How an Incendiary Rapper Became a Symbol for Israel’s Angry Far Right

The Shadow is tapping into a rightward shift in Israel, and has gained a following among frustrated, anti-Arab citizens with his provocative calls to action.

Israeli rapper Yoav Eliasi, aka the Shadow, at a right-wing demonstration during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, July 17, 2014.
Tomer Appelbaum

Hundreds of demonstrators – many of them wrapped in Israeli flags – Stars of David painted on their arms and faces – are streaming toward Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.

One middle-aged woman holds aloft a two-sided homemade sign: “Too many terrorists in prison,” reads the front, written in thick green magic marker. “Kill them all,” reads the flip side.

A journalist is shoved. An activist from the B’Tselem Israeli human rights organization, who has come to the event with a video camera, is escorted out of the square by police after a threatening crowd gathers around him, shouting abuse.

Oren Hazan, a controversial Likud MK who recently suggested demolishing the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem to allow for the building of the Third Temple, is giving high fives in the VIP section. Baruch Marzel, a disciple of the late, hard-right MK Rabbi Meir Kahane, is clapping to the chant: “Hero! Hero!”

A bevy of teenage girls – in ripped cut-off jeans and matching T-shirts reading: “Rise up and kill him first!” – a reference to the Talmudic saying that begins with: “If someone comes to kill you” – are taking selfies.  

One person conspicuously absent is rapper Yoav Eliasi, or as he is commonly known, “Hatzel,” a stage name meaning “the Shadow.”

Eliasi, 38, should have been here. He helped organize the event – a rally last month in support of 19-year-old Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who shot and killed a Palestinian terrorist in Hebron in March, while the man lay, incapacitated and unarmed, on the ground.

Eliasi helped publicize it too, sending out daily missives to his 226,310 Facebook followers, entreating them to stand proudly alongside the family of the soldier – the “Hero,” in question – who is being held in military confinement until the conclusion of legal proceedings, and was charged with manslaughter. Eliasi was originally meant to be one of the main entertainment acts of the evening too.

But a day before the rally, other organizers – responding to concerns that the event was being hijacked by overly anti-establishment and dangerously radical voices – disinvited the outspoken rapper.

“The Shadow is considered too extreme,” explains one demonstrator, smoking a cigarette and sporting a black-and-yellow T-shirt – the colors of both the far-right Jewish Lehava organization, which rejects any relations, social or business, between Jews and non-Jews, and the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, known for its many anti-Arab fans. The smoker soon ends the interview when he realizes it is to be printed in Haaretz. “I wouldn’t want my name in a paper of Israel-haters,” he says.

Israeli rapper Yoav Eliasi, aka the Shadow, who is also a right-wing activist.
Nir Shmul

‘Slapped with a label’

“Yes I was hurt,” admitted Eliasi, in an interview with Army Radio a few days after the rally, when asked about being disinvited. “I have been slapped with the label ‘extremist,’ but what can I tell you – I don’t think I am extreme at all,” he told his interviewers. “I think the situation is extreme.”

Born in Safed, Eliasi grew up in Tel Aviv, and started rapping while in high school, in the early 1990s, just as a hip hop was starting to become popular in Israel. After the army – where he either did or did not serve in a secret undercover unit, the details are unclear – Eliasi gained fame performing together with his childhood friend Kobi Shimoni, the “king of Israeli rap,” aka Subliminal.

The timing was right. The peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the late ‘90s had collapsed and with the second intifada raging, the two rappers – all bling bling Star of David jewelry, tattoos, hooded sweatshirts, baggy pants and baseball caps pulled down low – captured crowds with their own original Israeli version of hip hop: unapologetically right-wing Zionist, hyper-nationalistic, populist and very angry.

Their 2002 album “The Light and the Shadow,” went double platinum, selling 100,000 copies, along the way turning the Star of David into a symbol of cool among the Israeli rap crowd. They performed up and down the country to packed audiences. One of the most popular tracks from that album was called “Biladi,” a reference to the official Palestinian Authority national anthem. The chorus of the song was in Arabic because, Shimoni explained, its message was directed “at those who understand that language.” The lines, straightforward enough, were: “This is my land. This is my country.”

A video of the song Tikva from the album "The Light and the Shadow" by Subliminal and The Shadow.

But, by the time Eliasi came out with his solo album: “Don’t Give a Fuck,” in 2008, the security situation in the country had improved, musical tastes had shifted, and interest in his message and style had waned. His record was not a big commercial success, and soon after Eliasi fell out with Shimoni, who – more commercially astute, and possibly more talented too – began experimenting with dance and electric music, started his own record company and clothes line and even started doing commercials.

In 2011, after years of living large – he once told the Israeli website NRG that “If I did not [have sex] with four women a night in the bathroom of the club, I could not return home” – the Shadow declared bankruptcy.

But his second act was still to come.

With his concert calendar freed up, Eliasi seems to have had some extra time to hone his Facebook persona, and quickly realized he could still get the attention he was used to without ever leaving his living room.

His amped up nationalistic message and his glorification of common soldiers — and this, along with his vitriolic rants against the left and the mainstream media, not to mention against the Arabs, garnered him a massive following, relative to this small country. With 226,000-plus official Facebook fans, Eliasi has zoomed way ahead of Aviv Geffen (95,614 Facebook fans), one of Israel’s biggest rock stars, who is associated with the left wing.

Today, although he still performs, Eliasi is better known for his provocative posts and calls to action – and the vulgar, often violent responses they illicit – than for any new lyrics or tunes.

Highlights of Eliasi’s Facebook posts over the last few years include a photo he put up in June 2014 – and later removed – of him holding a photo-shopped pair of testicles, with the words: “Revenge,” and the taunt: “Bibi [the nickname of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] I think you forget these!” writ large. The post, which went up soon after three Jewish teenagers were kidnapped by terrorists, came right after Eliasi popularized the tagline “We’re coming for yours” to go along with the “bringbackourboys” social media campaign. The teenagers were later found murdered.

Last October, the Shadow posted a unique solution to the wave of terror that was sweeping the country – suggesting that emergency medical teams responding to the knifing and car-ramming attacks immediately “cut the organs” out of dead terrorists at the scene – and hand them over to the National Transplant Center. “What do terrorists really, really hate?” asked Eliasi. “The answer is easy: Jews. What do you think would happen if in every terrorist attack they saved 10 Jews?”

Another suggestion involved castrating dead terrorists so as to put an end to any dreams would-be “martyrs” might harbor of cavorting with 72 virgins – as those who send them out on their missions promise.

Israeli rapper and right-wing activist Yoav Eliasi, aka the Shadow.
Moti Kimche

On various occasions, Eliasi has gone beyond such fantastical suggestions with calls for concrete action: In the summer of 2014, for example, during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, upon hearing about an anti-war rally in Tel Aviv, he called on his followers – whom he began terming “the Shadow’s lions,” to mount a counter demonstration against, as he put it, “the real enemy among us: the radical left.”

The hundreds that showed up alongside Eliasi – many of them shouting “Death to the Arabs” – attacked the left-wingers at the rally with clubs, beating them and sending at least one person to the hospital.  No charges were filed.

‘An opportunist’

“He’s an opportunist – because he’s not really someone who would be making headlines for music,” says Ami Pedahzur, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, who researches the radical right wing in Israel. “He is tapping into a well-documented rightward shift that has taken place in the country.”

“In the past, there would be condemnation across the board if a soldier committed a point-blank execution, as is the case with Azaria,” adds Pedahzur. “But today, we don’t hear condemnation from the right. The Shadow is more a symptom of the times than a problem.”

“I don’t think he is on the fringe,” agrees Dani Filc, a professor in Ben-Gurion University’s department of politics and government, who has done research on the populist radical right in Israel. “He is expressing, in a more rhetorically violent way, the things considered mainstream by the right-wing political establishment today.”

“The way he speaks about both Arabs and leftists has long been legitimized by the three main right-wing parties in Israel: Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu,” says Filc. “The difference is mainly in the vulgarity of his expression and, of course, the phenomenon of social media.”

Eliasi basically makes the same point the academics do: “The right wing always wants to show it is enlightened. They don’t like being called baboons, so they throw me to the wolves. That way they can be like: ‘We are legitimate right wing. But he is an extremist,” he said during the Army Radio interview about being disinvited to the rally last month. “But I am not going to soften my talk. I tell it like it is,” he says.

Frequently hateful

“The Shadow’s Facebook page is, consistently, one the places where we find the highest incidents of hate speech,” says Anat Rosilio, who runs the “hate speech index” compiled by the Berl Katznelson Foundation, an organization that promotes democracy education.

Using a bank of some 200 hateful words or phrases – from “Nazi,” to “retard,” to “Death to Arabs” – and armed with a powerful computer program, the index combs through Hebrew-language Twitter feeds, Facebook posts and feedback pages on news sites, and maps cases of incitement and hate speech that are polluting the web. The program can scan over half-a-million online texts a day, Rosilio explains, and it can break down not only what is being posted, but who is being targeted: from Arabs and leftists, to right-wingers and settlers, to asylum seekers and members of local LGBT and ultra-Orthodox communities.

“It’s crazy,” Rosilio says about the amount of incitement found on the Shadow’s Facebook page, primarily in the comments section. “The numbers we find there compete with numbers we see on far, far larger platforms – like on Ynet,” she adds, referring to Israel’s most widely read news portal.

A video of The Shadow's song "One Blood." A video of The Shadow's song "One Blood."

The point about the comments section is not trivial. “The Shadow’s posts walk a careful line,” explains Amir Fox, director of the Program for Protecting Democratic Values at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank. “They often border on hate speech – but just miss it.”

What Eliasi’s posts do, though, explains Fox, is “set up the shot,” leaving the more extreme racist and violent talk to his followers. For example, a post Eliasi put up recently about a terror attack in Jerusalem goes like this: “This is the 60-year-old Jew who was just gravely wounded a few minutes ago by a knife-yielding wimp of a terrorist,” he writes, uploading a snapshot of an older man, bleeding on the ground. “The terrorist, who ran away, was just caught,” he concludes – and then adds in parenthesis "unfortunately."

“I want to hear slaughtered, not captured!” was the first inevitable comment – one of 2,700 responses and comments in a similar vein, all posted within an hour. “Me too! But our soldiers are being castrated. We give terrorists cushy jail time instead of bullets!” writes the next. “Gas. Only gas,” suggests a third, referencing, it seems, Nazi gas chambers.

This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to prosecute Eliasi, says Fox.

“The legal system can’t deal with comments – it would be endless,” he says. “Even when it comes to posts, only the ones that are most clear cut – with a real possibility of ending in a prosecution – are investigated.”

‘Piece of garbage’

In the days immediately after the Rabin Square rally for Azaria, Eliasi, sulking and feeling unappreciated by his own camp, hinted he was planning to “retire” from his activism and social media efforts. But, after a few days, he clarified that he had only meant that he was temporarily “taking his foot off the gas pedal.”

If anything, the mini media circus surrounding Eliasi’s almost-retirement – which provoked dismissive and mocking reports on at least two prime-time television news shows about what he would do next – seemed to give the Shadow a new lease on life.

“Didn’t you retire, you piece of garbage?” a woman asked him on Facebook page. “Did anyone lose their bitch?” Eliasi responded, prompting the following comment, directed at the woman, from one of his followers: “Too bad Hitler passed you by,” it reads. “Go lick [Arab MK] Ahmed Tibi’s balls,” went the next gem.

Eliasi declined an interview with Haaretz, explaining, politely – over Facebook messenger – that “he can’t be expected” to give an interview” to a paper he believes is filled with “anti Zionism propaganda,” and which routinely publishes stories “against” him.

But it is not too hard to imagine what he might have wanted to convey, if he had spoken to this paper.

“Sorry to ruin your party, lefties, but I am not going anywhere. I am going to remain a bone stuck in your throats for a long time to come,” Eliasi posted last week, together with a photograph of him with arms outstretched, giving the camera the finger with both hands. He has gold stars attached to his middle fingers. “You, the lefties, bring shame on our country,” he charged.

“You thought: Yoav is a little vulnerable right now, let’s punch him when he is down,” he continues, referring to himself in the first person and going on to detail how some in the media called him names — from fat to stupid, fascist, racist and dyslexic – in their reports about his supposed retirement.

“I hope you understand that the country is sick of this hatred and when everything blows up, and we can’t extinguish the flames – remember where all this hatred for you started and how we got to this point,” he rants. “Meet me at the next rally,” he tells his fans, signing off.

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