AS the mob calmed down outside US embassies in Benghazi and Cairo, a quieter calm was descending over Northern Israel as Haim Hefer was laid to rest. The country took pause – if only for a moment – to honor one of Israel’s cultural heroes – who was a fighter for the fledgling State, a writer, poet, and cultural critic. Hefer’s death, or perhaps more accurately one episode in his life, clearly accentuates how far Israel has come, and how much farther emerging democracies have to go.
The mobs in Egypt and Libya, and now in France as well, were protesting religiously offensive cultural efforts, including videos insinuating that Mohammed was a sex fiend or cartoons suggesting ineffable things about the Moslem prophet. While – as an orthodox rabbi – I am personally offended by caricatures of anyone’s religious icons, I have learned over time that censure and boycott are not always the best tools to wipe out offensive behavior.
Hefer learned this - as they say in Hebrew, al b’saro – on his flesh.
IN April of 1967, Hefer’s song Yehezkel in which he refered to the prophet as “Bomba shel Navi” – something like a “cool dude prophet” was released by a local band. Almost immediately, it was banned by the government held readio station kol Yisrael, because of its offensive lyrics. According to the then head of the radio station , Isaac Shimoni, the decision was made because the song wouldn’t be recived well by the entire population.
OF course, rather than decapitating the song, the ban simply increased its popularity. Within a couple of days, the daily MAariv published the entire score and soon, the song was available on the radio after 10 pm. Eventually, the song entered the canon of great modern Israeli songs.
Today in Israel, there is still a great need for tolerance of other relgions. But for the most part – we’ve learned to stop being offended at, and more importantly, we learned how to stop offending – other religions.
Hefer was no lover of orthodoxy or organized religion. But the ban on him, and the fact that subsequently many – including myself – enjoy his satirical work on the prophet, teaches us the powers of open society and how tolerance can’’t just be preached, but it has to be practiced.