A Tunisian musician who collaborated with an Israeli singer on a song promoting religious tolerance between Muslims and Jews has faced serious backlash, including reportedly being fired from his job at a state broadcaster and death threats on social media.
The song “Peace Between Neighbors,” released last week, was performed by Israeli Ziv Yehezkel, a religious Mizrahi Jew who sings primarily in Arabic, and Tunisian music producer and composer Noamane Chaari. The collaboration was arranged by the Arab Council for Regional Integration, which attempts to advance Arab-Israeli dialogue in the region.
The Arab Council for Regional Integration — a collection of Arab intellectuals who advocate for normalization with Israel — has lobbied the United States and France to pass laws protecting those whose lives are threatened for normalizing with Israelis.
Joseph Braude, founder of the Center for Peace Communications, which supports the Arab Council, charged: “Tunisian authorities have targeted his livelihood. Pressure from a senior official caused his firing from his job, and pressure from establishment institutions forced his private clients to leave him. This is a campaign to destroy him.”
Though he worked as a music producer and composer for state-owned Tunisian television, Chaari did not have a large public following or online presence before the controversy. His collaborator, Yehezkel, could not be reached for comment.
“Personally, I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘normalization.’ Relationships between human beings are already normal,” Chaari told well-known Tunisian radio personality Hadi a-Za’im.
The song was penned by a Yemenite artist who wishes to remain anonymous for his own safety, as he lives in territory controlled by the pro-Iranian Houthi militias.
“He kept his name quiet because he knew his head would roll if it were known he was its poet. So what about the head of the man who sang it?” a-Za’im told Chaari.
The controversy surrounding the song quickly became a national issue, with some commentators writing on social media that Chaari ought to “be taught a good lesson and beaten to death”; others said he should be executed.
“What’s happening in Tunisia to Noamane Chaari is deeply troubling. American lawmakers are united in supporting coexistence across the region [between] Jews & Arabs. Tunisian authorities need to step up to protect calls for peace & to halt attacks against Chaari,” wrote US Senator Ted Cruz in a tweet on Saturday night.
Tunisia is the Arab world’s only free country, according to the human rights watchdog Freedom House. The conflicted North African democracy contains a deeply entrenched secular class along with the Arab world’s highest proportion of Islamic State foreign fighters.
Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi said earlier this month that the country has no plans to recognize Israel and that establishing relations with the Jewish state was “not on the agenda.” The country’s president, Kais Saied, is well-known for his hardline views on normalization, calling establishing open ties with Israel “treachery” in a 2019 statement.
In a TV appearance following the song’s release, Chaari denied that the song called for peace between Israel and the Arab World. Rather, it sought to promote peace “between Muslims and Jews,” the singer told Tunisian Channel 9’s “Late Show.”
Fellow guests, however, accused him of aiding “the usurping Zionist entity.”
“I haven’t heard the song, and I don’t care to… the Palestinian cause is a red line for the Tunisian people,” said panelist Iman al-Sherif.
Chaari said that he had visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2019, specifically citing the West Bank Palestinian city of Ramallah and Kfar Qasim, a c central Arab Israeli city.
“I’ve never betrayed the Palestinian cause… I wanted to do a project on peace between religions, and above all, on peace between Muslims and Jews, who have been divided because of Israeli policies,” Chaari said.
“I chose [Yehezkel] because he is against the system, loves Palestinians, and has Iraqi roots,” Chaari said, adding: “He’s an Iraqi with an Israeli passport.”
Even with such strong caveats, the very fact of Chaari’s collaboration with Yehezkel was enough to send shock waves well outside Tunis.
“Damned is he who normalizes and who attempts to persuade us to normalize. He is impure, and shall remain in his defilement, whatever the behavior of governments,” said popular Egyptian opposition broadcaster Mu’taz Matar, who lives in exile in Istanbul.
Some fellow Tunisian artists, however, have come to the producer’s defense. Well-known Tunisian singer Chamseddine Bacha called the accusations against Chaari “a smear campaign.” But like Chaari, he avoided focusing on Yehezkel’s Israeli nationality.
“I support my friend and colleague, and I reject this smear campaign against his artistic project and his collaboration with an Iraqi artist of Jewish roots,” Bacha wrote in a Facebook post.