My Word: Songs with and without praise

We need not sing as one voice, but Army Radio has a duty to fight back when its own listeners come under fire.

Izhar Ashdot 370 (photo credit: Noa Cafri / Wikimedia)
Izhar Ashdot 370
(photo credit: Noa Cafri / Wikimedia)
Army Radio was the site of a much-discussed battle last week – no physical wounds were evident, although there might have been some bruised egos, and a disc was scratched, at least from the playlist.
The fight concerned the song Inyan Shel Hergel (“A matter of habit”), the title track from the latest album by popular singer Izhar Ashdot. In an unusual act, station commander Yaron Deckel nixed the number as “debasing soldiers,” while the singer was preparing for a live performance at the Army Radio (Galei Zahal) studios.
The protest song, written by Ashdot’s wife Alona Kimchi, is apparently based on testimonies gathered by the Breaking the Silence group from IDF veterans who served in the Palestinian territories. The lyrics portray an image of soldiers learning how to kill and becoming numb to suffering (along with the hope for eventual peace).
Among the verses that drew particular fire were the lines: “They’re not a man, not a woman, they’re just an object, just a shadow. To learn to kill is a matter of habit.”
The ban might have silenced the song on Galei Zahal airwaves, but it helped it shoot to fame elsewhere, in the social media, talk shows and the press.
For some, Ashdot and Kimchi became Public Enemy No. 1, accused of providing an anthem and extra ammunition to all Israel’s many existing enemies; for others, the couple were the heroes in a struggle in which the words “freedom of expression” ricocheted in all directions.
Deckel, who himself served at Galatz (as the station is known) before a long career as a political correspondent and influential morning show presenter on Israel Radio, maintained radio silence but Brig.-Gen. (res.) Avi Benayahu, also a former Galatz head, gave several interviews in which he pointed out that Army Radio, by its very nature, has to defend itself from attacks on serving soldiers and for calls against military service.
There are limits to everything – including chutzpah. Ashdot might have considered adjusting his sights before expecting to receive a warm welcome at a station whose whole raison d’etre is, ostensibly, for the benefit of the armed forces, and whose funding, of course, comes from the Defense Ministry budget.
In a statement that was quickly picked up by the Hebrew press, the radio station announced that “...the station commander decided that there is no room on Army Radio to publicly celebrate a song that denigrates and denounces those that have sacrificed their lives for the defense of the country.”
Ashdot, incidentally, did his military service as a music programming editor at the station, not so much dodging bullets as selecting hits of the musical kind. During his service he met the future members of the band Tislam in which he was a lead singer. Their hits, including “Radio hazak” (“Loud radio”), kept a generation of soldiers, students and young-at-heart adults rocking in the 1980s.
Ashdot blasted Deckel’s statement, saying: “The release of the statement and the announcement that it represents the position of Army Radio negates the possibility of holding a fair and balanced discussion on the song and its contents. I am worried by the fact that in a democratic country a media outlet bans a song.”
Superstar Aviv Geffen backed Ashdot in a piece in mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot, writing: “Iranization doesn’t happen in a day, it starts with a song and it’s likely to end with us.”
Geffen raised a storm in his youth avoiding army service ostensibly on medical grounds, and one of his songs from the It’s Cloudy Now album, 20 years ago, was partially censored and frequently censured for his yell “We are a f***ed-up generation.”
Later, Geffen gained a more mainstream image and in 1996, following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, he recorded what became known as the Israeli version of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” “Let’s Walk for the Dream” (Shir Tikva), a poetic, propeace ballad.
Lennon’s lyrics readily come to mind at the moment partly because the world (“All together now”) is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles, the group that became a legend. The Fab Four provided the musical backdrop to my childhood in London in much the same way that Ashdot and Tislam’s sound was in the background at the end of my army service and during my university studies.
Lennon was not resting in peace last week. A study by Co-op Funeralcare, which flashed around the world so fast it’s hard to determine which news organization first broke the story, found that his signature song is banned from the majority of funeral parlors in Britain because the lyrics include “imagine there’s no heaven.”
A spokeswoman for the funeral company was quoted as saying: “Hymns were once the mainstay of a funeral service – but pop music plays such an important part in people’s lives that it now acts as the theme tune to their passing.”
HYMNS IN Hebrew and other languages were the mainstay of a musical tribute to murdered Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl at an event I attended on October 13. The memorial was hosted by the Journalists Association of Jerusalem and featured the Alei Gefen Chorus of Tel Aviv, conducted by Eli Gefen, who volunteered the performance as a personal gesture of faith in harmony and humanity. It was one of several events held around the world to remember the man who, early in 2002, died for being a journalist, an American, and not least, for being a Jew.
Pearl’s death, of course, cannot be separated from events of 9/11 – the day the world changed. Unlike the collapse of the World Trade Center, I don’t remember the exact moment I heard of his brutal murder, but I do recall a few days later as I was bathing my son wondering how such evil could exist in the world. I was not new to terrorism: It was the height of the second intifada; I knew friends and colleagues who had buried their children – bludgeoned, shot, or blown to pieces – even while I cradled my pregnant stomach somehow hoping it would keep my baby safe. But Pearl’s last moments, even though I’d never met him, chilled me with a new horror – the way the terrorists not only beheaded him but filmed the act, seemed to be a new level of bestiality.
Following his murder, his family and friends established the Daniel Pearl Foundation “to carry on his legacy, using music and words to address the root causes of the hatred that took his life.” Pearl never got to know his son and personally pass on his ability to create bridges through music.
Music can bring people together like nothing else (think Beatles at the opening ceremony of this year’s Olympics); terror can tear the world apart (spare a thought for the Israeli athletes who did not get the minute of silence they deserved at the Olympic ceremony – and draw the dots between their deaths, and those of Pearl and the victims of 9/11).
Army Radio has the right to choose what it wants to play on its airwaves (how many songs don’t get heard at all?), although the affair undoubtedly could have been handled with more sensitivity. Combat soldiers have enough to contend with without songs that cleverly condense the thoughts of some into a damning litany.
The ban is not music to my ears, but the battle against the delegitimization of the country and its defense forces is also an important one. We need not sing as one voice, but Army Radio has a duty to fight back when its own listeners come under fire.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.