Israel’s dilemma with Netta Barzilai

While most of Israelis are celebrating the widely anticipated success of Netta Barzilai in Eurovision, they seem to ignore the implications of this international cultural moment for Israel.

Netta’s impressive artistic talent is not in question here, nor her vindicating messages for more respect between man and woman, and against stereotyping, bullying, and objectification of gender values. She must be praised and applaud for reaching out to millions of young people all over the world who suffer the effects of an increased egotistic and self-centered approach to life and human interaction. This is undoubtedly a message that we all share for the sake of fostering a more fair and self-respecting humankind.

However, Netta’s artistic expression raises some questions in regards to the Jewish character of Israel and the Jewish identity itself. Here we see this extraordinary talented young woman as an icon of international pop culture, far from what Israel’s and Jewish “culture” are traditionally defined. This fact, instead of promoting the unity and harmony among Jews, generates more division between secular and observant.

Religious boys and girls must be asking their parents and teachers if is it right or wrong to express themselves the way Netta does before a massive crowd of people, or if the message of her songs reflect their beliefs and lifestyle. This can even become for these youngsters more a matter of choice than a matter of principle, particularly when the latter may not be strong or worthy enough to be followed. This is the perennial dilemma of the Jewish people and their identity.

Yes, some of us may wield the old argument that the Torah has “70 faces”, and that the Jewish identity may express itself in plentiful diverse ways. Or the historically proven fact that the majority of Jews throughout history have been living assimilated to the cultures as lifestyles of other nations, many times endangering the survival of the Jewish lifestyle delineated by the Torah.

This happened during the slavery in Egypt, the temptation of the Golden Calf, the materialistic trends that led to the “Graves of Lust”, the deliberate rejection of the Promised Land by the leaders of 10 Jewish tribes against the two who had a different report. All these happened before settling in their future homeland, and prior to the assimilation to the ways of the neighboring nations that led the Jewish people to exile and dispersion.

One of the most dangerous episodes of this long history of spiritual self-rejection and cultural assimilation was the Greek occupation of the land of Israel, that we remember every winter in Hanukah. It took a handful of determined and committed spiritual leaders to fight back, reclaim and reinstate the Jewish identity, aiming to keep it strong enough not to fall again under the dominance of principles and values alien to what the Torah defined as the Jewish people.

This has been the predicament faced by every generation of Jews since the Exodus from Egypt, that takes us to face who we are or who we want to be. Do we want to be another westernized people under the cultural dominance of other nations, living by their standards of correctness or incorrectness; or we choose to live according to what defines us as Jews?

We don’t mean to live isolated from the rest of the world, and not interact or relate with other nations, of course not. What we must reflect on is what we are destined to share and what not. This is the entire idea behind the Torah’s commandment for Israel to be “the light for the nations”, which is to bring them together, in and for the light of goodness, tolerance and solidarity with principles and values that enhance the human condition in this world.

The remaining Jews that have safeguarded and preserved the Jewish identity have been doing these, by sharing the ethical and moral guidelines and ground rules of goodness as the paradigm to live moment to moment in our interaction with our fellow human beings. And we still do that, even greater, since we returned to our ancestral homeland, by the major significant contributions to humankind in terms of science, medicine, technology, agriculture and energy Jews and Israel make every year.

The dilemma is still there, waiting for us as Jews to respond the question of who we are or what we want to be as individuals and as a nation.

We have to pay attention to the reactions generated by Netta’s triumph in Lisbon last Saturday night. The expected anti-Semitic remarks showed up, accusing us of “cultural appropriation”, among other hateful diatribes, which invite us to reflect on what is “ours” and what is “theirs”.

We already know what the nations have appropriated from the Jews, and now we have to find out what we have been taking from them. This eventually will take us back to how much we have had since the covenant with our God, in something that defines us as Jews. The choice is ours as individual Jews, and as the Jewish nation.

About the Author
Ariel Ben Avraham was born in Colombia (1958) from a family with Sephardic ancestry. He studied Cultural Anthropology in Bogota, and lived twenty years in Chicago working as a radio and television producer and writer. He emigrated to Israel in 2004, and for the last fourteen years has been studying the Chassidic mystic tradition, about which he writes and teaches. Based on his studies, he wrote his first book "God's Love" in 2009. He currently lives in Zefat.