Singer Izhar Ashdot is an Israeli rock star, among the biggest the country has to offer, one of those artists everybody likes—your mom, your kid, you. He’s been part of Israel’s cultural scene since the early 1980s, when he was a founding member of the legendary band Tislam, and today his songs are part of the national language. Everyone can sing along to at least one Izhar Ashdot song.
But like any Israeli, he’s also a citizen and observer of his state’s actions and policies, and he recently released a new album, the title track of which (“A Matter of Habit”) opens with the lines “Learning to kill/ is a matter of momentum.”
The track is an excruciating indictment of the Israeli occupation from the standpoint of the soldier on patrol (translation below), and is clearly very powerfully felt: Ashdot wrote the music, his life partner, Alona Kimchi, wrote the lyrics, and the video is nothing but graphics and lyrics, each and every word appearing in the middle of the screen. Toward the end, we see still shots of Ashdot himself as a young man in uniform.
Since the song was first released last month, it’s been played (and even performed live) on Israel’s military-run radio stations (Galei Tzahal and Galgalatz), stations that are as much a part of everyday Israeli life as NPR or KISS-FM, stations that have often paradoxically reflected a more liberal philosophy than many of the nation’s other broadcasters. It’s not unusual to hear songs on Army Radio that are understood to be explicitly critical of the government or its policies.
But on Sunday, HaAretz reported that station commander Yaron Dekel (also a major figure in Israeli culture and media) had cancelled a live broadcast of Ashdot’s new song, even as the musicians were tuning their instruments. In a statement, the station said
Izhar Ashdot is held in high esteem by Army Radio. In this specific case however, we believe with the artistic leeway afforded to artists by this station, Army Radio, as a station of soldiers, where many soldiers perform their military service, should avoid celebrating a song that demonizes those soldiers.
In response, Ashdot released a statement saying
The release of the statement and the announcement that it represents the position of Army Radio negates the possibility of holding a fair and balanced discussion on the song and its contents. I am worried by the fact that in a democratic country a media outlet bans a song.
It seems to me that this clash of needs and worldviews reveals something at the very heart of Israeli society: So much of the country is so deeply enmeshed in the ins and outs of military life—it becomes as invisible as water to fish. But invisible or not, it’s still there, and no military is a democracy.
No matter what the social values are around it, an army has demands that do not and cannot align with notions of freedom of speech and the airing of differences. And bottom line, soldiers have to have each other’s back.
Much as I agree with every word in “A Matter of Habit,” I’m not surprised that the commander of Israel’s Army Radio doesn’t like it. I’m not surprised that he’s worried about the morale of the people he’s meant to serve and represent, and I’m not surprised that other folks have taken real offense, no matter where they hear the song.
In a country where you’re taught from birth that yours is an unassailably righteous cause, that your army is the most moral on earth, and that everyone with an ounce of spine serves when and how s/he is told, hearing from one of your favorite singers that military service in an occupation army can warp your humanity is rough going.
Ashdot is far from the only Israeli artist to take on the occupation. Authors Amos Oz and David Grossman and singer-songwriters David Broza and Noa (Achinoam Nini) are perhaps the best known internationally, but a variety of actors, singers, musicians, poets, and others have long stood in the ranks of those who call for a just and peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
These artists see what many Israelis see: The occupation is catastrophic for the Palestinian people, but it’s also disastrous for Israel, a nation forever sending its children into untenable, violent circumstances, forever torn between the exigencies of its military and the imperatives of democracy.
I don’t know if one song (or book, or protest) can make any real difference. But I do know that the best way to make sure that everyone hears a song is to try to ban it.
Please note: The following is my own translation of the lyrics to “A Matter of Habit.” I tried to maintain both the spirit of the song and at least something of the beauty of the Hebrew. Translation is always more difficult when the original rhymes, and this is absolutely not my profession. My apologies for any ill turns of phrase.
Learning to killIs a matter of momentumIt starts out smallThen it comes to you
Patrolling all nightIn the Kasbah of NablusHey, what’s oursAnd what’s yours
At first it’s just a drillA rifle pounding on the doorBewildered childrenFrightened family
Then the closureIt’s already dangerousDeath lies in ambushAround every corner
You cock your weaponYour arm tremblesYour finger hardensTight on the trigger
Your heart goes wildThrobs with frightIt knows—the next timeWill be easier
They aren’t men or womenJust things, just shadowLearning to killIs a matter of habit
Learning to fearIs a matter of momentumIt starts out smallThen it comes to you
Tidings from aboveFall on the streetsThere’s no chance of living onThe end is so near
Prophecies of terrorLike the raven’s callBolt your shuttersBarricade yourselves at home
We’re just a tiny handfulAnd they are so manyA tiny landconsumed by enemies
Their hearts hold only hateThe evil inclination and darknessLearning to fearIs a matter of habit
Learning crueltyIs a matter of momentumIt starts out smallThen it comes to you
Every little boy is a manLusting after conquestHands behind your headSpread your legs
It’s a dangerous timeA time of terrorToughen up, soldierThere’s no virtue in mercy
Our cousin [note: Hebrew slang for “Arab”]Is like an animalAlready used to seeing bloodHe doesn’t sufferHe’s not human
Fatigues and a rashExhaustion and routineFrom stupidity to evil the distanceIs short
It’s ours, only oursThe land of IsraelLearning crueltyIs a matter of habit
Little boy, little boy, stopLittle boy, little boy, come backCome here, my darling,Come here, my baby
The skies are so gloomyAnd outside all is darkThe toy soldiers are still hereUnderneath your bed
Come home, little boy.Come home.
Learning to loveIs a matter of tendernessCareful stepsOn a cloud of gentleness
We’ll go slow, we’ll meltWe’ll grow soft, we’ll lose our edgeLearning to loveIs a matter of habit
Being humanIs a matter of momentumIt sprouts like a babyThen it comes to you
To be just for a minuteJust for now, just todayOn the other sideOf the same barricade
But our heart’s already callousedOur skin already thickDeaf and blindIn the bubble of the present
We’ll gaze in wonderAt the fallen angel.
Being humanIs a matter of habit,A matter of habit.