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The song that made a country

'I Have No Other Country,' a beloved anthem embraced by today's protesters, was born of Ehud Manor's personal tragedy, as his widow Ofra tells it
I have no other country

Ein Li Eretz Acheret

Gali Atari (and many others)
Words: Ehud Manor
Music: Corinne Allal

* * *

In June of 1982, Israel Prize laureate and much-loved songwriter, Ehud Manor was sitting with his wife, Ofra, in the living room, watching the news on television. The news item was about the war in Lebanon.

She recalls this event vividly. “We saw footage of Israeli soldiers entering Beirut. Ehud broke down. I tell you, he was weeping. He said: ‘I cannot take it’, and then he began jotting down words on a piece of paper.”

Those words went on to become the song, “En Li Eretz Acheret – I have no Other Country”, voted time and again as Israel’s favourite song, and its title morphed into a popular catchphrase in the country.

Ofra Fuchs-Manor and I chatted about the song’s resurgence in today’s civil protests throughout Israel. “You know,” she said in a phone interview, “much has already been said about the genesis of this song, but it is actually about his young brother, Yehuda who Ehud raised after their father had died at a young age. He was like a father to him.”

“I remember Yehuda well. A tall, hugely handsome young man. He came to visit me in hospital shortly after the birth of our firstborn, Gali. He arrived in military fatigue, carrying his rifle, eager to meet his niece. From there he was drafted into the war and we never saw him again. He was killed in his tank, in the Suez Canal, during the War of Attrition in 1968, aged 19. After his death, Ehud became a very introverted, mournful person. Many of his songs came from this place of deep longing and sadness.”

Manor, who died of a heart attack in 2005, was a prolific songwriter whose songs have become the mainstay of Israeli discography. Some of his most memorable songs are played during Israel’s Remembrance Day.

“But you know, even his happy songs, such as Bashana Haba’a, have sadness infused into them,” she points out, exemplifying how the lyrics were manipulated, often subtly, to allude to his immense loss.

Ofra and Ehud. Photo: Itzik Biran

As a lyricist and translator, Manor’s work was legion. The inventory includes the translations of Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat, Les Misérables, Hair, and a host of other well-known Israeli musical productions. He also penned A-ba-ni-bi, the song which catapulted Israel to first place in the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest, for the very first time. It earned him international fame overnight.

But, as songs go, “I Have No Other Country” had a rather unpromising start.

Initially, Manor gave the lyrics to singer-composer Corinne Allal who recalls in a separate interview, how the tune was originally written to the words ‘Don’t look at me like that’ which she had found on a piece of paper that a former flame had left in her home before disappearing for good. Manor approached Allal with his poem and she decided to offer the music to him. He modified the lyrics to fit in with the tune. Allal then invited  (Israeli artist) Arik Sinai to record it, but he refused. “He couldn’t bring himself to say ‘I Have No Other Country,’” explains Ofra. “He was so angry and opposed to what was happening in Israel at the time.”

“No one wanted a bar of it,” she remembers. And so, the song was left untouched and unclaimed for four years. It was only in 1986, when singer Gali Atari decided to record it that the song came into its own. It was a run-away success and an instant hit. “I Have No Other Country” spawned dozens of versions, including Ofra’s own rendition (she herself was a successful artiste in her own right when she met Manor.)

Over time, the song title was adopted, usurped, quoted and coopted by different interest groups. It became a rallying cry for different sections of Israel’s society in support of their cause, including the settlers’ movement.

How did Manor feel about it?

“Initially, it hurt him a lot. We were in the car, driving, one day when we saw cars with bumper stickers carrying the slogan “I have no other country” on them. It soon transpired that the Right had adopted it as their slogan. After some time, he told me: ‘I wrote the song. It will be adopted by all segments of the country; it is now everyone’s.’ I think he accepted it. It belongs now to everyone: the secular, the religious, the Left, the Right… You know, even the Palestinians quote it!”

“But I want to share with you a very personal story relating to this song,” announces Ofra. “In November 1995 there was a massive peace rally in Tel Aviv in support of the Oslo Accords. The organisers had asked Israeli artists to come along and perform in it, in solidarity with the peace movement. Many of the country’s artists declined the invitation but Ehud attended. Just before (Yitzchak) Rabin took to the podium at the city hall, Ehud and I went up and…. It was just incredible. Seeing all those thousands of people singing “I Have No Other Country”; it was the most moving moment of my life. We knew Rabin and Leah [his wife], so, at the conclusion of the rally, we went over to say hello to them and walked down the stairs. Four minutes later Rabin walked down the same stairs and was assassinated. We heard the news in the car and were in total shock.”

That night Manor wrote a poem dedicated to Rabin, titled “This Cannot Be” which was later composed and performed by Boaz Sharabi.

A number of years ago, Yitzhak Herzog, (then head of the Jewish Agency, currently President of Israel), jotted down the lyrics to “I Have No Other Country” on a napkin and gave it to US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, when they met in the US.

In January 2021, after the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters, Pelosi said in a speech: “Especially during this sad time, I recall the words of the great Israeli poet, Ehud Manor, […] ‘I can’t keep silent in light of how my country has changed her face, won’t quit trying to remind her. In her ears, I’ll sing my cries until she opens her eyes.’”

Last year, she recited the poem again, in the context of the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe vs. Wade, ending women’s right to abortion.

Ofra chuckles when I mention Pelosi. “One day, out of the blue, [President] Herzog calls me to tell me that Nancy Pelosi is coming to Israel and that she wants to meet me,” she laughs aloud. “We met at the President’s lodge and ….what can I tell you? It was just incredible. We hugged and …she is a wonderful person.”

Manor’s song is a gift that keeps on giving. It is currently closely associated with the civil protests across the country against the proposed judicial overhaul. The song title is emblazoned on hundreds of placards, portions of the song are regularly quoted, and recently Gali Atari and Corinne Allal performed it together in front of a massive crowd in one of the Saturday night demonstrations on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv.

Ofra approves. “There is not a single demonstration where this song is not sung. It’s dynamite!”

“Look,” she says, “the lyrics state: ‘I shall not be silent because my country has changed its face’, but – and there’s the big but – I have no other country. “Ehud loved this country with every fibre of his being. This is our country. We really don’t have another country.”

 

This essay is part of ‘That Song,’ a collection of writings about that one Israeli song that rocked someone’s world. Click here to find more ‘That Song’ essays.
Questions or comments? Contact noahjefron@gmail.com

 

First published in Plus61J Media

About the Author
is a freelance journalist and teaches mathematics in Sydney, Australia.
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