It’s hard for me to be shocked by what Amir Benayoun says in his anti-Arab song “Ahmed loves Israel.” In the Wikipedia entry for iconic Israeli singer Arik Einstein, who died last year at this time, the Israeli rock historian Yoav Kutner is quoted as describing Einstein as “the true Land of Israel.” But the truth is that Benayoun is the true Land of Israel.
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It’s hard to be shocked by what Benayoun says in “Ahmed loves Israel,” because I heard kids in white, bourgeois Ramat Hasharon saying this about the Arab women bending over to pick strawberries in the fields as we passed them on the way to elementary school. Here’s a joke: A good Arab is a dead Arab. I remember kids enjoying this bit of wisdom in the playground during recess. And did you know that Arabs can’t pronounce the letter p? They say b.
I heard it endlessly in the youth movement, when during night activities our counsellor would lead us on an operation to trap and kill imaginary evil Arabs who were hiding in an abandoned building. Cowardly, stinking Arabs never take showers and stick a knife in your back – did anyone ever hear another opinion in high school? That was the atmosphere in Israel; it always has been. A refusal to be racist toward Arabs was very unpopular.
I heard it in army basic training on the way to the camp in Samaria, with the trainees aiming their rifles out the windows of the bus at Arabs herding their sheep at the side of the road, and making sounds as if firing. I heard it all the time during the army intelligence course for “quality” people like me. For fun, when soldiers had time off base, they would leave the coins they tipped the Arab waiters buried deep in their plate of half-eaten hummus.
I heard it at the circumcision ceremony of a colleague’s son, when the jokes flew as people made fun of an Arabic accent in Hebrew. I heard it from blabbermouth taxi drivers. I heard it in the market, I heard it in living rooms where people who seemed enlightened and held academic degrees suddenly called Arabs “cousins” in a suspicious and degrading way – genteel and disguised racism among hypocritical cultured people who talk in codes and allusions.
I saw it in the eyes of good people along the way, apolitical and indifferent types, who shudder at the idea of their daughter marrying an Arab or an Arab doctor treating them in the emergency room. You buy village-style hummus from Arabs, and a sound track by the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum is great for a Batsheva dance company piece. Just don’t let them touch me.
Benayoun is not one of the herd. Leftists who read Haaretz and are automatically shocked by him – they are the herd. According to the norms of Israeli society, Benayoun is a completely normative Jewish Israeli. Normative – what a laugh. His only crime is breaking the semblance of respectability. He is a little ahead of his time. In the end, after all, the gap will disappear between what may be said on every street corner and what may be published. Meanwhile, Benayoun’s career will not be harmed. When you want to know which way the wind is blowing, you should listen to MK Uri Orbach and journalist Hanoch Daum. They were quick to defend Benayoun. Bresident Reuven Rivlin is a president of Arabs.
A racist society composes racist songs. “Ahmed loves Israel” is completely legitimate in the context of Israeli society. Generations of combat soldiers invented jokes exactly like these songs and sang them, entire companies, loud and clear, with the mag submachine gun operator drumming on the ammunition case before embarking on a regular action in a refugee camp. That is popular Israeli culture, that is local folklore. It’s a little late to be shocked by Amir Benayoun.