A song of ice and ire
Hebrew media review

A song of ice and ire

Pretty much everybody agrees Amir Benayoun’s latest ditty is racist, but some pundits wonder whether that’s a reason to put his head on a platter

Amir Benayoun, in white, in concert in 2009. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Amir Benayoun, in white, in concert in 2009. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The lashing rain and heavy wind of the first serious winter storm of the season take top billing in Israel’s Hebrew papers Tuesday morning, though a tempest around the anti-Arab lyrics of an Israeli singer blows onto front pages as well.

Amir Benayoun’s song, which describes the two-faced “Ahmed” who plans terror attacks while living the good life in Israel, may have got him booted from a planned event at the President’s Residence, but it also earned him a place at the top of the news cycle, where journalists and pundits grapple with the balance of free speech and racist incitement.

Throwing the tenet of news hierarchy to the wind, Israel Hayom leads with side-by-side rainstorm and Benayoun storm packages (oh those clever headline writers).

Despite the uproar, the tabloid quotes Benayoun having nothing but love for Prez Ruvi Rivlin: “I respect the office of the presidency and love Rivlin with a true love,” it chronicles him saying on Facebook.

Describing the dispute as one over free speech, the paper has two commentators who both bristle at the outcry over Benayoun, with Dan Margalit writing that the song is unfitting, but we have to protect the right to sing it, and Haim Schein protesting the idea that free speech is only for leftists and Nazi sympathizers.

“The left has argued over many years that there is a difference between the artist and their work. The enlightened began this around the musical works of Wagner from the father of the Nazis. The art, to them, has a value distinct from the considerations of the artist. Everything is fine and dandy until we are talking about Amir Benayoun, who was supposed to sing two songs at a ceremony at the President’s Residence, and in his case there is no difference between the artist and his art.”

Haaretz’s Iris Liel, an admitted fan of Benayoun’s Mizrahi tunes, comes at the issue much the same way, wondering whether it’s permissible to learn philosophy from former Nazi Martin Heidegger or enjoy the poetry of anti-Semite Ezra Pound, but unlike Schein, she is less sure of her conclusions:

“It seems it’s possible and even needed to deal with this with ambivalence. In fact, it is one of the ways we negotiate with art, and one of the deeper parts of it. Those who accuse Benayoun of inciting to racism need to ask themselves whether they would want to be put under the same restrictions. Others, like myself, will be forced to continue to suffer the discomfort it causes regularly,” she writes.

In Yedioth, reporter Raz Shechnik takes a trip to join the masses of people who agree with Schein and see Benayoun in concert in Tel Aviv, where he reports the singer had a bit of a sense of humor about the hubbub over the song.

“When part of the crowd asked him to play ‘Ahmed loves Israel,’ which has engendered so much anger lately, he deflected and asked innocently “What’s that, what are you talking about?”

Not everybody is laughing, though, including writer Ben-Dror Yemini, who praises Rivlin’s decision to ban Benayoun from the ceremony, which is to honor North African and Middle Eastern Jewish refugees who came to Israel.

“Benayoun’s song contains the words ‘ungrateful scum,’ in talking about Israeli Arabs. There is racist scum in every community, every nation, but his generalized use here constitutes incitement to racism. It could even be a criminal transgression,” he writes. “And even if not, the presidency is a symbol. Giving a stage to someone who only a few days ago released an inflammatory and racist song would be a gift to legitimizing racism.”

As if the gales brewing in Israel weren’t enough, Haaretz spots another possible tempest on the horizon, or maybe some sunny skies ahead. The broadsheet leads off with a report that Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and other Israeli officials are looking to outlaw a group of vigilante Muslim guards who work to restrict Jewish access to the flashpoint Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The paper writes that a bill is being drafted that would remove the unit, known as Mourabitoun, a name usually given to Muslim fighters who protect holy sites from infidels. Haaretz notes that the group is funded by Gulf states and extremist groups, despite Israeli efforts to staunch the flow of money, and police believe the guards are the source of some of the tensions on the site.

“In many cases, the guards, particularly the females, have been involved in clashes with the Israel Police or Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount. Five female members of the guard have been issued orders prohibiting them from being on or near the Temple Mount, due to their involvement in previous incidents,” the paper reports.

Yedioth reports on a separate piece of legislation ostensibly designed to calm the situation, but which may have the opposite effect, putting in place emergency measures that would impose heavy punishments on “terrorists.”

The bill, drafted by Likud MK Yariv Levin, would strip Israeli Arabs caught in terror activity of citizenship or residency permit; would prohibit returning dead terrorists’ bodies to their families for burial; would deport families of terrorists who support their kin’s actions to Gaza; would keep stone throwers in jail pending trial; and would allow the shuttering of business that print pro-terror posters.

The paper offers no commentary from experts on whether the bill is an actual attempt at legislation or a just form of political jockeying. It’s safe to say the Knesset won’t be keen to rubber stamp it.

Speaking of controversial laws, Israel Hayom’s billionaire American funders, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, write in their publication (in a letter ostensibly addressed to the paper’s staff, but published for all to see as well) that despite a Knesset bill that would outlaw giving away the paper for free, the daily is here to stay.

“It won’t happen,” the Adelsons write of the bill. “We have a long way ahead of us in the Knesset, but there is hope that lawmakers will come to their senses and not give a hand to disgracing the Knesset’s laws via a law that has one purpose: to shut the mouths of the public majority that Israel Hayom has given a voice to.”

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