Zohar Argov on the Corner of Tupac Shakur

Argov deserves a street named after him. But is it possible to separate the issue from the way he lived his life?

Zohar Argov was huge, a superstar singer who achieved a breakthrough in Israeli music. Zohar Argov was a rapist who served a year in jail, not just a drug addict, say those Rishon Letzion residents who oppose the city's decision to name a street after him. His last arrest, for an alleged rape attempt, ended in suicide.

Tel Aviv also recently proposed naming a street after Argov and after Shoshana Damari and poet and feminist activist Dr. Vicky Shiran.

Street names have long served as a platform for social debate. Around two years ago, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality considered countering discrimination by naming more streets after women, Arabs and homosexuals. A year earlier, secular residents of Jerusalem protested the "religious awakening" of streets, whose names were changed in honor of rabbis.

There was once a rather big dispute over Heinrich Heine: The state had a hard time forgiving him for his conversion to Catholicism. Instead of having a street honoring him, a small street in south Tel Aviv was called Rabbi Von Bacharach Street after one of his literary works. The embargo was lifted about a decade ago; there is now a Heinrich Heine Street in several Israeli cities. Will there also be a Zohar Argov street?

Hardly anyone disputes Argov's greatness and his contribution to Israeli music and also to the self-image of a large part of the Israeli population. Argov deserves a street named after him. But is it possible to separate the issue from the way he lived his life?

Argov belonged to a worldwide community of artists who took drugs. The culture of rock 'n' roll is saturated with them - leading stars who died of an overdose (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison) or living legends (Mick Jagger and Cliff Richards) who were convicted on drug charges in the 1960s.

Rapper Tupac Shakur was a drug dealer, considered a gangster and convicted of rape, but is admired to this day, a decade after his murder.

"In a gross assessment, I assume that a very large part of the male artists of the preceding centuries would not pass the feminist judgment today," says Prof. Motti Regev, a sociologist and a lecturer at the Open University. "That doesn't prevent the writing of encyclopedia entries about them. In the case of Zohar Argov, other issues seep in to the matter: his Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) origins, the fact that the Mizrahi music for which he was famous was not perceived as the ultimate in popular music, not today either and not even if he himself was an artist who earned a place of honor."

Regev mentioned the Haaretz weekend supplement article of a week ago about Shmulik Kraus. It raised all sorts of things about his past, but with a forgiving tone, he said. "And it seemed reasonable to me. And it's reasonable also that sometime in the future, a Tel Aviv street will be named after him. He left a mark. What is unusual is that one person among many is being singled out. "What stands out here is the one person for whom it doesn't proceed smoothly."

Shula Keshet, an artist and the director of the women's organization Ahoti (My Sister) does not think things should proceed smoothly. "There is a huge difference between a drug addict, who is a victim of the society, and a rapist, who is an attacker. Especially today, when there are quite a few cases of sex crimes, even among elected leaders. It's inconceivable this would be ignored.

"Zohar Argov was an amazing artist, but I object to naming a street after him. It legitimizes the rape of women. It turns us into a society where if you are an artist, or the president or a minister, you are allowed to rape."

But Ron Kahlili, the TV producer and editor who created the series "Yam Shel D'ma'ot" (Sea of Tears) about Mizrahi music in Israel, argues that "every marginalized group in Israeli society suffers from delegitimization, and the heroes of these groups almost always are blemished. Whoever talked about Mizrahi identity, and not about 'reconciliation' and 'integration' was assailed, be it by various accusations or mockery because he is dumb or doesn't know English."

Kahlili adds: "Anyone who sifts through the biography of just about every Israeli hero will find something. Naming a street after Moshe Dayan is okay? There are complex legitimate heroes and Zohar Argov, a revolutionary who symbolized an entire generation and did not capitulate to the mainstream, is one of them. I'm not making light of the rape, and there is no need to sweep the blemish under the rug, but if you compare him to other legitimate heroes, it's not particularly unusual."

Dr. Ketzia Alon, head of Gender Studies at Beit Berl College, says the situation is particularly complex. "Zohar Argov does not represent something consensual. The question is to what extent we include in the canon someone who is perceived by large segments of the public as representing a subculture. She fears "the matter of the rape will serve as a weapon in the hands of conservative forces, whose agenda is essentially different."

It's clear that the mere proposal to commemorate an artist who was a criminal, whether approved or not, represents a rather forgiving stance toward artists.

"It's a religious matter relating to the sanctity of art," says Regev. "In the world of religion, rabbis and priests are forgiven, and this is the religion of the secular. Works of art are sacred. Creativity is perceived as a key quality that creates sensitivity and exaltedness for us." And so an alternative lifestyle is permitted, says Regev.

Perhaps it's better to focus on works of art, and not their creators. Who knows what skeletons or unpleasantness lies behind a wonderful creation?