Yael Ben-Yehuda, an Israel Radio announcer best known for refusing to air a Volkswagen commercial in 1966, died last week at the age of 81.
At the time, the practice was for news announcers to read out advertisements during their broadcasts, just as they read the news.
The Volkswagen commercial would have been the first ad for a German product ever aired in Israel, Haaretz reported at the time. The wording was innocuous: “If you have a Volkswagen, you don’t have problems.”
But when Ben-Yehuda saw what she was supposed to read, she refused to do it, explaining that she “objects as a matter of principle to selling German products in Israel.” Several of her Lithuanian relatives had been murdered in the Holocaust.
Her boss, Nakdimon Rogel, ultimately obliged her to read the ad, saying if she had a problem with it, she could write a letter to management explaining her objections. In a show of solidarity, her colleagues initially joined her refusal to read the ad, but ultimately went along with it. In addition, they sent a letter to management demanding that announcers not be forced to read slogans that violated their principles.
In the end, Ben-Yehuda won: Israel Radio’s management agreed that henceforth, she would not have to read out ads for German products.
Ben-Yehuda was born in Herzliya in 1938 to Rachel and Yerachmiel Ben-Yehuda (originally Kolbson). Her father had been a school principal in Lithuania; her mother, nee Mintz, had been a member of Kibbutz Ein Harod.
In 1963, Ben-Yehuda began working at Israel Radio. In addition to being a news announcer, she was the host of several programs, including the talk show “Hakol Patuach.” She also worked as a reporter for the station, covering education and the presidency.
She is survived by her husband, physics professor Mordechai Rokni, three children and several grandchildren.
Today, it’s hard to find Israelis who boycott German products. But in the 1960s, such boycotts were common. When Volkswagen began selling in Israel in 1959, protesters pained swastikas on its buildings and cars. Nevertheless, it ultimately enjoyed considerable success here, despite the fact that its most famous car, the Beetle, had been a pet project of Adolf Hitler.
Israel also boycotted German composers identified with the Nazis in those years. In summer 1966, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra sparked a storm when it announced that it had decided in principle to let works by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss be played at its concerts. In a statement, it said there was no justification for depriving Israelis of “some of the greatest musical works, … a loss for which there is no substitute in the works of any other composer.”
Even more controversial than the decision itself, however, was the orchestra’s assertion that the change was necessary “not only because of the lofty requirements of artistic freedom, but because of the change in the nation’s relationship with the destroyers of our people.”
Haaretz attacked that statement in an editorial. “It’s hard to imagine a less felicitous phrase than the one the orchestra’s management found,” it wrote. “The Israeli people’s feelings about Nazi Germany haven’t changed. And even if it’s possible to see a contradiction between the popularity of Volkswagen cars and refraining from playing Wagner and Strauss, one shouldn’t conclude from this that Jewish Israeli public opinion about the Nazis and the German people’s responsibility for the Nazi era has softened.”
The editorial did agree that the ban on Wagner and Strauss should be lifted, but only because the decision to ban any work of art “was a mistake to begin with, and should have been rescinded long ago.”
A few days later, the orchestra sent a letter to the editor of Haaretz retracting its initial statement, but replacing it with one many readers still found offensive. “It seems to us the time has come for a change – not just because of the lofty requirements of artistic freedom, but because opposition to Wagner has become a mere gesture,” it said.
Reader Mordechai Rosengarten of Tel Aviv was not appeased. “The orchestra’s staff will try in vain to convince us that there’s no connection between the music of these two composers and our feelings about Nazi Germany and Germany in general,” he wrote in a letter to the editor on June 30, 1966. “We, the generation of the Holocaust, won’t forget the Nazis’ crimes as long as we live, and every time we hear the sound of this ‘wonderful’ music, we see in our mind’s eye the murderers in jackboots shooting helpless people.”
In the end, despite the orchestra’s decision “in principle,” the ban on Wagner lasted for another several decades.
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