The Cultural History of Israel

The following is an excerpt from the book Futurizing the Jews: Alternative Futures for Meaningful Jewish Existence in the 21st Century

by Tsvi Bisk and Moshe Dror

Israel’s cultural history has developed in a different direction. The pioneering stage was insular and suspicious of outside influences. When I arrived in Israel in the late 1960s, Israel’s cultural menu consisted of classical music and what is called “Land of Israel” music, (much of which actually derived from Russian and Ukrainian folk music!).

  All other music was held suspect by the political and cultural establishment. “Salon music” (popular dance music) was thought to signify cultural decadence. How would a generation raised on something so superficial be able to fight and defend the country? The adverse attitudes toward popular Western culture were so extreme that the Israeli government dedicated several sessions to debate the question of entrance visas for the Beatles. The visa request was eventually denied in order to protect the youth from their destructive influence. The extraordinary achievements of the salon-music generation during the Six-Day War dispelled such silly notions. In hindsight, the Six-Day War and its political and economic aftermath may have been the turning point as Israel developed a much more open, self-confident, and pluralistic culture.

  This provincial cultural attitude was particularly apparent in regards to Middle Eastern music. Up until the 1980s, this music was denigrated as “cassette music” because it was usually self-recorded on cheap radio/tape cassettes because the major Israeli record companies would not record such culturally inferior fare. Another term was “Central Bus Station” music, because the Oriental music cassette shops were mostly located at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. Oriental Jewish music was granted one or two hours a day on the Israeli radio and was always defined as folk music. Once a year, an Oriental Jewish Music festival and contest appeared on television. This was as far as the cultural/media establishment of Israel was prepared to go in recognizing the cultural legitimacy of more than 50% of Israel’s Jewish population. Arabic music was totally taboo and limited to the Arabic language broadcasts only.

  The enforcement of these cultural norms was fierce. As a volunteer on a kibbutz after the Six-Day War, I once turned on a radio station transmitting Arabic music. I thought that in order to understand the Middle East I should at least make an attempt to understand its culture. A young kibbutznik walked into my room and angrily turned off my radio: “We do not listen to such garbage here.” Later, a female volunteer tried to enter the dining room wearing a beautiful Arab dress. She was denied entrance because she was inappropriately dressed. Both of these events occurred on a progressive, peace-loving, workers-of-the-world-unite kibbutz—the ultimate reverie of the Left. Ironically, the Israeli Right was much more tolerant of Oriental Jewish culture as the Oriental Jews were their natural political constituency.

  To be fair, these attitudes quickly changed in the six years between the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars. In the early 1970s, Israeli women were in fashion if they wore Bedouin dresses, and Israeli fashion in general adapted many Middle Eastern motifs. The official keepers of the Israeli cultural gate, however, discriminated against Oriental music until the 1990s. Today, thankfully, it is part of the Israeli cultural mainstream, and Oriental musical motifs have become an integral part of mainstream Israeli popular music.

Before the Six-Day War, Israel was culturally provincial, and its technological exports totaled about 17 million dollars a year. Today, Israel’s cultural menu is probably one of the most diverse in the world, and its technological exports total more than 30 billion dollars a year. Innovation is a cultural characteristic and cultural openness and technological innovation are two sides of the same coin. Because of this Israel has become an interesting cultural and technological center.

  But cultural openness does not mean cultural relativity. A hierarchy of cultural values exists and there must be a meta-cultural foundation. In the United States, the meta-cultural foundation is the Constitution, a set of basic values to which all subcultures declare loyalty. There is a profound difference between cultural pluralism and multiculturalism.

The Future

  All this is past tense. The question remains, what will be the future of Israeli society? Will it be demographically Oriental and culturally Western, or will Israel emulate the United States and constantly create and recreate its cultural life while paying scant attention to the sources of its cultural raw material? Do American musicians really care if their cultural raw materials are Scots-Irish, African, or Hispanic?

  Musically, at least, the future is now. Current Israeli music is already a mixture of classical East and West, modern pop and ethnic. One can hear music in Hebrew with Latin and Arabic motifs wrapped in the driving beat of modern pop. Mixtures such as these will continue to develop, driven by a combination of technology, communications, and cross-border migrations of peoples carrying different cultural baggage. It is interesting to note that countries or regions with the highest percentage of immigrants are the most technologically and culturally dynamic. Technological progress is a cultural attribute and a consequence of cultural openness and pluralism. This has given Israel its qualitative edge over its enemies. Any attempt to make Israeli culture mono-dimensional will have serious negative consequences.