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Playing ‘Hatikvah’ on a ‘Desert Island’

After 71 years, British writer Julie Burchill becomes the first guest to select Israel’s national anthem on high-profile BBC radio show

'Jews start with so many disadvantages in every country, and do so well,' Julie Burchill observes. (Courtesy of Daniel Morgenstern)
'Jews start with so many disadvantages in every country, and do so well,' Julie Burchill observes. (Courtesy of Daniel Morgenstern)

LONDON — Writer Julie Burchill, profiled here earlier this month, is used to controversy. Her columns in Britain’s national newspapers are provocative and blunt and she is regularly blasted for her political incorrectness. It is completely new, however, for her musical taste to provoke similarly strong reaction.

Last week, Burchill was featured on Britain’s longest-running radio show, Desert Island Discs. Guests on the program are asked to imagine that they are castaways, and then select eight musical tracks that they would take with them for entertainment, plus a luxury item. Burchill, a passionate philo-Semite who is writing a book about her love of Israel and the Jews, included the theme song from the “Exodus” movie, a pop song about the Hebrew language by Ehud Banai, and the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah.

The program had never seen such a Semitic performance, at least not since 1991, when the current chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, took to his desert island recordings of the Kol Nidre and El Maleh Rachamim prayers, Shlomo Carlebach’s Am Yisrael Chai and a Lubavitch tune, as well as a copy of the Talmud as his luxury item. By contrast, last year comedian Jackie Mason took just two Jewish items with him — Kol Nidre and the complete works of Shalom Aleichem — while in 2011 Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, who has made a career out of Jewish-themed books, included just one piece of chazzanut.

So even those expecting some Jewish content were taken aback by Burchill. Jewish Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland tweeted that he “knew she’d do *one* of the eight – but three?!”

No guest in the 71-year history of the show has ever chosen Hatikvah, and given the political climate, it provoked equal measures of pride and contempt. According to comedian David Baddiel, tweeting in real-time, “Playing the Israeli national anthem is by a mile the most subversive thing Julie Burchill has done” on the BBC Radio 4 program — quite a statement considering that she also confessed that she did not care that she had given up custody of her two sons, that she had been a teenage shoplifter and that she still absolutely loved to drink.

For reviewer Nosheen Iqbal in the Guardian on Friday, Hatikvah was merely one more sign that the “bizarre, but compelling” Burchill was “professionally antagonistic” while journalist Mira Bar-Hillel, of the Evening Standard newspaper, said that picking three “Israeli” [sic] tracks was “soppy” and “sentimental.”

Burchill remains nonplussed by all the fuss, which is fairly unusual even for a high-profile show like “Desert Island Discs.” She chose the Banai track because some of her happiest times are spent studying Hebrew, while the Exodus theme song — which opens, “This land is mine, God gave this land to me” — makes her cry.

“I’ve been fascinated by the Jews since I was a child, I don’t know why I have no Jewish blood,” she told the nation.

She told The Times of Israel that she “loved” being on the show and was pleased with the reaction to her Jewish music choices.

“Everyone in the studio said how much they enjoyed them and I’ve had a lovely response from Jews. And that’s the only response I care about.”

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