Todd Berman

Of music, war, and racism

I vividly remember waking up early on January eighteenth, 1991. At around 2 AM, alarms sounded, rousing me from my bed in the dormitory at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. At the time, I lived with two recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. One joined me as we ran to the “protected” sealed room while the other, an Aarnold Schwarzenegger-like hulk of a man, responded in annoyance at having been disturbed and suggested he would stay in bed until he heard the explosion. At the time, we feared that Sadam Hussein possessed poison gas-filled warheads. Yet, at that moment, my roommate scared me more. So we let him sleep.

We entered the sealed room and placed bulky gas masks over our faces. In a combination of naivete and wishful sublimation, we “sealed” the cracks in the doors with packing tape while we covered the windows to the outside and their access to fresh air with thick plastic sheets. Of course, those were the days before the internet, smartphones, or social media. Together, eight masked yeshiva students sat around listening to the Israeli radio. Most of the group consisted of native Israelis, so they dictated the station selected on the sole radio in our possession.

That first time, we sat in the room wearing our masks for what seemed like an eternity. Soft music played. Every so often, the radio announcer would break up the music declaring in a calm voice, “please keep on your mask, relax, take drink,” the masks came with drinking straws, “while we await the announcement of Nahman Shai.” At the time, Nachman Shai, who later became a minister in the Israeli government, was Director General of the Israel Broadcast Authority and made announcements in a soothing and comforting voice. The radio station played a war-oriented playlist meant to calm our nerves. One song, Yehonatan Geffen’s 1978 “The Prettiest Girl in Kindergarten,” played repeatedly. The writer composed the song for his little daughter, which is appropriate for that age group. I’m still determining which version or if multiple ones came over the radio, but I remember that all the music was relaxing.

Not everyone shared this experience.

When we exited the sealed rooms around six, I bumped into a group of English students as we shuffled zombie-like to morning prayers. While my group hummed absentmindedly, the British students looked pale as ghosts. It seems that they benefited from access to two radios. While the Israelis in their room listened to the Israeli radio station, the others listened to the BBC. The BBC had announced that chemical weapons killed over 200 people in the Haifa area. Like so many confusing reports during wars, they got the story horribly wrong.

The reason that we remained for what seemed like an eternity in the sealed room was because a SKUD missile landed in Haifa near a chemical factory. At that point, despite promises by the Americans to grant Israel satellite access, Israel’s early warning systems were not running correctly. My nephew, among others in the Haifa area, was woken by the sound of the explosions near the factory. The Israeli army delayed releasing anyone from the safe rooms until they could assess the damage and check for leakage. The BBC mistakenly understood that the leak was a warhead. The irony of the war was that the American Patriot batteries seemed useless, but so did Sadam’s SKUDS. We now know the Iraqis didn’t have WMD of significance. But at the outset of the war, we lived with existential fear of gas attack.

The Gulf War, which subsequently became the first Gulf War, stands uniquely in Israeli history. Israel only participated passively. Iraq invaded Kuwait with its rich oil reserves in August. The United States collected a coalition of over forty countries to confront Iraq’s evil dictator, Sadam Hussein. President George H. W. Bush attracted numerous countries to the campaign, including many Arab and Gulf states. To keep the group unified, not only did he not invite Israel to join but requested that Israel sit back and passively watch. Since Israel served as a possible wedge issue and the cause of the Palestinians could be used as an excuse, Husein threatened and then attacked the Jewish State. Going against the foundational ethos of Zionism, Israel could not strike back. The Americans pressured Israel to remain out of the battle lest the entire war party collapse. Jews were under attack but relied on others to fight their battle. The notion of not fighting back once attacked uprooted the entire Zionist cause. This was no simple request. Yet Israel remained firm.

The music of that war lingers in my mind. The radio repeated the playlists of the Gulf War during several other horrible flare-ups over the following decades. Radio stations intentionally played music like “The Prettiest Girl” to soothe nerves and raise morale.

I am shocked by the contrast between the music I remember from 1991 and the new war songs. While the radio played a song about a beautiful little girl who had her father wrapped around her finger, today’s popular war music is not for children.

One of the most popular songs on YouTube and Spotify, even the method of delivery changed radically, speaks of dark vengeance. The song Harbu Darbu’s beat punches to the gut as much as the lyrics.

A bunch of f****r rats getting out of the tunnel
Acting like thugs, you idiots, I swear there will be no forgiveness
Who do you think you’re coming here to yell “Palestine for free” at?!
Ptui, you sons of Amalek!
Hop, Bomb Squad!
Left, right, left, how the whole country is in uniform from Galilee to Eilat.
Fighters, Duvdevan and Magav, Qaraqal, Bardelas
We’ve brought the whole army, and I swear there will be no forgiveness.
Ptui, you sons of Amalek!
All units ready?! (attention!)

Golani (one, two, shoot)
Nahlawis (one, two, shoot)
Armored Corps (one, two, shoot)
Where’s Giv’ati? (one, two, shoot)
Navy, Air Force (attention!)
Artillery, Paratroopers (attention!)
All IDF units are in the mood for Harbu Darbu on your head.

Half a minute and the whole country is in uniform
In the reserve forces, active duty, everyone (one, two, shoot)
For Mom and Dad
All my friends are on the front line
One for Grandma and Grandpa
Writing names on the shells
For the kid in the Gaza envelope
[in the] Upper Galilee and the center too

Everyone is ready to fight
Like hell! Like hell!
All units ready?!

Not only is Harbu Darbu not G-rated, but I had to censor some of the lyrics. What changed so radically in Israeli society since I sat listening to “a little bit of music” and waiting for Nachman Shai?

Yehonatan Geffen, who died at age 76 earlier this year, fits the stereotypical Israeli narrative. Born on Moshav Nachalal, the first moshav of its type, the year before Israel’s founding. Raised in the European-Zionist ethos, he served in the army despite or perhaps on account of his leftist political leanings. He fought in the mid-twentieth-century wars, remaining faithful to his political beliefs, which led to controversy as late as 2018. Secular and Ashkenazi, he represents everything the TikTok critics of Israel pretend they hate. His songs of hope and peace and little girls frolicking in an Israeli kindergarten seem naïve in their hopefulness. These are the songs of the pre-Intifada era.

The singer/songwriter duo of Nes and Stilla, a.k.a 21-year-old Nesia Levi and 25-year-old Dor Soroker, stand in complete contrast. The Gen-Z duo are brash and share much in common with those murdered at the Re’im music festival during the October seventh Hamas lead massacre. These young Sephardic presenting rappers use warlike biblical imagery and praise the power of the Israeli army. Despite their youth, this is the second song to hit the charts. Like their TikTok critics, youth is there power.

The war songs might reflect a sea change in Israeli society. Speaking with an American educator a couple of years ago, I mentioned that while many American Millenials and Gen-Zs seem to lean left, their Israeli counterparts have moved more right in many ways. What transpired between the days of “HaYalda Hachi Yaffa” and “Harbu Darbu”?

A clear picture emerges from the Israeli experience and demographic changes since 1991’s passive war compared to the current “Swords of Iron.”

Israelis born after 1990 have confronted numerous disappointments: The violence of the mid-90s destroyed the hope some sought in the 1993-5 Oslo Peace Treaties; Bus bombings like the 18 line in 1996, where my friend from yeshiva, Matt Eisenfeld, and his soon fiancé Sara Duker were killed among 45 other people; The horrors of the second Intifada in the early 2,000s when Nes and Stella were born; The embarrassing pull-out from Lebanon which enabled Hezbollah to rise on Israel’s border; The Dolphinarium discotheque massacre where terrorists killed 21 Israelis, including 16 teens; The emotional uprooting of thousands of Israelis from Gaza that enabled Hamas to rise to power democratically and then with the brutal killing of members of the Palestinian Authority, their political rival. In the wake of the Hamas coup, the terrorists launched tens of thousands of rockets at civilians every year for twenty years. Necessity being the motivator of invention, Israel created defensive systems such as the Iron Dome and bomb shelters in homes just to live everyday lives. Perhaps something in the Israeli psyche began to harden.

While Gen-Z Americans didn’t live through 9/11 and can’t understand that the United States waged two brutal wars in its wake, Israelis have watched the children of those who cheered American deaths attack Israelis with knives, car ramming attacks, bombs, and rockets for twenty years. The hope of the victory in 1967, Entebbe, and the peace treaty after the shocking surprise of the Yom Kippur War, which rocked Israeli society, are all part of a dreamy past. For many Israelis, the murder of Prime Minister Rabin smashed the stone tablets of hope created by Oslo.

While Israeli society has made leaps and bounds in every area – in academia, in the arts, in technology, in terms of GDP, etc., Israelis have seen those around us attack us more. The heady intellectual philosophy of Herzl’s political Zionism has all but disappeared and been replaced by a pragmatic worldview that views the Palestinian cause as a distraction.

The demographics have also shifted. The Ashkenazi, white Europeans so despised on American and European college campuses, represent a fraction of Israeli society. Israel has become much more traditional, tribal, religious, and Sephardic over the past thirty years. Today’s right-wing government fits much closer to the Middle East than Ben Gurion’s Labor ever did. Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, which flourished in the pluralistic landscape of America, have always gained little traction here for seemingly different reasons. Initially, the secular European elite, influenced by trends in Europe, scoffed at tradition. All the while, many leaders grew up on a solid foundation of classical Jewish texts. Today, while many secular Israelis are ignorant of the bible and 19th century Zionist philosophy, especially in the growing Orthodox and traditionalist Sephardic demographics, American-style liberal Judaism seems foreign and, for many, humorous. A few years ago, an Israeli comedian of Tunisian ancestry visited America searching for the New Jews. The videos enlighten by showing how clueless Israelis are about American Judaism. The fact that Israeli TV sent a Sephardic comedian to investigate highlights the split. Guri Alfi is shocked and confused but also respectful of American Judaism as if he were visiting a foreign planet. For years, many have criticized American Judaism for being Ashkenazi-centric. From the perspective of typical Israelis, America seems like a different world.

Israeli millennials and Gen-Z’s have experienced tremendous upheaval, witnessed unending violence, are more Middle Eastern in background and temperament than previous generations. When foreigners pull out the “ethno-national, European settler colonialism card,” most Israelis can’t understand what these clueless foreigners are going on about. The Middle East is where their families have lived for generations.

Within much of Israeli society, a religious awakening has stirred. If we use music to guide us, musicians like Yishai Ribbo and Idan Raichel reflect a new combination of traditional religion and modern interpretation. Ribbo sells out concerts using classic Jewish prayers and themes set to modern music—a spiritual revival that would have been unimaginable in Israel 30 or 40 years ago. Even Yehonatan Geffen’s son, Aviv Geffen, known, like his father, for left-wing anti-settler and anti-religious views, publicly apologized to religious settlers during a concert in the West Bank as recently as 2022. This represents a radical shift in the spiritual ethos of many in Israel.

Culturally, Israel has become integrated into the Middle East in temperament and ethos. Much of the criticism coming from outside, accusing Israel of being a European colonial project, is made by people who seem uncomfortable with Israeli society’s Middle Eastern reality. The young, white “TikTok”ers seem much more like the caricature they hate than Israelis do. Young Americans and Europeans seem oblivious to their own racism. The hate they give is more a reflection in the mirror than a deep understanding of Israeli society.

Perhaps the right-wing shift seduced the present Israeli government to push things too far too fast with an attempt at judicial reform, which led to massive protests for months. The rift in Israeli society caused by the push to change the judicial branch gave the appearance that perhaps the left wing was about to return to the political stage. Reserve pilots suggested they might now serve, and protesters called for changes in the status quo, including preventing segregated events in Tel Aviv. Some saw the protests as the swan song of the classical Israeli left. That interpretation doesn’t do justice to the various groups who joined, including right-wing politicians and settlers. But a rift was apparent.

And then October seventh came.

During the joyous Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeretz/Simchat Torah/Shabbat, hordes of Hamas and unaffiliated barbarians crossed the border in multiple locations. Religious and secular families were enjoying the holiday when human monsters entered peacenik kibbutzim and a massive vacation Rave party. The terrorists shouting “Allahu Akbar” or “God is great” laughed while torturing families, raping young women, and butchering children in front of their parents in unrelenting waves for almost seven hours. The terrorists took many who remained alive captive.

The mighty IDF and our intelligence services failed to take reports of the terrorists’ preparations seriously for well over a year. The multitude made of both members of Hamas and regular Gazans perpetrated well-publicized crimes. While attending a sunrise prayer service, we heard the distant booms from hundreds of indiscriminately fired rockets and then the responses of the IDF and Iron Dome. We hid in shelters, and services were cut short. Overwhelming evidence of the worst attack on Jews and non-Jewish Israelis spread even during the holidays. By Saturday night, what we thought was fifty or so terrorists turned out to be thousands. That month, media throughout the country commemorated fifty years since Egypt attacked Israel by surprise on Yom Kippur in 1973. Now, a new and even more devastating event presented itself.

Adding insult to injury, many left-leaning figures could not condemn the attack. Some who only recently championed never blaming victims expressed excitement for the attack. Feminist organizations and university faculty members who generally wave a banner of believing those claiming to be victims of sexual assault refused to publicly take Israel’s side despite the brave leadership of many politicians, especially President Biden. Those who supported or “contextualized” the attack filled up Social media. Antisemitism spiked, and many Jews and Israelis felt abandoned by groups they had supported. The global left revealed its antisemitic underbelly.

Friends across the world sent messages of support, Jewish organizations raised funds, and the Jewish community, with the exclusion of far-left-wing extremists, rallied to Israel’s side.

Then something in Israel snapped, and we went out to war.

Everyone I know in Israel is one degree away from a victim or fallen soldier. A neighbor’s son heroically sacrificed his life to save others. My daughter’s teacher fell in battle. Hamas kidnapped the elderly mother-in-law of a friend from the United States. Funeral after funeral took place. Israelis spent mornings looking over lists of the dead and praying for the families. Young wives and their children waved goodbye to husbands who may never return from the war in Gaza. Young female soldiers joined male friends in battle to free the hostages and prevent Hamas’ promised repeat attack. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis were displaced. All the while, pro-Hamas rallies spread worldwide.

And then Harbu Darbu. Music can powerfully express feelings. At one point, hundreds of thousands dressed in military uniforms to serve in the reserves. Years of attacks culminating in the horrors of October seventh or the Simchat Torah massacre have pushed many in Israel towards a world where Harbu Darbu speaks to them. Horror gave way to sadness, which gave way to anger and, in some cases, calls for revenge.

I find the fight song jarring and scary. It’s not who I want us as a society to be. I long for the naïve days of “the Prettiest Girl in Kindergarten” when Israelis can hope for a joint future with our Palestinian neighbors in one capacity or another. But right now, that dream seems far off. Now we are at war with Hamas and its many Palestinian friends and are afraid too many in the world have once again turned their back on Jewish suffering. Right now,

All my friends are on the front line.
One for Grandma and Grandpa
Writing names on the shells
For the kid in the Gaza envelope
[in the] Upper Galilee and the center too
Everyone is ready to fight.
Like hell! Like hell!
All units ready?!

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.