewish poetry is seen as a long-overdue return to a place of pure Jewish articulation, informed almost exclusively by religious sentiments. It fits, it seems, a growing desire to conceive of Jewish culture (and, as a result, of Israeli-Jewish culture and society in particular) in exclusive and purist terms.

By necessity, such terms deny that there is more than one Jewish culture, and that these cultures (like all other cultures) were produced through an exchange with other cultures. It ultimately denies Christian, Muslim and other cultures have anything to teach and to contribute to Israeli culture. Culture produced in Israel is by no means parochial, but its reception (as well as, at times, production), at least among some circles, seems to becoming increasingly so. Such trends are sadly familiar to students of twentieth century European political culture. It is greatly disturbing to see signs that Israeli culture is beginning to see itself in such terms.