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Israeli music and the national consciousness of dislocation

Guest Column

Photo for Israeli music and the national

Israel's Eurovision 2018 contestant and competition winner, Netta Barzilai (Photo: Wouter van Vliet, EuroVisionary) CC BY-SA 4.0

In his Guest Column, Visiting Assistant Professor Uri Dorchin puts Israel's recent success at the Eurovision contest into the context of what he sees as the country's continuing search for acceptance by the West.

Much of what Israelis are doing in fields like music, academics, technology and sports is generated by the on-going demand to measure up to Euro-American standards and by so doing to join in the socio-cultural space in which their belonging is always questioned.

By Y&S Nazarian Center Visiting Assistant Professor Uri Dorchin

On the night of May 12, Israel celebrated an unexpected national holiday. Netta Barzilai, an almost anonymous singer in Israel until that point, took first place in the annual Eurovision song contest.

A few minutes before midnight, when Barzilai performed her song, television ratings skyrocketed to nearly 50% and by two o'clock in the morning, when the final results were announced, thousands streamed onto the streets and gathered in city centers to celebrate the win until daybreak.

The euphoria of music fans, however, did not last long. Over the following weeks – as the security situation took a negative turn once again and on-going pressure by BDS elements intensified – more and more international artists and acts that were planned for this summer cancelled their visit, leaving ticket buyers frustrated and outraged.

Frustration was experienced not only in the realm of music. The bitterest, perhaps, was due to the cancellation of a visit by the Argentine national soccer team, led by its much admired star Lionel Messi. As part of their preparation for the World Cup tournament in Russia, the Argentine team had planned to play one friendly match against the Israeli national team.

Alas, in response to the routine pressures by Palestinian and BDS groups, and to the insistence of the Israeli Minister of Culture and Sports on hosting the match in Jerusalem (and not in Haifa, as the original plan proposed), the Argentines withdrew the plan.

Indeed, moments of collective joy and disappointment can be found anywhere. But there is something very Israeli about this emotional roller coaster, as these moments always seem to convey messages regarding Israel's position as a nation and a state and hence the strong emotional reaction to it on the part of Israelis (officials and citizens alike).

In other words, Israelis tend to perceive these situations not as mere music or soccer fans, but first and foremost as Israeli ones. The case of entertainment events is therefore anything but an inconsequential issue. It directs us to the seminal experience of being an Israeli, which I shall call a learnt experience of dislocation.

The paradox of the Zionist enterprise

To better understand this rooted sense of dislocation, a brief socio-historic context is required. The idea of an independent Jewish state developed as a pragmatic solution for the adversities of European Jews. This solution however was never professed simply in pragmatic terms, i.e. the procurement of territory big enough to sustain a Jewish state, but also in idealistic ones.

It is in this aspect that we can detect the paradox embedded in the Zionist enterprise and which cast its postponed implication onto the present. On the one hand, aspirations to realize the Zionist dream in the ancient Land of Israel preached resurrection of ancestral Hebraism, and hence the redemption of Jews from all diasporic remnants.

On the other hand, and regardless of their genuine sentiments for the land of Israel, Zionist Jews always saw themselves as authentic representatives of European modernism.

Zionist leader Max Nordau wrote that "amidst wild and barbaric Asianism" Jews will "expand the European moral borders to the Euphrates river,” and Theodor Herzl, in his Altneuland, followed the same line: "For Europe our presence there [in the Middle East] may constitute a defensive shield against Asia. We may be the spearhead of the culture [read: Europe] against barbarism."

The Jewish state, thus, is a product of two parallel and contradicting streams which are equally decisive. It rests on the paradoxical presumption that only the seclusion of Jews from the geographical space of Europe will enable their eventual inclusion in its cultural domain.

Seeking approval

What is at stake here is not merely the structural in-between position of Israel, being a Western oriented entity located in the Middle East, but rather how it constructs a unique sense of subjectivity.

Much of what Israelis are doing in fields like music, academics, technology and sports is generated by the on-going demand to measure up to Euro-American standards and by so doing to join in the socio-cultural space in which their belonging is always questioned.

Therefore Israelis tend to interpret moments of national pride, say when an Israeli start-up company makes an exit or when an Israeli sportsman wins a trophy, as a sign of approval for such participation.

President Shimon Peres' response to the announcement of the Israeli scientist Ada Yonat as winner of the Nobel Prize in 2009 portrays this point of view:

“The Weizmann Institute [to which Yonat is affiliated] was deprived of Nobel awards over the years. Today we witness a correction of this injustice. Nobel awards were given to non-Israeli Jews in the past, but in recent years Israel begins to appear as a serious contender for this prize.”

Putting Israel on “the map”

In a different context, basketball player Tal Brody, former captain of Maccabi Tel Aviv, is remembered mostly for his excited declaration in 1977, minutes after a glorious victory over CSKA Moscow, that “we are on the map, and we will stay on the map!”

This is a telling declaration; “the map” is a metaphor of course, and Brody did not have to elaborate which part of the map he had in mind. In fact, the declaration is remembered today much more than the event that prompted it (most of the current population in Israel obviously did not even see the game).

In this regard it is important to understand that the Russian team had refused to play in Israel or to host the Israeli team in Moscow, and so the match was held in Belgium, a neutral territory. If Brody's spontaneous comment was burned so strongly in local collective memory, it is precisely because it struck a chord with the deep-structured complexity of Israel's perceived sense of misplacement.

So are we on the map or aren't we? This is perhaps the most troubling question that rests implicitly in Israeli minds, and it is against the background of this concern that we – Israelis - tend to read current events. Decisions made by international artists about whether to include Israel in their European tours or to avoid it therefore seem to delineate unseen lines on imagined maps that nonetheless sustain a very tangible balance in Israeli economy of belonging.

In this context local crowds may easily adopt a simplistic view in which international artists are separated into opposing categories: those who support Israel and those who are against it. For example, countries that do not allocate Israel any points in the Eurovision contest are accused, half-jokingly, of anti-Semitism.

That these accusations are often voiced humorously reveals a sense of reflexivity on the part of Israelis about their own complexities.

“Lust for the West”

But a sense of dislocation derives not only from Israel's position toward Europe and America, but also toward its immediate surroundings. In other words, the local "lust for the West" (as a famous Israeli song refers to it) is translated into a constant denial of the many oriental characteristics of Israeli culture and society.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak once depicted Israel as a "villa in the jungle.” Given the fact that Israel is an active player in the jungle-like situation of the Middle East, this statement (which echoes Herzl and Nordau's remarks) is more of an ideal perception than an objective examination.

One of the outcomes of the fundamental contempt toward "the East" was an effort to "Israelize" (read: to Westernize) Mizrahi Jews, i.e. Jews from Arab countries. This subject is the focus of sociological studies in and of Israel since its establishment and I will add only two remarks about it here.

First, although the term Mizrahi has a long history rooted in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Judaism, in modern Israel this notion was reintroduced to differentiate the Mizrahim from Ashkenazi Jews on the one hand, and from non-Jewish Arabs on the other hand.

Second, in the field of music, the categorical differentiation between "Israeli music" and "Mizrahi music" – a differentiation that is still very common today - makes it clear what kind of music, and by extension what sort of cultural heritage, can be defined as "Israeli.”

Eurovision 2019

Netta Barzilai's win means that Israel will host the 2019 Eurovision song contest. This occasion gives Israel a precious opportunity to reverse the regular order of things, as it will turn Israel for a short moment into a venue for a pan-European happening. The Eurovision is a major spectacle that is broadcasted live to millions throughout the continent.

Hence, the host country for such an event is understandably evaluated for its production, organizational and artistic powers. In the eyes of Israelis, however, this occasion entails more than this. Here evaluation is taken as yet another acceptance test.


Uri Dorchin is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at the Academic College in Zefat, Israel and the Israel Institute Visiting Assistant Professor at the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies for 2018-19. During the academic year, he will teach several courses, including "Popular Jewish and Israeli Music" and "Social Debates and Popular Culture in Israel."