Court Overrules Arab Israeli Town Decision to Ban Rapper Over Purported Indecent Lyrics

Court says freedom of expression is not just about 'freedom to express things agreeable and pleasant to the ear,' rejecting municipality argument that Arab Israeli rapper's songs are not in keeping with city's values

Tamer Nafar during a performance in Haifa, October 18, 2016.
Rami Shllush

Israel's Haifa District court on Thursday overruled a decision by the Arab Israeli municipality of Umm al-Fahm to prohibit a concert by renowned Arab rapper Tamer Nafar over his purportedly inappropriate lyrics.

The court responded to a petition by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel "on behalf of Umm al-Fahm residents who want the show to take place," arguing that "Freedom of expression is not only freedom to express things that are agreeable and pleasant to the ear, or to protect widely accepted ideas."

The concert had been cancelled on Tuesday over what the municipality said was inappropriate content in his songs, which are "not in keeping with what is acceptable from a religious, moral, educational and cultural perspective." The municipality's lawyer is now considering whether to appeal the decision. Meanwhile Nafar, who had initially expressed hopes his concert would take place eventually, announced he's not going to perform after all despite the last-minute decision by the court.

Nafar, who defines himself as a Palestinian citizen of Israel from the central city of Lod, is considered a controversial figure for his unwavering stance on the rights of Palestinians and gender equality. His songs, the Umm al-Fahm municipality's statement said, "contain expressions, concepts and ideas that are not in keeping with our cultural and social atmosphere."

"Emta Njaqzak Yamma" by Tamer Nafar's DAM band

In the ruling, Judge Bettina Tauber said Mayor Samir Sobhi Mahamed's arguments to outlaw the concert weren't detailed enough, adding that because the concert is not due to take place in an open space people who haven't deliberately chosen to attend it are not exposed to it. "The main role of freedom of expression is protecting opinions liable to [be perceived as] outrageous and to make people angry," the ruling read."

Mayor Samir Sobhi Mahamed highlighted his decision was taken after 15 out of 17 municipality council members approved of it and criticized references to "intimate parts of the body" in the rapper's songs as "inconsistent with the education and culture" he wants to cultivate for residents of the city.

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The official announcement for the cancellation of the concert said residents need to be exposed to "proper" cultural content which would preserve what they termed "the special atmosphere and taste of Umm al-Fahm."

The municipality also said the performance had not been presented to the community center’s board for discussion.

A similar controversy arose in the city last year over a concert by Siraj band, whose members include both men and women. The debate over allowing the band to perform, first on social media and then in the form of a violent attack at the community center by those who opposed the show, led to the disintegration of the city's leading political party, made up of religious and non-religious representatives, but the concert did take place eventually.

"Jasadikhom" by Tamer Nafar's DAM band

Nafar and event organizers said the city's announcement took them by surprise. The producer, Cinemana director Mohammad Bitar Odeh, told Haaretz the concert was part of an Education Ministry project for youth, adding that hundreds young people had bought tickets, refuting the city’s claim of sweeping objection among Umm al-Fahm residents.

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Nevertheless, he said that if the city doesn't backtrack its decision, he can't fight it.

Alongside conservatives who support the city's move, some residents also took to social media to express their resentment. Social activist Mohammed Mahajna said he intends to take legal action against the decision, which he argues many residents oppose.

"The mayor's announcement presents Umm al-Fahm in a distorted way, as if the entire city has adopted a single position, which isn't true," he said. 'There are people with different opinions in this city who want to see Nafar and go to concerts, and unfortunately the mayor, who is supported by the Islamic Movement, is now paying the price for this support and it’s unacceptable. We will not agree to such coercion."

Dan Yakir, chairman of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel that filed the petition against the cancellation of the event, said the decision was a "serious violation of the freedom of artistic expression," adding that it severely violates artists' right to express themselves and residents' right to attend the show.

Yakir noted in his letter that in recent years, national and local Israeli authorities have suppressed freedom of expression in Palestinian cultural institutions and in those working to challenge Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, lamenting that the Umm al-Fahm municipality "has joined the voices of those looking to censor culture and art."

Last year, Nafar was disinvited from a concert organized the student union at the Tel-Hai Academic College in northern Israel over what an organizer told Nafar’s manager was an attempt to avoid “unpleasant friction” in light of the rapper's outspokenness on political matters.

In 2016, Nafar has publicly clashed with Culture Minister Miri Regev, who walked out during his performance at the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars after a poem by Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish was recited.