Song of Peace, Song of War

From `Jerusalem of Gold' to `Darkenu,' Israeli songs become symbols, and teach us about their times.

Michal Palti
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In 1968, Ha'aretz reported that then MK Uri Avnery had presented a bill to the Knesset Speaker, proposing that Naomi Shemer's "Jerusalem of Gold" be anointed the country's anthem. "Avnery spoke with Shemer," the newspaper reported, "and she informed him that she did not oppose the proposed law, and that its acceptance would be an honor for her."

Thirty-four years later, Avnery still believes that "Jerusalem of Gold" could serve as an excellent national anthem, instead of "Hatikvah." His perspective on Shemer's tune interestingly reflects the status of "period songs" - these are songs associated with a particular event or time in Israeli life, and which stir a flood of memories whenever they are heard. "Jerusalem of Gold" is apparently Israel's most conspicuous example of a period song.

In recent months, a new period song has struck a chord in the country. This is a new version of "Darkenu" - "Lo kala, hee lo kala darkenu" (not easy, it's not easy, our path). The song was first written in 1986 by Yaakov Rotblit (Danny Bassan performed the original version). Currently playing in the television series "The Bourgeoisie," the song has become a source of solace and encouragement in the current war. A comparison between the two songs points to differences that go well beyond lyrics and melody.

Uri Avnery adamantly believes that "Jerusalem of Gold" is a hymn worthy of all citizens of the state. He explains: "My position then was essentially a protest against `Hatikvah.' I wanted to propose an alternative song that had a chance of being accepted. I still think that `Hatikvah' is appropriate neither for the Hebrew population nor the Arab public in Israel. It is a song about the yearning for Zion, about homesick longing, and it doesn't deal with life in this country. `Hatikvah' also separates Jews from the rest of the citizens of Israel.

"With a few revisions in the lyrics, `Jerusalem of Gold' is more suitable, because Jerusalem is a holy city for the two peoples who live here, and both truly love it. The late Faisal Husseini and myself coined the slogan `United Jerusalem, capital of two peoples,' and I continue to believe that a non-partitioned Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel and Palestine. With a few changes, I think it could be a pretty good anthem."

Avnery had to meet with the song's composer, Naomi Shemer, in order to submit his proposed bill." I met her, and she didn't object," he recalls. "Of course, I didn't conceal my intention to change lyrics that wouldn't have been acceptable to the Palestinians."

And today? Would anybody today entertain the thought of proposing that "Darkenu" be made the national anthem? The answer is most likely no - and this is not only because the fervor and exaltation of "Jerusalem of Gold" are lacking in "Darkenu."

Taken out of context

Dr. Oz Almog, a sociologist and researcher of Israeli culture at Emek Yezreel College, and Yoram Rotam, a veteran producer of music broadcasts on Israel Radio, emphasize changes in the "coronation" process of period songs.

Rotam: "The days in which army choirs would be summoned to radio studios to record patriotic songs ended in one fell swoop, due to the trauma of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. This war created a deep fracture in collective music. Individualism leapt forward. The system by which songs won popularity started to work differently."

The histories of later period songs are fraught with suggestions of random luck and good fortune. "Naomi Shemer composed her 1980 song `Al Kol Eleh' [About all these] for her sister Ruthie, who had lost her husband," recalls Rotam. "Yossi Banai sang the song at the end of a successful appearance on a television program. Later the song was appropriated by people evacuated from Yamit [in the Sinai Peninsula], due to a line imploring `do not uproot what has been planted;' the song took on a political cast. Such appropriation is typical: a line is taken out of context, and the song starts to appeal to the whole public. The same thing happened to `Ani Hozer Habayta' [I'm going home], a song performed by Doron Mazar, and which became an anthem for soldiers who returned from Lebanon."

Oz Almog also identifies changes in ways in which period songs take root. "The nation-based culture is collapsing," he says. "And we are witnessing artificial attempts to manufacture it anew, with patriotic enlistment songs such as `Itakh Ani Nishar' [I'm staying with you], which Israeli artists recorded recently to heighten morale, as part of a Jewish Agency campaign. But these are artificial songs that usually don't become true period songs.

"Today, people sing about `me and you,' and not about a place and its charms. The current period song is taken from a television series which is watched mainly by adult, 30-something viewers, who simply want to live a reasonable life. That sums up the situation."

Almog finds another element in "Darkenu" that characterizes the current period. "Today," he explains, "the songs say `they've ruined our good times, they're harming us, but we continue.' There is no proud trumpet blast, no raising the flag. Shuli Natan, who performed `Jerusalem of Gold,' symbolized at the time a naive, fragile people. She was an 18-year-old girl who climbed onto the stage for the first time."

"Darkenu" was released as a single a few months before it was broadcast on the final segment of "The Bourgeoisie" television series. The Al-Aqsa Intifada was already raging; and the song, in a mellifluous rendition done by two actresses, became a favorite with radio producers. The single is marketed by the Hed Artzi company, and has sold more than 20,000 copies - an unusually high figure for a single in Israel, particularly at a time of economic stagnation. The series soundtrack has also sold at a comparable level, thanks largely to "Darkenu." The song was given a slot on the Tammuz awards night for Israeli music, and its clip was broadcast on television.

When a song scales such heights of popularity, the moment of political appropriation cannot be far off. In fact, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tried to claim "Darkenu" in a television interview: "How do Zohar Ashdod (sic) and the bourgeoisie put it in the song? Not easy, it's not easy, our way."

Songs drafted for special circumstances

Dr. Moti Regev, whose doctorate analyzed Israeli songs, says: "`Darkenu' typifies a phenomenon by which a song becomes a kind of marker. This is a song that became attached to a period because of circumstances; frequently, the reason for its [popularity] is a line or two taken out of context. This happened with Aviv Geffen's `Livkot Lekha' [Cry for you]. Performed by Arik Einstein, the song began to permeate the culture on Memorial Day, before the Yitzhak Rabin assassination. But it became branded indelibly in the [collective] memory when Geffen sang it after the murder.

"In contrast," Regev continues, "a song like `Jerusalem of Gold' was written in a concrete context - in honor of a defined event, under special circumstances. `Jerusalem of Gold' is a song drafted for a national cause; a particular topic called it into being ... Some songs are hurt by their almost complete association with a period or an idea. `Jerusalem of Gold' illustrates the point - it's impossible to listen to, even if it's inserted on a play list of songs on Israel Radio."

Regev points to some other period songs: "Lu Yehi," which Naomi Shemer wrote during the Yom Kippur War under the inspiration of the Beatles' "Let it Be," and "Ein Li Eretz Aheret" (I have no other country) by Corinne Alal, which is identified with the first intifada.

According to Regev, period songs are common in cultures all over the world. Israel is not a special case. "There were hippie songs in the `60s, Depression songs in the U.S. in the `30s, and so on," he explains.

Though period songs continue to make the grade in Israel, it's hard to ignore their somewhat tarnished status today. In contrast to "Darkenu," "Jerusalem of Gold" sold 120,000 copies in a few months, in a much smaller market of potential Jewish buyers. The vinyl disc with the gold-colored letters could be found at the time in a large number of homes that had record players. The song reflects a well defined era in Israel's collective memory - the period of tense anticipation before the Six-Day War.

Dan Almagor, songwriter and researcher of Israeli music, says: "In my opinion, `Jerusalem of Gold,' which was written innocently by Naomi Shemer, changed the history of the Middle East."

He elaborates: "The song festival was held in 1967 in Jerusalem's Binyenei Ha'ooma. For the first time, they decided to stage songs written by composers and poets to entertain the audience, while votes were tallied [to select the top singer]. They asked for songs by Haim Hefer, Moshe Vilanski, Sasha Argov and Naomi Shemer. Teddy Kollek proposed that the songs be written about Jerusalem.

"Today it might come as a surprise, but at the time, during 19 years [of Israeli statehood], songs weren't written about yearning for Jerusalem. The subject apparently didn't interest the writers and the public. Naomi Shemer wrote a song about Jerusalem, and deftly brought up familiar elements, `violin,' `psalm.' She played the song for Rivka Michaeli, who grew up in Jerusalem, and Michaeli told her: `Why don't you write the song about longings for the Old City?'"

Following Michaeli's advice, Shemer added another verse to the song, referring to an empty market square, and dried up wells.

"Independence Day came around," Almagor says, continuing the story. "The Festival at Binyenei Ha'ooma began, and IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin sat down in the front row. A minute after Shuli Natan sang the song - actually, she sang it three times, for the entranced audience - Rabin received a note informing him about the closure of the Strait of Tiran. That marked the start of two weeks of anxious waiting for the war.

"The song was played constantly on the radio throughout this period. Had it not been for the song, it's doubtful that there would have been such readiness to charge and conquer the city. This was before Gush Emunim and messianism. This song has extraordinary historic import. Paratroopers at the Western Wall didn't pray. They sang the song."

Two weeks after the conquest of East Jerusalem, Naomi Shemer tacked on a verse that refers to Israelis returning to the Old City.

To this day, "Jerusalem of Gold" stirs a diverse array of powerful feelings. Shuli Natan, the first to perform it, says she only encounters enthusiastic emotional responses to the song. "Some try to politicize the song," she says. "But it was written as a song of longing for a beloved place, for Jerusalem. It's not a military march, nor was it written by a soldier. It is an innocent, pure, wonderful song, and it doesn't matter whether a verse is added or not - it's an internal hymn for the people. There was a feeling that we were on the threshold of a war of life or death. Perhaps the way I appeared added to the story: I was a youngster, not a polished singer, and the combination worked.

"This wasn't a time when there was a television in every house," she says. "The next day, they started to play the song on the radio. Reservists were being called up, and people carried the song around with them. It was in the air all the time. Jerusalem's liberation made the song a reality. It is a song that was ahead of its time, and took on a mystical character. It gains in stature all the time. I sang it recently at the Ein Gev festival, in an evening devoted to Naomi Shemer - it's hard to describe what this song evokes."

Yet former Meretz leader and government minister Shulamit Aloni has a different take on the song. "`Jerusalem of Gold,'" she says, "is the fault line. It was written a little before the 19th Independence Day. There was a feeling that we were headed toward a difficult war, and people cuddled up to the song. But during the war a parody of the song was written: `Jerusalem of Iron' by Meir Ariel. In retrospect, it has become clear that `Jerusalem of Gold' is a colonialist song. Wells hadn't dried up; the market square was not empty. People were there all the time, but we didn't see them."

Can a period song have political influence? Aloni thinks so. "A song can be a political instrument," she says. Aloni admits to admiring a few protest singers, including Joan Baez. "A powerful verse from one of them can exert more influence than a political speech," she says. "Do we have such songs? Maybe Rotblit's `Song of Peace.'"

Controversial `Song of Peace'

But "Shir Hashalom" (the Song of Peace) - perhaps the song most associated with the left in Israel - was hardly an instant anthem. It, too, traveled a long way before becoming a classic period song. Various accounts are given for its transformation as a cultural symbol, and the explanations do not necessarily have to do with the song's lyrics.

Yaakov Rotblit wrote the song for the Nahal infantry choir, and it was performed for the first time in 1969. He is convinced that what gave the song life was Yair Rosenblum's rock arrangement. "Yair was in London in 1968, and he saw the musical `Hair.' He was very influenced by it. I wrote the song in a naive Israeli vein, but the rock guitar opening (by Danny Sanderson) and the song's blues-like continuation made it what it is."

Others believe that the song's suggestively iconoclastic lyrics, not its rousing rock and roll melody, account for its lasting impact as a peace anthem. A few lines have a late `60s, anti-military edge. For instance: "Se-u einayim betikvah, lo derekh kavanot shiru shir la-ahavah, velo lamilkhamot" (Lift your eyes with hope/ not through the rifle sights/ sing a song for love/ and not for wars).

Dan Almagor: "It's interesting to recall that `Song of Peace' was written after the great victory of the Six-Day War. This fact puts its yearning for peace in perspective."

Oz Almog: "What gave it status as a song of rebellion was Rehavam Ze'evi's decision to prohibit it from being played, partly because an army choir had suddenly turned into a rock troupe. Later on, feelings of unease after the Yom Kippur War contributed to the song's [mystique]."

`Darkenu' is Rotblit's second song to become associated with a period. As he sees it, a composer can't control the fate of his own creation. "A song reaches its pinnacle of popularity, and it becomes identified with something," he says. "This dynamic can't be invented; it simply happens. You can grin and be condescending about it, or you can respect what happens."

Rotblit continues: "When `Song of Peace' came out, I told myself that this rarely happens to a composer - one of his songs picks up a life of its own. I thought that this sort of thing happens once in a lifetime. Something very nice has happened to `Darkenu,' but I'm not sure it can be compared to `Song of Peace.' I wrote `Song of Peace' because I thought that a solution would be reached in the end. `Darkenu' is a personal, `civil' song. I wrote it to my late wife Orna in 1968. It's success was, for me, quite unexpected.

"Yizhar Ashdot informed me that he would record it for the bourgeoisie, and when I heard the tape, I loved what he had done with it - the singers who aren't really singers, the gentle arrangement. We are going through a very hard period, and this song apparently provides consolation. People are looking for something to hold, and this song provides it."

Few might have noticed, but in the past month, another period song has made the headlines. The name chosen by the IDF - Defensive Shield - for the current warfare in the territories is taken from a song written shortly before the 1948 Independence War, which deals with illegal immigration of Jews to Mandatory Palestine by foot. Though the words Defensive Shield (Homat Magen, literally Defensive Wall) appear in the song ("We are here, a defensive shield," wrote Haim Hefer), its title was "Between the Borders."

"How ironic," says Almagor. "This is a song about Jews who resorted to illegal acts during the Mandate. You could translate it to Arabic and it would be a consummate Palestinian song."