December 4, 2008

When Listening Gets Political

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It seems like a passing memory now, but two weeks ago Israeli hip-hop group Hadag Nachash put on a terrific show at Noyes Community Center. Unlike other music acts that the Cornell-Israel Public Affairs Committee and Hillel have brought in the past (DJ Yahel and Teapacks) Hadag Nachash represented a very different kind of Israeli celebrity.
DJ Yahel could arguably be deemed apolitical (though his use of Egyptian samples was interesting) and Teapacks, who hale from conflict-ridden Sderot, voiced the common Israeli concern of the Iranian nuclear threat in their barely veiled tantrum about “crazy leaders” who want to “push the button.” Both acts, however, were meant as a sort of celebration of Israel, and as the gargantuan Israeli flag behind Yahel suggested, Cornell celebrated along.
Hadag Nachash, on the other hand, rapped about the tensions and problems both within Israeli society and between Israelis and Palestinians. Their closing song, “The Sticker Song,” is meant to show the deep-seated and angry divisions within Israeli society, juxtaposing bumper stickers with messages like “no Arabs, no terror attacks” and “long live the messiah.” Rapper Sha’anan Street made a quip about marijuana and the way it cuts across war zones, telling the audience that even when two peoples are at war, on both sides are “lighting up a blunt.” Towards the end of the set, he shouted “this is for the Arabic speakers in the house,” and he charged through an Arabic verse that included the line “I live in Israel / The whole country isn’t beautiful” (I hope I got that right!) suggesting that the ill treatment of Arabs in the country is something of which he is not proud.
The Cornell-Israel Public Affairs Committee does not speak with a unified voice, as no organization that deals with so complex an issue as Israel should, and so it was refreshing to see it promote a group like Hadag Nachash, whose politics are openly complex, ambivalent and troubled, much like those of the country that birthed them.
This is important because too often groups like Hadag Nachash stand in for what I consider to be a blind, celebratory attitude towards the State of Israel, evidenced most readily in the birthday celebrations and cultural events that usually mark our engagement with the country, both at Cornell and throughout the U.S. We don’t want to see its problems, and if we do, we don’t want to see them as Israel’s fault.
Palestinians and Arab-Americans I meet find it strange and troubling to see falafels, camels and Arabic music (DJ Yahel uses the famous Egyptian song Inta Omri in his sets) used to hold up the idea of Israel as a Middle Eastern country, when the country’s policies have been, in their view, frankly antagonistic toward the Arabs who make up the majority of the Middle East’s population.
From another perspective, one could see these cultural symbols as meant to assert Israel’s place in the Middle East, against those who would rather not see it there. This argument is valid, and though it leads to the strange idea of someone defensively eating a falafel sandwich, it is a call for cultural recognition not unheeded.
Nevertheless, I have spent two months of my life in Israel, and I have never seen a camel ridden by Jews in the country, save for the Disney-like “Bedouin experience” that gives Birthright Israel participants a chance to experience “roughing it in the desert.”
What I am trying to say, as I always try to, is that seemingly harmless cultural experiences like listening to Hadag Nachash and petting a camel on Ho Plaza belie a much more potent set of political issues. On Oct. 21, in that very same public space, activists from many organizations launched a protest against the way our culture interprets Columbus Day. For them, songs about the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria and celebrations of discovery mask a deeper, more problematic history of displacement and ethnic cleansing for those on the other end of the history. There is nothing, they argued, apolitical about this cultural celebration.
It is hard to say what Hadag Nachash really wants out of their American college audiences. They may want to represent Israel in all of its ambivalence and complexity to those American Jews who would rather see only a rosy picture of the “promised land.” At the same time, they probably want to be simple rockstars like anyone else. Street, in between songs, exclaimed the benefits of marijuana in a cross-culturally (maybe apolitical?) rock star way, that seemed to say “we’re just a band.”
But the question remains: When is it music and when is it politics? When is listening a political act?