Songs of our times

The trio chosen by TV viewers as Israel's best reflects the country's ambivalent mood.

What does the Channel One television song contest to choose the best Israeli song in the past 60 years tell us about ourselves? When British Virgin Radio asked listeners in 2005 to nominate the best UK song ever, the winner was the love song "Wonderwall," sung by Oasis, which one DJ likened to "the perfect song to stick your arm around your mate and sing out at the top of your voice after a few beers." Last week, a quarter of a million Israelis watched a television show on Channel 1 which featured the best Israeli songs since 1948, chosen by vote. No pub songs were in evidence. Instead, the top three choices - Naomi Shemer's "Jerusalem of Gold," Shmuel Hasfari's "Children of Winter '73" and Haim Guri's "Song of Friendship" - reflected nothing more strongly than the ambivalence many Israelis feel about the state of their country, 60 years on. The songs bear a burden of more than the sum of their lyrics and melodies; they encapsulate concerns about what is, what was and what will become of Israel in the years ahead. On the face of it, "Jerusalem of Gold," which was also chosen as the "Song of the Jubilee" on Israel's 50th Independence Day, was not a surprising choice. At the 1967 Israel Song Festival shortly before the Six Day War, the sweet, pure voice of young soldier Shuly Natan captured the gestalt of its time and the song become a classic. Over the years there have even been suggestions that "Jerusalem of Gold," with its biblical and nationalistic references such as the sounding of the ram's horn on the Temple Mount, replace "Hatikvah" as Israel's national anthem. But what seemed simple then has come to seem much more complex since. Critics have noted that the marketplace and Temple Mount were far from empty as Shemer suggested; we just didn't see the Arabs who filled the place. And today, many of the song's references come across as ironic. The road to Jericho from Jerusalem may be open, but many Israelis prefer to avoid it. Not too many Jews have in fact returned to the Temple Mount or to the markets of East Jerusalem, which is divided by an invisible line from the rest of the city. What was seen then as unification is referred to by some today as occupation. SO WHY was "Jerusalem of Gold" voted the best Israeli song ever? Perhaps because the choice reflects a wistful longing for a simpler time, when Israel could win a great victory and the support of most of the world by virtue of its superior determination and moral right. The other side of the coin can be seen in the second and third place winners. The lyrics of "The Friendship" refer not to friendship in general, but to comradeship in battle. It mourns the loss of many who "fell on their swords," leaving only their memory and a determination on the part of their comrades to continue. The song's popularity might be seen as a need to find meaning in the sacrifices of Israel's wars. But then, how do we deal with the song "Children of Winter '73," which refers to the Yom Kippur War and its aftermath. This is an unabashed dirge, hurling blame at an idealistic and naive generation which assumed that peace would follow war. "You promised a dove," accuse the youngsters who are now in the army themselves. This is a very long way indeed from "Jerusalem of Gold." To judge the real mood of many in the country on its 60th anniversary, consider "Hallelujah," a joyous song of praise for all the good things in the world, which won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1979. Where did it rank in the 2008 song contest? Not even in the top ten. The writer is a former member of The Jerusalem Post editorial staff.