Young Israelis seek solidarity singing old tunes

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

Outside the concert hall in Jerusalem, signs of conflict are everywhere: in the cafes, in the streets, on television.

But inside, a young crowd of 300 Israelis is in high spirits, belting out golden, or rather, blue and white, oldies.

Leading them is Sarah-le Sharon, who is about twice their age. The rusty-haired queen of Israeli pop singalong is at the keyboard, waving and clapping and filling the air with a throaty yell. The crowd manages to keep up, glancing every now and then at songbooks for the words.

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In Israel's major cities, concerts like Ms. Sharon's are attracting young people in large numbers. At Tel Aviv's Exhibition Grounds, singalongs are now held every Thursday night, and at Barbi, the city's most popular music club, song leaders have become frequent attractions. At some parties, they're even replacing disc jockeys.

Both critics and supporters say the trend is a response to the insecurity Israelis' feel living under the constant threat of terrorist attacks – as well as uncertainty about the future of their country, where conflict with the Palestinians has intensified in the last two years.

"This is a form of Zionism," says concertgoer Liat Bar-Chaim, who, along with her brother, recently began listening to her parents' albums.

"We feel the country is being destroyed and we want to build it anew with the songs of old," she continues. "It is definitely connected with the current situation. We want to raise our morale. Just as the Americans hung up flags, we sing together."

The songs, all Hebrew originals, range from army numbers to nursery school tunes about birds. Many emphasize love of land, and many are older than the concert-goers.

Several songs come from the late 1960s, a more optimistic time – when Israel's victory in the 1967 War afforded a sense of security and before the moral and human cost of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip became clear.

As for the singalong performers, some are well known singers and songwriters. Others perform Arabic-style Mizrachi music, though with Hebrew lyrics.

Inside Jerusalem's concert hall, Sharon makes a dedication: "These go out to all the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, everywhere." A string of army songs follows.

A sense of days gone by is heavy in the air: One song is about soldiers positioned on the Suez Canal, an area vacated by Israel according to an agreement with Egypt in 1974.

Sharon switches with ease to the "Song of Peace," the ballad of the beleaguered peace camp, sung by former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a Peace Now rally just before his 1995 assassination.

The appeal of singalongs is not always political. After fighting off the efforts of his friends to pull him up on stage, Noam Monnikendam, a university student, says his main reason for attending is to have a good time during difficult circumstances. "People see that this entire situation is not ending, and they cannot wait anymore to go out," he says. "This is about trying to have a normal life."

For others, it's simply another fad. "These songs are retro, it's like going back to bell bottoms," Monnikendam adds. "I see this as a trend that will pass, like a Beatles revival."

But Yael Badihi, a specialist in Israeli music and singer, argues that the singalong surge goes deeper. A new generation of Israelis, she says, is actively longing for a stronger collective identity often associate with older generations.

Singalongs have always been central to Zionism and Jewish nation-building, she says. They were introduced by early Zionists from eastern Europe who drew on the interplay of cantor and congregation in synagogue prayers and adapted this to nationalist and pioneering motifs. Songs were written to impart an ideological message of love of land, and they helped forge community bonds.

The state, which controlled the radio for decades, discouraged foreign musical influences. Rock, in particular, says Ms. Badihi, was seen as a threat because it emphasized individuality – the Beatles were blocked from making an appearance in Israel in 1965.

Only in the 1970s did Israeli rock begin to find a voice as part of a shift to greater individualism in the society, she says.

"Today, the deterioration in security is so severe that there is something basic and existential that is being shaken in our lives. Because of the feeling of threat, people are longing for unity and they need unity," Badihi says. "They are seeking it through the songs."

But Jeff Halper, an anthropologist and peace activist, believes that singalongs have become a way of escaping from the harsh realities of today's Israel, including the army's occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel's control of three million Palestinians against their will. These circumstances, he says, are directly challenging Israel's very existence as a Zionist and Jewish state.

"The response to these challenges is to cling to old songs and singalongs as the pure Zionist heritage," Mr. Halper says. "It's a way of avoiding all the issues, a circling of the wagons where the idea is to lock out the dilemmas, to be with each other and give each other emotional support. It signifies internal distress."

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