A Fresh Perspective: East and West coming together

Everywhere one looks in Israel’s music industry, one thing is clear: People are asking for a universal national identity.

June 12, 2014 15:49
Amir Benayoun

Amir Benayoun . (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST)


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Israel’s music industry is one of the most fascinating in the world, and an analysis of it can help us understand some of the deepest phenomena within Israeli society.

One of the most successful Israeli singers today is Amir Benayoun. A few years ago, Benayoun, of Moroccan descent, released a record in which he took old Israeli songs and recorded covers for them. The result was powerful: The songs, originally recorded with a European touch, became infused with Middle Eastern sounds.

East and West merged into an authentic Israeli sound.

Benayoun is not the only Israeli artist who brings together many influences into his music. Idan Raichel is known internationally for his ability to bring together artists of various musical backgrounds to create a truly universal sound. To most international listeners, the result seems multicultural; to Israelis, there is nothing more Israeli than the music of Raichel.

Riff Cohen, for her part, recently defined her music as “Middle Eastern trash rock,” incorporating influences from Western rock and the Levant.

This phenomenon is an expression of some of the deep sociological developments in Israel; a deeper study of it will help us gain an in-depth understanding of the Jewish state.

Arabic music in France

Ethnic music is not unique to Israel. As globalization occurs, and as populations from different countries mix, people are exposed to music of different cultures. Many enjoy this music and want to give it a place to develop in their own country.

However, in France for example, a local may listen to Cheib Khaled singing Arabic music. But a French person will never say “This is French music” – even if Khaled uses French lyrics and is influenced by French music. He may like the sound of it, but he will always find it ethnic and foreign.

In Israel, when you hear Middle Eastern and European sounds merge together, it feels like truly Israeli music. No music is more Israeli than that of Benayoun or Raichel.

This variance is swayed by a sociological difference between what is happening in Israel and the rest of the world.

These days, when one hears music from other countries, it is because of globalization and the loss of identity.

If there was once a certain musical style for each country, in today’s postmodern world, musical styles mix together as identity has lost its standing. Borders are not important anymore and thus musical styles from all around the world are found everywhere. Cheib Khaled may not be singing “French” music, but no one really cares about hearing “French” music anymore.

In Israel, the process is entirely different. As we speak, a particularistic national identity is being built.

Yet, there is a catch: This national identity includes influences from around the world. This is not because of the postmodern loss of identity, but because the identity of Israel is universal by its nature; it includes aspects of identities from all over the world.

Postmodernism vs Hegelianism

The postmodern philosophy argues that there is no such thing as an objective truth, and no way to know if a certain narrative is closer to or further from the truth – since there is no absolute truth.

Paul Karl Feyerabend (1924-94), an Austrian professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, described this in the most extreme manner: “The only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths.”

The ideal political system for a postmodernist is a multicultural society. In such a society, every culture has its place. No one culture is better than another, no one is closer to the truth. Every culture needs to be accepted as it is.

Hegelian philosophy is very different, arguing that different opinions can be valid, even when they are opposite. Hegel also argued that it is hard to contain the absolute truth in one opinion.

But instead of saying there is no absolute truth, he focused on the difficulty in attaining the ultimate truth that does exist, and said it can be found in the synthesis of the different opinions: “Truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.”

Israel’s melting pot

As the ingathering of the exiles began and the Jewish nation returned to Israel, there was serious disagreement between the Zionist movement leaders as to what to do with the strong cultural differences between the immigrants. Some wanted a “melting pot” to allow for creation of a new Sabra. Others wanted each cultural group to keep its own identity.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky was one of the great opponents of the melting pot: “Those who know that I favor rapprochement between Sephardim and Ashkenazim will perhaps be surprised when I tell them that I am against forced internal assimilation, which aims to create a common Israeli identity, even if it is in the more distant future.

There are different shades in all great nations, each of its parts has its own special advantages, and these I believe need to be preserved and developed – and not buried in a melting pot.”

David Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, was one of the great supporters of the melting pot: “In the melting pot of Jewish brotherhood and military discipline, a new foreign immigrant can be added in one night. He can be refined and purified of his foreign identity. This means the ethnic divisions will be erased and the national brotherhood will be revived as in the nation’s youth, drawing from ancient sources.”

Since Ben-Gurion became prime minister, his opinion became official Israeli policy.

But both those thinkers have ignored a third option, which in my opinion is the right choice: A gradual melting pot, which comes about organically and naturally.

This way does not ask anything from the state. The issues with the state initiating a melting-pot policy are clear: Who will decide what the cultural identity advanced should be? This is the question that caused many Middle Eastern and North African Jews to feel discriminated against, as their identity was ripped away by European Jews who defined what the “right” culture was.

However, it is also wrong to encourage divisions with the nation. Rather, one must let history do what it knows how to do: With time, slowly, the nation itself will create a new culture, which will include bits and pieces from the different cultures that came together in Israel.

If gradual and natural, organic evolution will define what becomes part of “Israeli” culture, and what remains only part of a subgroup’s culture. It might be a long process, but it will ensure that historical evolution decides what aspects of each culture survive, and not a man with limited intellect.

With time, a new culture will emerge: An authentic Israeli culture that is also a universal culture, with aspects from all the different cultures.

Tommy Lapid was against the idea

At the start of this article, I said this new universal- nationalistic culture can already be seen in the music industry. It might be because music is one of the more organic expressions, and is less defined by intellectual choice.

Indeed, Riff Cohen, who is known worldwide, explained once that only in Israel can she create her special universal sound, since you can see the different cultures influencing each other and mixing with one other.

When one hears Benayoun perform the Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor on an oud, it does not feel weird to hear a European song with a Middle Eastern instrument – it feels Israeli.

Within this process is the realization of the words of God to Abraham: “I will make you into a great nation… And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Only a nation that builds a particularistic identity (“a great nation”) from universal sources (“all the families of the earth”) can realize this goal.

Yet there are some who are against this new development.

Tommy Lapid once said of Benayoun’s music: “We didn’t occupy [the Arab town of] Tulkarm; Tulkarm is occupying us.” It is noteworthy that it was specifically Benayoun’s music which bothered Lapid, and not purely Middle Eastern music. As long as Middle Eastern artists sang purely Middle Eastern music, he did not feel threatened. But once there was a mix of cultures in which musical influences merged together and Middle Eastern influences became a defining part of Israeli culture, he could not accept this.

Multiculturalism did not bother him; the synthesis did.

Yet the nation is not controlled by the old elites trying to define what the right culture is, and it is specifically those artists that are able to merge different cultural influences who end up being successful in Israel.

About a year ago, Rotem Shefy and Liat Sebbag created a Middle Eastern cover to the song Karma Police by Radiohead. What started as a musical experiment became an outstanding success, and in a few weeks the clip got over 300,000 views on YouTube.

Everywhere one looks in Israel’s music industry, one thing is clear: People are asking for a universal national identity.

This is the new Israeli identity.

The writer is an attorney who graduated from McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s honors graduate program in public policy.

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