Israel is a place characterized by multiple conflicts. Situated in one of the most politically unstable regions on the globe, the nation-state of Israel is comprised of ancient populations and recent arrivals who have sedimented its modern society into layers of sparring populations.
Against this backdrop, it is rather surprising that Israeli musicians remain for the most part indifferent to the political conditions that shape their social environment. Indeed, many music critics in Israel constantly grapple with the question of how to explain this seeming indifference.
How is it that a vexed place like Israel has yet to develop a significant tradition of musical protest? Typical of the sociological study of music, this kind of question leads us to the sphere of interpretation; any attempt to answer it will inevitably be speculative.
In what follows, I will suggest three possible ways to make sense of this enigma and will compare the Israeli situation to the more familiar American musical landscape.
A first possible answer has to do with structural conditions. Unlike the American case, Israeli music (and the arts in general) has traditionally been state-governed and supported. Most of the prominent Israeli singers and musicians, at least until the end of the 20th Century, have come of age in national-oriented frameworks.
First among them were the army ensembles. Highly popular since the 1950s, these ensembles sorted out the most talented young musicians, songwriters, composers, singers, and actors, and put them through intensive coaching during their military service. It goes without saying that the music made by these ensembles featured Zionist, patriotic content.
Even today, when upcoming stars arise from TV reality shows, many of the big events and festivals are still supported financially by the state. Unlike in America, the Israeli market is rather limited and no artist – generally speaking – can rely exclusively on ticket or album sales. Artists thus often depend on state support and on the platforms it supplies.
This explanation, however, is insufficient. For we could imagine that as processes of privatization expand in Israel, and as recording and distribution technologies become cheap and available, artists (especially young ones) would feel freer to express themselves. And yet this does not appear to be the case.
Thus I wish to offer an alternative explanation on a cultural level. American protest music emerged – in different points in history – from demarcated social circles: young people, African Americans, the poor, immigrants, etc. The music itself, however, was always directed toward a huge mass, comprised by tens of millions, who lived their lives without any deep engagement in social and political affairs.
In Israel, the reality is 180 degrees reversed. It is a tiny society, in which everybody knows everybody (including mayors, political leaders and army commanders) and each individual is personally and emotionally involved in public debates.
Without engaging in sweeping generalizations we can say that Israelis keep themselves busy talking politics, with each having his or her formulated opinion on almost any given subject.
Those who have been to Israel and travelled on public transportation might have noticed a strange local ritual: every hour – on the hour – the driver turns up the radio and a bus full of noisy people falls silent. The Israelis are consuming their hourly newscast.
It’s not necessarily the case that something has happened (indeed, the announcer often merely repeats word for word the items read only an hour ago) but “the news” is a sacred institution in Israeli culture and Israelis want to make extra sure they did not miss anything important.
Besides, we all need “to know what’s going on” even if just to get prepared for an occasional argument with a family member, friend or perhaps even with the person sitting next to us on the bus.
In short, since the public atmosphere in Israel is different from that in America, music plays a different role in it. People do not need to be “awoken”; rather, they mostly need a break from being awake and tense.
Protest song directed at a largely indifferent or care-free mass society may have a powerful effect. Directing protest song at a society that immerses itself in constant arguments (often expressed in harsher tones than any songwriter can provide) may end up singing a cliché.
And Israeli musicians, we must remember, are Israelis too; perhaps they themselves tire of always talking politics.
And lastly, one general point that bears significance for this specific case. Music is a mode of expression that exists, by definition, beyond lyrical content. Even political song is first and foremost a musical piece.
Therefore the best protest music ever made (think of your favorite protester) delivered its sense of vexation by musical and sonic means: rhythm, bass, distortion, scream. After all, if one eliminates the sound (the instrumentation, the melody, the singer’s quintessential use of voice), then what we are left with is a good poem.
Let us not discount poetry, but let us admit too that if Bob Dylan or John Lennon would have had to write poems, they would not be idolized by mass audiences.
In short, music is not a mere platform for a delivery of lyrical content; on the contrary, lyrics gain their full effect only once they acquire musical quality: sung, chanted, screamed, rapped (that’s why lyrics sung in a language we do not understand may still move us).
Based on this understanding I want to question the very claim suggesting indifference by the side of Israeli musicians. Yes, they do not write “Imagine” or “The times they are a changing” kind of songs, but who does? We are in the 21st Century.
Let me then suggest an alternative claim, according to which Israeli musicians are both Israeli and musicians – and to the same extent. Therefore the joys, fears, frustrations and hopes they share with other Israelis find their way into their musical expression. Listen to the music – it’s all there!
Uri Dorchin is the Israel Institute Visiting Assistant Professor at the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies for 2018-19. While with the Y&S Nazarian Center, he will teach several courses, including “Social Debates and Popular Culture in Israel” in the Winter Quarter. Prof. Dorchin’s research explores cosmopolitan cultural interactions and the implications of these in contemporary Israeli society.