With digital production, songs can be released in real time

Amid thrum of war, popular songs of rage and resilience become post-Oct. 7 soundtrack

As the Israel-Hamas war rages, hit tracks tune into the psyche of Israeli society grappling with a tragic and challenging time

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Images taken from various Israeli music videos about the Israel-Hamas war (YouTube screenshots/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Images taken from various Israeli music videos about the Israel-Hamas war (YouTube screenshots/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The music video opens with a martial, ominous rhythm set against a kaleidoscope of images: a baby in a crib; scenes of destruction from the Gaza-adjacent communities; IDF soldiers marching through a misty field; tanks lined up in a row; a Jewish man standing with prayer shawl and phylacteries; exploding buildings in a desolate urban landscape.

As the main beat drops in, the man turns out to be veteran Israeli rapper Subliminal, who in his gravelly voice launches into his first verses: “Good evening, Gaza, another day, another dead Nazi/ Nova People are on the beach, Golani Brigade is in the parliament/ They’re saying to Yahya Sinwar/ Yeah… we’ve seen war/ Boom bye bye bitch your time is over!”

On playlists since late January, the track is just one example from a wave of new Israeli popular music released in response to the events of October 7 and the Israel-Hamas war, a prolific output that serves as a window into the psyche of Israeli society at a precarious and transformative time.

Subliminal’s song, “Zeh Aleinu” (“It’s On Us”), is performed with his long-time hip-hop collaborator The Shadow, along with young singer Raviv Kaner. It is an angry anthem about a country seeking victory in a war of survival while simultaneously looking to the future. Its clear militarism and emotionality come after other hip-hop songs about the war, such as “Charbu Darbu” (slang, “Swords and Strikes”) by duo Ness Ve Stilla and “Horef ’23” (“Winter of ’23”) by Odiah and Izi, became smash hits.

The early morning October 7 Hamas assault from Gaza into southern Israel ravaged entire communities, including the massive Supernova trance music party. The terrorists killed some 1,200 in total and took 253 captives to Gaza. Israel declared war and initiated a massive call-up of IDF reservists. As a result of the conflict, tens of thousands of Israelis have been evacuated from areas around Gaza and along the northern Lebanon border, where the Hezbollah terror group initiated hostilities in support of Hamas.

With the ongoing warfare and resulting upheavals, in comparison to the music from Israel’s previous wars, “the most striking difference is rage. This is something we haven’t experienced before in Israeli music generally,” says author Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

Speaking about the current moment, Klein Halevi says, “I love this music. I love the rage and that it’s so authentic. It gives a real direction to what the kids are going through. I feel that what is happening in this war is that Israeli rap has come of age.”

Klein Halevi, a prolific writer about Israeli society and a contributor to The Times of Israel’s Ops and Blogs pages, says that he is “someone who spends too much time listening to Israeli music” and notes that the “world-class” anger expressed by the Israeli hop-hop community is just one facet of the current musical environment.

Popular singer Benaia Barabi’s recent February release, “Bein Hanahar Layam” (“From the River to the Sea”), is “a beautiful love song to the Land of Israel and the people of Israel,” Klein Halevi says.

The track is an updated, Eastern-influenced example of an older Zionist Hebrew genre of songs and poems that praise the Land of Israel, and demonstrates “a seamless continuity of the genre, and shows how it can adapt to new musical tastes,” Klein Halevi says.

By late October, popular religious singer Hanan Ben Ari had already released a popular track, “Moledet” (“Homeland”), another entry in the same genre, Klein Halevi notes.

The well-known Hebrew phrase Ain li makom aher (“I don’t have any other place”) has become a recurring line in any number of songs.

“There is so much anxiety in that statement,” Klein Halevi notes. “What am I going to do if the state fails? We lost Israel on October 7, we did fail and we are trying to regain it. That’s what the war is about.”

A powerful example of the zeitgeist is “Shir Shel Noam 2” (“Noam’s Song 2”) by rapper Maor Ashkenazi. The track, released in November, features Noam Cohen, a survivor of the Supernova party massacre. The video features a recreation of Cohen’s harrowing experience on October 7, as rapped by Ashkenazi over melancholy guitar and a minimalist beat, and mentions by name several of Cohen’s friends who did not survive.

“Noam’s Song 2,” which features lyrics like “I don’t have a place to run/ I hear the explosions/ I am full of blood/ I escaped by luck/ most of my body survived/ but my mind is still there,” is an example of “the airing out and the regulation of emotions,” a “very important” function of popular music, says Dr. Avi Bar Eitan, a senior lecturer in the music department at Bar Ilan University and a scholar of Israeli popular music.

The current crop of songs “creates a space” for dealing with “all the issues around feelings and the very extreme range of emotions” people are going through, Bar Eitan explains. “Fear, post-trauma, the difficulties, the war… all of these have become a part of these songs.”

Many of the more emotional tracks feature a direct connection or tribute to individuals affected by the current events. A major subject is bringing home the hostages held in Gaza, making such songs “an emotional vehicle, but also political. The music is a way of giving agency to the hostages,” Bar Eitan notes.

A recent example is “Ain Li Makom” (“I Don’t Have a Place”), sung by Alin Golan, the 18-year-old daughter of superstar singer Eyal Golan. Dedicated to the hostages in Gaza, the video features the very pregnant Michal Lubnov, wife of hostage Alex Lubnov, with the words “Dad come back” written on her stomach.

Rocker Aviv Gefen also released a track featuring a personal connection: “Zeriha Shehora” (“Black Sunrise”), an 80s-inspired pop song. The track features young singer Mia Leimberg, who was a hostage in Gaza herself. Leimberg was released after 51 days during a November ceasefire, along with her dog Bella whom she had managed to keep alive while in captivity.

Eyal Golan, considered by many to be Israel’s premier male singer in the pop-Mizrahi (Eastern) style, has made several tracks addressing the war, including the patriotic anthem “Am Yisrael Chai” (“The Israeli Nation Lives”), released just a week and a half after October 7.

These kinds of patriotic songs serve a very important function in strengthening Israeli identity, societal cohesion and general morale, Bar Eitan says.

“It’s not for nothing we have the saying ‘Together we will win,’” he notes, referring to a popular slogan that appeared everywhere post-October 7.

As in previous wars, various IDF music ensembles have released material with these goals in mind, sometimes in collaboration with prominent artists, such as a new version of Yehoram Gaon’s “Tefilat Haderech” (“Travelers’ Prayer”). That classic piece, inspired by the traditional Jewish prayer for safety while on a journey, is updated here as a plea for the safe return of soldiers as they go to war.

The sense of nostalgia permeating the track is another prominent factor in what people are listening to right now, Bar Eitan says. Some older songs, whose message has struck a new chord in the current climate, have returned to popular playlists online or on the radio, such “Habayta” (“Homeward”), a track from 2020 by pop-reggae band Hatikvah 6.

Coming back home is another recurring theme — an older, well-known rock song of the same name, “Habayta,” written in 1982 by Ehud Manor and Yair Klinger during the First Lebanon War, was staged in December at the Caesarea Amphitheater. The event, dedicated to the Israeli hostages in Gaza, featured 1,000 musicians and members of hostages’ families.

Younger artists are remixing or updating older, resonant material in more contemporary styles too, such as Omer Adam’s Mizrahi rendition of Ariel Zilber’s classic 80s hit “V’eich Shelo” (“And How Could It Not?”). Adam, working with Israeli trance music legends Infected Mushroom, also released “Tirkod L’netzach” (“To Dance Forever”), an up-tempo track dedicated to the Supernova party survivors.

Since Israel’s last major wars — the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the First Lebanon War in the 1980s — the digital, internet age has heralded a sea change in the way music is produced, distributed and consumed. This is reflected in the new music discussed here, with songs often being quickly produced in small, computer-based studios and released almost instantly on various internet platforms and social media channels.

Many people have personalized playlists on Spotify or YouTube, often curated by preference algorithms, and can easily listen to nearly anything, not just what is on the radio or physically released as in decades past.

Music videos now are also more easily produced, and these accompanying images are an integral part of a song’s message and popularity. Almost all of the videos for the war-related songs feature striking sequences and imagery, in many cases drawn from actual footage of events.

Israel has always had a dynamic musical landscape influenced by the various wars the country has fought. The new songs “truly reflect the evolution of Israeli music” and, because of the contemporary shift to rap and computer music production, “it took me a little while to find myself in it, but I did,” author Klein Halevi says.

“Even though the songs change, there is a sense of organic continuity from one war to the next,” he says.

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