By Benjamin Kweskin

In the mid-1960s, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, refused to allow the Beatles to perform in Israel so as not to corrupt the youth.

Israel’s Music Evolves to Match Changing Society 1

Photo by Benjamin Kweskin Speaking at Moishe House Decatur, Eli Sperling addresses the connection between politics and music in Israel.

It’s hard to imagine he would have allowed Elton John, Ozzy Osborne, Lady Gaga, Madonna or Rhianna, all of whom have recently performed in Israel.

A dozen young people gathered in the spacious living room at Moishe House Decatur on Monday, Aug. 24, happy to see their friends and to fill their bellies with falafel, baba ganoush, tahini, Israeli salad, and a special drink mix of Tito’s vodka and pomegranate juice — a Tel Aviv staple introduced by the evening’s presenter, Eli Sperling.

An Israel specialist and assistant project coordinator at the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University, Sperling conveyed how Israeli music has changed and been affected by fluid political and demographic realities the past 70 years. Moishe House provides an open and energetic Jewish community for young adults, who create home-based Jewish experiences for the community through learning, tikkun olam, social programs, and celebrations of Jewish culture and holidays.

Sperling provided several songs picked to represent changes in Israeli culture, from pre-state to today. They represented different time periods, socio-political realities, racial tensions, and political and ideological expressions.

He said the pre-state yishuv (Jewish community) focused on building a “new Jew” through political and cultural cohesion focused on molding a “new Hebrew culture” for the immigrants, mostly Ashkenazi Jews from Europe. The first song Sperling presented, “Kinneret” (Sea of Galilee) by the poetess Rachel, spoke to the strong connection to the land. But the romantic melody was offset by the second song, “Shir Betar” (Song of Betar), a militaristic march highlighting strength and renewal. Both songs, representing the two main conflicting political streams of Zionism, were hits.

From 1950 to 1952, Sperling said, nearly 1 million Mizrahim (Jews from Muslim-majority countries) arrived in Israel, causing a huge demographic change. Israel’s cultural and political dynamics began to shift. Many of the new immigrants were Middle Eastern Jews: They spoke Arabic, Farsi and Turkish and listened to Middle Eastern music. Essentially, Mizrahim represented the “culture of the enemy” because of Israel’s lack of regional recognition.

By the 1970s, Mizrahim made up nearly half of Israel’s Jewish population but did not feel equally represented culturally and politically, and economic disparities were abundant. To show the dual Israeli realities, Sperling played a ’70s hit by Miri Aloni, “Shir L’Shalom” (Song for Peace). The message spoke to an external peace with Israel’s neighbors while neglecting to address the internal woes of Israel’s underclass.

As a counter, Sperling played the counterculture band Ha’Brera Ha’Tivit’s hit “Yeladim zeh Simcha” (Children Are Happiness), a satire aimed at the elite’s assumption that Mizrahim were there only to make babies and were content to do menial work.

Sperling reiterated that music in Israel, like everywhere else, is a reflection of the population — its diverse cultures, ideologies and political realities. Mirroring American culture to a degree, hip-hop has become increasingly popular in Israel.

The first of two hip-hop songs Sperling played was “Tikva” (Hope) by Subliminal and the Shadow, a Mizrahi duo raised in underprivileged neighborhoods. The song references the daily struggles and realities of Israelis. In stark contrast, Mooki D’s “Kulam Medabrim al Shalom” (Everyone’s Talking About Peace), performed by a middle-class Israeli, is friendlier and lighter.

The last song — a crowd favorite — was performed by the new trio A-wa, three Yemenite-Israeli sisters whose Arabic song, “Habib Galbi” (My Love, My Heart), is infused with an uptempo, hip-hop dance beat. The song epitomizes the convergence of the music of the first generation with the music of the current generation.

The new Israeli music to a significant degree has successfully combined the old and new, Western and Eastern.