Israel as part of the Whole

February 2, 2012 by

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I don’t normally like Israeli songs that are written and performed in English.

I’m a great fan of Tamar Eisenman’s artistry, and of Asaf Avidan’s surreality, but what can I tell you – I’m an old-school Zionist. I’m big on our developing and Israeli-Jewish culture in Hebrew. You don’t need to – even I call me old-fashioned. I kind of think that if we can’t even create our own renewal of Jewish culture here in the Holy Land, then really what are we doing here?

But just now a great song came out by an Israeli woman who writes and performs in English. This one made it past my usual barriers. It’s one of those rare Israeli songs that while escaping the particularity of Hebrew, doesn’t feel the need to escape Israel and her issues.

The chorus is a powerful mix of rocked-up folk with a Cranberries-crack, and evokes the powerful image of the Carmel Forest up in smoke:

My country’s burning
Smoke is rising
You can see it rise from miles away
Driving by the flames
I pray
For rain 
I pray for sanctuary

The singer songwriter comes from my neck of the woods, and we could indeed see the smoke rising from miles away. It was an awful sight.

Along with the tears shed for the destruction and the deaths of so many brave people, there was a lingering frustration following the Carmel fire. An excruciating video went around, showing Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovitch in the Knesset warning in 2009 that in pushing Israel’s firefighters towards privatization by drying up their public funding, the Finance Ministry was almost asking for a disaster to occur. It occurred.

It wasn’t until listening to the song by Ella Vs Mountain that I saw the connection between the Carmel Fire and the Israel’s summer protests for Social Justice. If ever we had required non-partisan confirmation that the State was not doing its job properly, the devastation of such a a beloved part of the country mostly due to poor preparation and chronic underfunding gave it to us. Maybe this was the fire that Ella recognizes burning under the protest movement.

But the video clip of the song does more than talk Israel. It cuts together images of popular protests throughout the world, so that the fire falls back into symbolism and the protests that gripped Israel become part of a global wave. Though the youtube cuts mostly show images from Israel (there are even a few rioting Haredim in there) they are also taken from the US, Europe, China, and throughout the Middle East. On the youtube page they even give links for all the clips they used.

The message of the video is clear: the local is global. Israelis in the streets were marching with the world, as part of the world, in order to address an issue for the world. It’s a bold – and mostly true – statement.

It’s a no-brainer to suggest that the general aims (and some methods) of the Occupy movement share a great deal with the Social Justice tent encampments of Israel, although I reckon Occupy could learn something from the Israelis about inclusivity. One can also see how the call for a more representative application of state power shares much with the protests in the Arab world. Though in Israel the protests were met with far less violence (and far less success?).

The video led me to think about what is going on in Tunisia, pretty much the only place in the Arab world where protesters were not beaten or shot at. The New York Times now points to a more complex issue that the Tunisians are dealing with: The tensions between religion and democracy.  

Ring a bell?

A TV director chose to air a film that upset religious Muslims, and he’s since been beaten up and taken to court for libeling religion and possibly harming “public order or good morals”.

“Certain Islamist factions want to turn identity into their Trojan horse,” Mr. Messaoudi said. “They use the pretext of protecting their identity as a way to crush what we have achieved as a Tunisian society. They want to crush the pillars of civil society.”

In describing a Tunisian issue, he uses almost exactly the kind of words one hears in Israel today with regards the fundamental religious encroachment on public life.

The article refers to Turkey by way of comparison, but so much of what it describes could as easily be applied to Israel. Check this out:

secular elites long considered themselves a majority and were treated as such by the state. In both, those elites now recognize themselves as minorities and are often mobilized more by the threat than the reality of religious intolerance.


Not only that, but it seems that in Tunisia at least, the founding democratic government is keen to avoid making any bold decisions. Compromises will be made, rulings will be postponed, just as they have been in Israel for decades.

The spokesperson from the ruling party’s political bureau admitted that

the line between freedom of expression and religious sensitivity would not be drawn soon. “The struggle is philosophical,” he said, “and it will go on and on and on.”

And in a strange way I’m left hopeful. In a bizarrely Zionist way I’m proud that here in Israel we’re no longer dealing with the esoteric.

The tensions between religion and state are now no longer just a Jewish meshuggas – they’re international (dare we say “universal”) issues that we’re trying to tackle.

Likewise the Social Justice protests were nothing if not local – after all, no one bailed out failing banks in Israel. But we shared a shout, we called a call in common with the rest of the world.

In that way I guess it makes sense for Ella to sing her song of protest in English and not in Hebrew. Sometimes Israel isn’t a separate case – it’s part of the whole.

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