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Anarchy in the West Bank: The Strange Metamorphosis of Israeli Punk

If recent developments within the Israeli punk scene are any indication, our rock brothers in the Holy Land have reached the “blank generation” stage. Remember the famous words of Richard (Meyers) Hell: “I belong to the blank generation and I … Read More

By / July 23, 2007
If recent developments within the Israeli punk scene are any indication, our rock brothers in the Holy Land have reached the “blank generation” stage. Remember the famous words of Richard (Meyers) Hell: “I belong to the blank generation and I can take it or leave it each time”? The nihilism of certain segments of punk, the “nevermind” that Kurt Cobain so eloquently expressed (“a mosquito, a libido … a denial”) during the “year that punk broke” has attained something like a messianic fervor in the Promised Land – and maybe that’s a good thing.

Never a true force in a commercial radio sense, Israeli punk nonetheless has in recent years seemed to express the deepest yearnings of Israel’s cutting edge youth. Whether it was the mass of left-leaning political bands (Nikmat Olalim and Dir Yassin) or the skinhead-like fraction of right-wing groups (Retribution, Lehavoth), political engagement was at the heart of Israeli punk from its beginnings in the late 80s to its heyday a few years ago.

“Israeli punk was DIY in the truest sense,” says Liz Nord, director of Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land, a 2005 documentary that chronicled the various factions within the scene and their relationship to the punk Diaspora. “Like the hardcore bands that emerged in the second and third wave of punk here in the 1980s, Israeli punk was politically engaged, mostly on the side of peace and negotiating with the Palestinians. And yet, where the political edge of punk kind of went underground here, it remained an integral part of the Israeli scene almost up until 2000."

But, as Bob Dylan might have put it, they were so much older then, they’re younger than that now. Today, nearly a decade after peace seemed imminent at Oslo and nearly a year since Ariel “The Bulldozer” Sharon uprooted the settlers he’d helped become rooted in the first place, peace seems further away than ever, and Israel’s youthful brigade of punk activists feel fine. Like those Displaced Persons Formerly Known as Settlers, they’ve uprooted their metaphorical concerns and retreated from the political arena as it relates to Palestinians and a two-state solution.

For to say “fuck it” to the whole political process, to reclaim the personal over the political, is an act of political engagement itself. As they said during the Vietnam era, “What if they had a war and nobody came?” Israeli punks have taken this ironic and utopian vision for perpetual peace and turned it into a license for perpetual complacency. Israel has had several wars and the punks haven’t “come.” Rather than protesting the occupation, or marching for binational negotiations—let alone setting these as demands in their songwriting—they’ve decided to carve out their own piece of occupied territory at home. Large swaths of “leftist” punks have joined the growing Squatters Movement in Tel Aviv. This is as hardcore as the desert disciples of The Clash have allowed themselves to get.

“I think everyone has become so discouraged by the ongoing mess and the lack of movement regarding a solution to the occupation that they’ve decided to focus their energies elsewhere,” says an activist organizer who goes by the alias “Cat.”

Three years ago, while working on my book about the New York Jewish origins of punk, The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, I interviewed Cat as he hid from the IDF in the Palestinian town of Nablus (“basically a big refugee camp,” he said). Suddenly, I heard what sounded like firecrackers in the background, some muffled sounds, and then my cell phone went silent. “Cat? Cat?! Are you alright?” There was a pause of about fifteen seconds, and I was just about to hang up, disturbed, when I heard Cat’s voice, much lower now. “Yes, I am ok. It is like this every night. They’re shooting.”

I didn’t have time to ask who was shooting. And looking back now, I realize that wasn’t really the issue in terms of how the music of anarchy has evolved in the holy land. Rather than going off to “fight for an end to the conflict,” Israeli punks have opted to conceive of a kind of mini-Zionism within Israel itself. In fact, the most “punk” thing about them might be how they have passively altered the definition of illegal residence in one region where this has been a perennial source of misery and bloodshed.

The casbah will no longer be rocked; it’ll be dragged into tenancy court.

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