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Creative dissonance

Beware separating artists from their art, when honoring musical accomplishment also rewards extreme racism

A few days ago I announced I was canceling my membership in the Israeli Union of Performing Artists (EMI), following their decision to present a life time achievement award to the singer/songwriter Ariel Zilber. In order to understand my motivation for this act, and the public outcry that ensued, it is necessary to go back in time.

Ariel Zilber was, in his youth, the bad boy of the budding Israeli popular music scene, just coming of age in the early seventies. His witty, defiant, quirky and often brilliant style of writing and performing earned him quite a reputation amongst young Israelis, who saw in him the mirror of their own, confused, idiosyncratic, prickly-poetic identities. Zilber was a rebel with a broken smile, an anarchist with a deep soul, a symbol of the liberal, free-wheeling Tel Aviv spirit that sought to separate itself from the war stricken, traumatized national psyche. Zilber’s songs touched many a nerve and moved many a heart — including my own! — though his most iconic tunes were created when I was still in diapers.

Later in his life, Zilber embraced ultra-Orthodox Judaism. This was quite a shock to his many fans, but the best (or worst) was yet to come. Zilber embraced radically racist views and expressed them in song. He became a member of Baruch Marzel’s political party, a party modeled on Rabbi Meir Kahane’s “Kach” movement, that called for expulsion of all Arabs from the biblical land of Israel, the expansion of settlements, the foundation of a Jewish theocracy and to that end, the rejection of democracy. Kach was outlawed for its racist motives and activity, and Kahane was assassinated by an Arab in New York some years later. Marzel’s views and doctrine were in exact keeping with Kahane’s teachings. Zilber wrote and recorded a song called “Kahane was right” as an anthem for Marzel’s activity.

In addition, Zilber has collaborated artistically with Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, one of the most radically right-wing rabbis in the occupied territories. Ginsburgh, amongst his many controversial writings, wrote the booklet, “Baruch ha Gever,” “Baruch the Man,” justifying and exalting Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Arabs in cold blood as they were praying in a Hebron mosque.

As if all this were not enough, Zilber has outwardly supported the murderer of Yitzchak Rabin, Yigal Amir, and supported his amnesty and release stating that he can “understand him,” since he was simply acting ideologically to “save the State of Israel.”

Ariel was drawing an appalling parallel between the government’s decision to release Palestinian prisoners (in order to avoid settlement freeze) and what he considered to be the right moral attitude towards Yitzhak Rabin’s murderer.

In 2014, ACUM, the writers and composers guild of Israel, offered me an award for my contribution to the proliferation of Israeli music abroad, due to my flourishing, 25-year international career

That same year, they also announced that Ariel Zilber was to be presented with a lifetime achievement award in the same ceremony.

I was shocked, and devastated. After several sleepless nights, I contacted ACUM and asked to cancel my award. I did not want the glory, or the money. I simply wanted to stay away from what I considered to be a real betrayal of the message artists should be sending out to society.

There is a distinction between an award for music and a lifetime achievement award. That’s why there are two different terms. It was unconceivable to me that an artist who had put his art in the service of such radical racism and hatred of the other, who had expressed time and time again, in words, music, public activity and political activism, all the values that a society must shun and condemn, and on top of it all, had supported the killer of a prime minster, be elevated to the status of cultural icon and role model.

I wrote three short lines on Facebook announcing my withdrawal from the ceremony. I gave no interviews.

I knew there would be ricochets but I could not imagine what was to follow. Those days will be remembered as some of the most horrible in my life. I was attacked from all sides. Profanity and filth were hurled at me on the social networks (and are to this day), including threats to my life and calls to boycott me and revoke my citizenship. Journalists, including in respectable left-wing publications I myself subscribe to, criticized me for mixing art and politics and being prejudiced against those who “think differently.” Politicians from the right, including Israel’s then foreign minister, condemned me for shutting mouths and being “anti-democratic,” and my fellow artists on the most part either turned their backs or worse, made me into the laughing stock of society. Not one of the other artists who were scheduled to appear in that fateful ceremony cancelled their appearance, gave up their prize or even commented. There was a complete and thundering silence…the silence of the lambs, of the cowered and beaten. Not only did they not object, they defended ACUM’s decision, and condemned me. I was portrayed in caricatures as ugly, aggressive and bullish, and in comedy skits as pathetic and bitchy. Besides rare and demure shows of support, I was almost completely isolated and totally misunderstood.

Eventually, Zilber’s prize was changed from “Lifetime Achievement” to “Contribution to Music.” This happened not because of my decision to decline my own prize, but because of the intervention of Dalia Rabin, daughter of the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, who vehemently opposed the title of “life time achievement” being associated with a public supporter of her father’s murderer.

But the damage was irreversible. I was Public Enemy Number One. I had stolen the coveted prize from the hands of the sweet guy with the fuzzy beard and yarmulke who “wouldn’t hurt a fly.” “He’s just a clown,” they said. I guess I am the one with true respect for Zilber: I take his actions and words just as seriously as I take his fine music.

On the stage during the ceremony, Zilber was applauded massively, he said in his speech that “you cannot separate a man from his art” (my feelings exactly actually), and his career has made an impressive come-back ever since.

Back to the future.

February 17, 2016 will see Ariel Zilber being awarded a lifetime achievement award by EMI, the Israeli Union of Performing Artists.

Yes, not a déjà vu. Reality.

You may be asking yourself, as I did: What? Why? And after all that happened, after Dalia Rabin’s specific request, just months after the 20th anniversary of her father’s assassination, why again? And why now, as Israel is suffering a horrible wave of racism, violence and hatred from within and without?

The various optional answers to these questions are all very difficult to digest. Is the artists’ society trying to prove that it is fair and does not discriminate against an artist for his or her views or political opinions? Probably. If so, we must clarify the difference between views and political opinions, and norms and values that society must seek to uphold and nurture. In my opinion, Zilber’s activity far digresses from the realm of “views and opinions” to an illegitimate place that must be condemned: racism, hatred and profanity of the other, support of an outlawed political party and a convicted murderer of a prime minster. Years of placing oneself squarely within the walls of these dangerous concepts cannot be associated with heroism, cannot be put on a pedestal for all to behold, admire…and, God forbid…copy. And least of all, by the artists themselves!

I wonder, if Yigal Amir, the murderer serving a life time sentence, began writing poetry tomorrow, even fine poetry, would he be awarded a prize? And say, he continued writing for years and years, and his writing was excellent, would it then be legitimate to grant him a lifetime achievement award?

Further: how would the Israeli public react of the French comedian Dieudonnet, who has made radical anti-Semitic statements and popularized his own version of the “Heil Hitler” hand movement, be offered a life time achievement award by the artists’ associations of France? Not only has that not happened, Dieudonnet has been condemned by the president of the France and has become persona non grata in several European countries.

The other optional answers are far worse. They involve a collapse of the human values artists are supposed to uphold that has led to fear and cowardice in every corner of Israeli society and is reflected accurately by the Artists’ decision to award the prize to Zilber. They may also involve a desperate, populist attempt to find favor in the eyes of an aggressive regime and the broad public who are cowered by it, and fear of budgets being revoked by a very extreme right-wing minister of culture.

It has always been my belief that artists should be leaders of society, not followers. They should bear the torch, and the cross, of humanity, freedom, equal rights, acceptance, open mindedness, dialogue and diversity. Their job, our job, is to open windows in the mind and heart, to rearrange perspectives, to create alternatives. Our job is not to grovel at the feet of authority and beg for acceptance. Our job is not to surrender to the will of the masses, but to raise them to a higher level, where positive, inclusive human values prevail over greed, ignorance and cruelty.

So, I have seceded from EMI. I have raised my voice, once again: Jean D’Arc , as my father says, in a sad voice. The verbal filth and threats are all back, (I have become accustomed to them), and the feeling of cold isolation. I was added to the McCarthian “black list” of artists by extreme right, human rights’ bashing organization “Im Tirtzu,” and the hate mail keeps pouring in. But this time, there is more than a trickle of support from simple folk, throughout the country, who understand what I am talking about. People who are appalled, as I am, by the “slippery slope” we are all on, who cannot believe how blind and numb our society has become.

I am proud to be their voice.

History shall judge my colleagues at EMI and ACUM for their actions, or lack thereof: and, I believe, not very mercifully.

About the Author
Noa (Achinaom Nini) is a singer/songwriter of Yemenite/Israeli/American origins.