“Lishkat Avoda” (“employment office” in Hebrew) may be the most incisive protest song ever recorded in Israel. It’s certainly the strongest protest song that is unknown to the great majority of Israelis — who at most are familiar with a fraction of it, the part sung in Hebrew.
The Hebrew part comes only after about four minutes during which Amar sings in Moroccan Arabic. “I went to the employment office/ He said where are you from/ I said from Morocco/ He said get out,” sang the late Moroccan-Israeli musician Yosef "Jo" Amar. And then: “I went to the employment office/ He said where are you from/ I said from Poland/ He said please come in.”
The story of the discrimination against the immigrants from North Africa in two tragicomic lines, and in real time: Amar wrote “Lishkat Avoda” after the Wadi Salib riots in Haifa in 1959, and the recording was apparently made a year later.
“I stood at those employment bureau windows,” said social activist Reuven Abergel, who was one of the leaders of the Black Panthers (an Israeli protest movement of second-generation Jewish immigrants from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries).
“I remember the closed grating, as though the clerk feared for his life. You don’t see the man on the other side. You pass the cards to him, you wait, and then he throws dozens of cards back into the room and there’s a stamp on three of them. For three people, of all those crowded into the room, there’s work somewhere. A bizarre and contemptible situation.”
Amar’s Hebrew was excellent when he immigrated to Israel in 1956. Why did he use a Moroccan Arabic verb rather than a Hebrew one for “I went to the employment office” — “mashit” and not “halakhti”?
He knows that he’s going to be humiliated there,” says Abergel, “That’s why he uses that language. In North Africa, for 2,000 years, we kept our heads down because we knew that we were ‘protected people.’ We obeyed the law. We walked on the corners of the street in order not to collide with a Muslim. We rode a donkey instead of a horse. We didn’t built a synagogue higher than a mosque. That’s what Jo Amar is doing here. He’s lowering his head. He’s also lowering his language. He’s saying ‘Okay, I’m ridiculous in your eyes.’”
Moroccan Arabic and Hebrew
The two stanzas in Hebrew, which constitute less than a quarter of the song, are not the main story. The story is the verses written and sung in Moroccan Arabic.
“I recalled the words of the people who separated us from our parents,” sang Amar, referring to the Jewish Agency envoys. “We arrived and we didn’t find what we had thought. God have mercy on us, God have mercy on us.”
Later he tells how, straight from the boat, they threw him into military training exercises, left-right, and then about the humiliation in the employment bureau, and afterward how he was laughed at in the kibbutz. Wherever he went, he felt foreign and ridiculed.
“Mother, look at me. In what a miserable tent they threw me. Drink and eat and walk around aimlessly, without direction,” translates Abergel.
Amar’s decision to sing most of the song in Moroccan indicates that despite the anger and humiliation expressed in the song, he wasn’t directing it at the establishment.
“In my opinion it was a painkiller,” says Abergel. “It was a song that raises the flag of the revolution. In our protests we didn’t sing it. But this song, as well as other songs in the same spirit were present in the immigrant transit camp, the tents, the street corners, the cafes.”
The verse about the shattered promise which is repeated often in the song, Amar sang with a group of men.
“These are people who underwent this difficult experience and repeatedly recreate it, in a humorous tone. Some of them already have work. The atmosphere is: Yalla, let’s laugh at what used to be.”
“My outlook today regarding those years isn’t one of moaning or crying,” wrote Amar toward the end of his life in his book “Ani Veshiri” (I and My Song”).
“I know that immigrants from other ethnic groups and from Eastern Europe also suffered and didn’t receive better conditions than my Moroccan brothers. Personally, I can’t complain about being shortchanged: My songs became cultural treasures in every home. But I have no doubt that Moroccans weren’t given an equal opportunity. Sending them to the development towns and the moshavim, where there wasn’t always a high educational level, led to that same backwardness and regression,” Amar wrote.
Several Hebrew-only cover versions have been recorded of “Employment Office” over the decades since it was written. The most recent prominent rendition was that of popular Israeli singer Eyal Golan, who included the song on his album “Shirei Kef Umatzav Ruah.”