Minorities and Music in Israel

(Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

What happened?

This past week Israelis chose the song that would represent the country during Eurovision 2020 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The singer, Eden Alene, the winner of Israel’s reality show HaKochav Haba (The Next Star), is the first singer of Ethiopian descent to represent Israel in the much-anticipated contest. Eden’s mother claims that Eden sings everywhere, from the bathtub to the bus stop and that: “Eden represents pride for all Ethiopians. Everyone is behind her, supporting her and loving her.” The song that was chosen is called “Feker Libi,” which features lyrics in Hebrew, English, Amharic, and Arabic. You can watch a video of the song here.

In addition to the excitement surrounding Eurovision, this week Israeli rising star Nasrin Kadri made global headlines when she was featured in the New York Times. Kadri is a terrific representative of Israel’s diverse society:  she was born an Arab Muslim, converted to Judaism, and has now become a popular singer of Mizrachi music, in both Hebrew and Arabic, selling out arenas around the country.

Why does it matter?

The Ethiopian Minority Experience in Israel 

The immigration and absorption of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel has been both incredible and challenging. Explained well by New York Times journalist William Safire in 1985, “For the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought into a country not in chains but in dignity, not as slaves but as citizens.” The trickier part of this mission has proven to be the integration of these people into Israeli society. Many of the new Ethiopian immigrants had no prior exposure to modern technology or culture;despite that, the community has come a remarkably long way since their arrival. Ethiopian-Israelis are enrolling in universities, rising in the ranks in the military, and excelling in various professions. 

The community overall has a lower socio-economic standing, with unemployment and poverty rates higher than average, and experiences racism and discrimination. Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer calls it “that very Israeli syndrome of excellence at peaks and stagnation in the troughs.” A Jerusalem Post article referenced that the Ethiopian-Israeli community “has long accused the state, including the military, of racism, neglect, brutality and abuse.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the tension, saying “We worked together and achieved important things for the Ethiopian community in Israel, and we have more work to do.”

The music scene helps us understand Israel

Israel’s music scene helps us understand Israel, where it came from, what it is like, and which direction it is heading in. Yossi Klein Halevi writes that Pre-state Zionist music and then popular music in the country’s early years carried the theme of the “new Hebrew man,” which had just removed itself from 2,000 years of life in the Diaspora. Today things are different. New Israeli music is often inspired by the “piyyut” (Jewish liturgical poem), which elevates the re-Judaization of Israeli culture. Whereas early Israeli music’s message to Jews living in the Diaspora was that it did not belong to them — as they didn’t live in the country –modern Israeli music does just the opposite. Klein Halevi writes that “this is the soundtrack for a new covenant between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, for a shared responsibility for the future of Judaism and the Jewish people world-wide.” In other words, Israeli music is an expression of a certain “Jewishness” that is always evolving and adapting. Through its music (and in literature, film and Torah study), Israel has become a factory of Jewish culture for the world.

Israel as a Multicultural Society 

Israel’s multiculturalism is on full display through its music which spans the religious and political spectrum. On one hand, you have left-wing hip-hop groups like Hadag Nachash that criticize Israeli political policy; on the other hand, right-wing hip-hop groups like Subliminal give an opposing viewpoint. Mizrahi music, now arguably the most popular musical genre in the country, often has religious undertones and references to the roots of Mizrachi Jews who make up half of Israel’s Jewish population. By listening to the music of Israel, one can learn about Israel’s diverse society: its strengths, challenges and dreams.

Diversity of Music in Israel

Speaking about Israeli music, Dekel, one of the country’s top music purveyors, says that “the music has world influences from other countries and is also coming from individual experiences. There’s so much going on musically here that people should move here for the music.” Israeli music is a wonderful representation of the cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity within Israeli society. As journalist Matti Friedman writes, “to understand Israel, listen to its pop music.” Below, enjoy links to top Israeli singers (both classic and current) from a multitude of backgrounds:

Mizrachi/Arab Music:

  • Zohar Argov – The “King” of Mizrahi music
  • Sarit Hadad  – The “Queen” of Mizrahi music
  • Eden Ben Zaken – One of Israel’s biggest pop stars (referred to by some as Israel’s Britney Spears), Eden rose to fame when she was runner-up on the show X-Factor Israel and was named Israel’s Woman of the Year for three years running
  • Dam – An Arab-Israeli / Palestinian hip-hop group that mostly raps about racism and poverty
  • Omer Adam – One of the biggest pop stars in Israel, with hits like “Shnei Meshugaim,” “Mahapecha Shel Simcha,” and “Modeh Ani
  • Nasrin Kadri – up and coming popstar in Israel, an Arab convert to Judaism who sings in both Hebrew and Arabic

Religious Music:

  • Motty Steinmetz – A Chasidic superstar who has become popular in both the Charedi and non-Charedi community; he sings in both Yiddish and Hebrew
  • Ishay Ribo – A religious singer who immigrated from France, Ishay Ribo is popular within the Charedi, National-Religious, and secular community
  • Yonatan Razel – A Charedi singer who is also a composer and conductor

Ashkenazi-Israeli Music:

  • Naomi Shemer – Referred to as the “First Lady” of  Israeli song and poetry, Naomi Shemer wrote some of Israel’s most iconic songs like “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” and “Lu Yehi
  • Arik Einstein – nicknamed “the voice of Israel,” Arik Einstein wrote some of the most popular hits in Israeli history
  • Shlomo Artzi – One of Israel’s most successful male singers, Shlomo Artzi has been a household name since the late 1970s
  • Aviv Geffen – an Israeli rockstar who has been popular since the early 1990s. Identifying with the Israeli political left, his lyrics often focus on love, peace, politics, and the army.

Ethiopian Artists:

  • Eden Alene – recent winner of Israeli reality show “Hakochav Haba,” Eden will represent Israel in the upcoming Eurovision competition in Rotterdam
  • Cafe Shachor Chazak – an Israeli hip-hop duo of Ethiopian background
  • Idan Raichel Project – Idan Raichel’s group is a diverse showcase of music, featuring instruments and singers from various backgrounds