How Music Defined Israel’s Evolving Sense of Self

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David Peretz discusses Israeli music history during an online event. | Photo by Sophie Panzer

Can a song build a state?

David Peretz thinks so.

In his lecture series “100 Years in 30 Songs: Soundtrack of a Resurrected Nation,” the musician, lecturer and journalist explains how music shaped Israel’s national identity.


Peretz spoke at two sessions hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Partnership2Gether, an organization that connects Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora.

On Aug. 9, he focused on music created in the years leading to Israel’s founding, including the national anthem. On Aug. 23, he discussed Israeli music of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. The final session will take place on Sept. 16 and cover the ’80s, ’90s, ’00s and ’10s.

Peretz said the novel idea of living in a Jewish city intrigued musicians after Israel’s founding. They wanted to write songs about the new ways of life coming to the Jewish state. “Neighborhood Song,” by Haim Heifer and Sacha Argov, was a comedic musical sketch about the characters in an Israeli city that became hugely popular in the ’60s.

The song was influenced by Russian music and expressed Ashkenazi immigrants’ views of life in a new land. The familiarity of the characters emphasized a communal identity emerging from a country of immigrants.

Not every Jew who came to Israel felt welcomed in its new neighborhoods. Many immigrants from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria were placed in ma’abarot — refugee camps without houses or running water — when they arrived in Israel in the 1950s.

Peretz said those Jews were treated as others even though they immigrated to be part of the Jewish state. Much to their dismay, the government viewed them with suspicion because they hailed from Arab countries.
“A lot of people who came from Arab states always felt they were Jews before being Arabs,” Peretz explained.

In 1959, riots erupted after a police shot a Jewish North African man for being drunk in a pub. In response, Yosef “Jo” Amar wrote “Labor Bureau,” a song about Israel’s rejection of North African immigrants that drew on his Moroccan heritage.

In Arabic and Hebrew, the singer relates his experience in a refugee camp and bemoans the Labor Bureau’s refusal to help him find a job after he tells them he is from Morocco.

“At the time, work was the epicenter of the new Israeli country. If you were working, you were contributing to Israeli society,” Peretz said.
One of Israel’s most famous songs, “Jerusalem of Gold,” was composed during a time of extreme precarity.

“Until the [Six-Day War], people felt daily that life was on the verge of being extinguished. There was fear of a second Holocaust because of fear that there was a danger of complete annihilation of the Israeli state,” Peretz said.

Jerusalem was divided, with a Jewish side and an Arab side. Mayor Teddy Kollek commissioned songwriter Naomi Shemer to write a song about the city for the Israeli Song Festival in 1967. She chose unknown singer Shuli Natan to perform it.

The song was not formally entered in the competition, but at the end of the festival the crowd cheered for her to perform it again.

Two weeks after Natan sang about hoping for Jews to return to Jerusalem, Israel gained control of the city’s Arab side during the Six-Day War. The song came to be viewed as an Old Testament-style prophecy, and some politicians called for it to replace “Hatikvah” as the national anthem.

Beth Razin, senior manager of community engagement at Jewish Federation, said “100 Years” emerged from the Philadelphia-Netivot & Sdot Negev Partnership, which was established in 1997 with Partnership2Gether. Razin and her colleagues wanted to create Israel engagement programming that drew on the connection.

“We were thinking, ‘How can we draw on people who live in our partnership region who have expertise in particular areas?’” she said.

Hila Yogev Keren, director of Partnership2Gether, recommended Peretz.

“We know that the music has a big part in creating the Israeli identity and also helps to tell a story, the story of a country,” she said.
“[Peretz], being a major cultural scene maker in the Negev and an expert, was an obvious choice as he understands the uniqueness of the region and is able to connect people who might not be so aware of the history, the culture or the area.”

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