Zohar Argov seen in 1981. (IDF Archive)
Main image: Zohar Argov seen in 1981. (IDF Archive)
ToI investigatesThe godfather of Mizrahi music

Unfit to be ‘the king’: How singer Zohar Argov’s legacy continues to be whitewashed

35 years after his death in a jail cell, the music of the legendary Mizrahi singer and convicted rapist is more popular than it was in his lifetime – even in the post-#MeToo era

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Main image: Zohar Argov seen in 1981. (IDF Archive)

Just over 35 years after his death, Zohar Argov is still known as “the king.”

Today, the legendary Mizrahi musician is lauded by contemporary singers, spoken about in reverential tones and even memorialized in street names.

Despite a markedly spotty personal history, including a conviction for rape, repeated drug violations and multiple prison sentences, Argov’s legacy is not nearly as controversial as one might expect. In fact, he’s arguably more popular than ever.

During the years 2009-2019, three out of the 10 most listened-to songs in Israel were sung by Argov, according to ACUM, the nonprofit music copyright corporation. According to the Media Forest analytics group, Argov was the 18th most played artist on the radio in Israel in the Hebrew year that ended in September 2022 – and one of only two deceased musicians to make the top 20.

Argov’s popularity only grew stronger after his death behind bars. And while he is idolized by many fans, Argov — convicted of rape, repeatedly imprisoned, and having ended his life in jail while facing another rape charge – is hardly a role model.

But in 2022 – even following the #MeToo movement – his music remains as popular as ever and as cities continue to honor him with tributes, few seem to know or care about his crimes. As one Israeli radio host said off the record, he personally refuses to play songs by Argov — but if he were to publicly admit that, he felt he would be subject to a wave of criticism.

Singer Zohar Argov in 1987. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

“Israeli society has a problem. It has too much tolerance and flexibility, and people don’t pay a price for the heinous crimes they committed, whether singers or actors or doctors,” said Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel.

Argov’s popularity endures, built in part on a generation of Mizrahi Jews who celebrated him for giving their culture a proud voice.

With subsequent generations never having fully come to terms with Argov’s criminal past, decades after the performer’s death we see echoes of his controversial legacy in Israel’s current most popular Mizrahi singer, Eyal Golan. Embroiled in a yearslong sex abuse scandal, Golan — with the support of his dedicated fans — denies any wrongdoing, and has maintained his popularity.

If Israel’s music industry cannot reckon with its past, how can it properly address its present?

Pioneering a genre

Argov is widely considered the godfather of Mizrahi music, the once-disdained and sidelined genre that today dominates Israeli radio stations, wedding DJ playlists and popular culture.

“He was not the king at first, he was definitely not the king – he was very, very much rejected by the mainstream industry,” said Amy Horowitz, a professor and scholar who wrote the 2010 book “Mediterranean Israeli Music and the Politics of the Aesthetic.”

Many consider him responsible for a turning point in Israeli culture. “To a certain extent he began the breakthrough of Mizrahi singers – which until then was very much outside the mainstream,” said Eran Litvin, a music editor at the Kan public radio network and a music historian.

Before Argov burst onto the national scene, most radio DJs in Israel refused to play Mizrahi music. Until 1982, he mostly sang at weddings and in small clubs and dance halls. That year, he performed at and won the Mizrahi Singer Festival in Jerusalem, aired live on TV and radio, marking a major turning point in his career.

“His big break was definitely 1982, and in the five years that followed he released several more albums, a lot of hits. Most or many of them are still played on the radio today,” said Litvin.

His mainstream success was celebrated and welcomed by immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, who saw his fame as a step toward their own acceptance in Israeli society.

“Argov’s mass appeal is partially explained by the fact that he gave voice to the formation of a Mizrahi pan-ethnic identity that formed as Middle Eastern and North African communities interacted in ma’abarot [immigrant absorption camps] and neighborhoods,” wrote Horowitz in her book on Mizrahi music.

His music, Horowitz added in conversation, was touted and celebrated by “people who understood this power of his – that what he had in his voice could give strength and courage to communities being oppressed.”

But at what could have been the height of his career, Argov’s life came to an end in a jail cell in Rishon Lezion. To understand how he got there, and how and why his music soared in popularity following his death, we have to go back to the beginning.

‘Like a Greek tragedy’

Born Zohar Orkabi to Yemenite immigrants living in a rundown neighborhood of Rishon Lezion in 1955, the singer had a difficult upbringing, with an alcoholic and abusive father and little income to feed and clothe him and his nine younger siblings.

At age 17, Argov got married and a year later had a son, which exempted him from mandatory military service. On the day of his son’s brit mila (circumcision), Argov’s father died of suspected alcohol poisoning. To feed his family, Argov undertook sporadic menial labor and occasional performances before releasing his first album in 1977 at age 22.

A year later, he was arrested, tried and ultimately convicted of raping a young woman after she declined an invitation to go home with him. He infamously told the judge in his rape trial: “There is no girl who doesn’t want it, you just have to know how to take… there are those you have to convince a little, and those who you have to convince a lot.”

After around a year in prison, Argov was released and returned to recording music. His popularity grew, and he released several more albums before his big break winning the televised 1982 festival with his now-iconic song, “Haperach Begani” (The Flower in My Garden).

Zohar Argov performing at the Mizrahi Song Festival in Ramle on February 5, 1985. (Nati Harnik/GPO)

“That 1982 festival that was televised to the whole country — at a time when there was only one channel — catapulted his fame well beyond the circles that used to know him,” said Edwin Seroussi, a professor of musicology and the director of the Hebrew University’s Jewish Music Research Center.

Seroussi said Argov’s appearance at the festival and on TV “was really a very unique moment of change,” noting that today, Mizrahi music is “the pop music of Israel, more or less.”

And Argov, he said, “was in its founding generation.”

Argov’s troubled history did not go unnoticed in the immediate aftermath of his big win. Shortly after the 1982 festival, the now-defunct HaOlam HaZeh weekly newsmagazine ran a full-page spread under the headline “The Singing Rapist,” detailing Argov’s crime and conviction.

But it seems that most Israelis either didn’t know or didn’t care enough about his past to hold back his rocket to fame. Over the next five years, Argov released five studio albums, generating radio hits even as he descended further into drug addiction and seemed to spend more time in prison than in the recording studio.

In July 1987, while being released from jail on unrelated charges, Argov stole a weapon from the Rishon Lezion police station. For that crime, he was sentenced to six months in prison. In October, Argov was granted a weekend furlough from prison, during which he encountered a woman named Iris Gabai. Argov attempted to rape her, Gabai told police, and he was transferred from his prison cell to a police jail for further investigation.

Just a few days later, on November 6, 1987, Argov was found dead in his jail cell, a rope made out of torn blankets and sheets around his neck. Several people – including those in the jail at the time – have suggested that Argov’s suicide was actually a failed attempt to gain attention from the jail guards.

In the wake of his death, Argov’s acclaim only increased. The public mourned the singer whose life was cut short at age 32, and whose music had given voice to a sidelined population.

“I think his death – but also the fact that he was in prison – added to the glam that rock stars tend to have,” said Litvin. “He was a sort of rock star that lived an extreme life, from great poverty to huge success, and he became a symbol.”

Zohar Argov (right) performing with other singers at the Jerusalem Hann Club on August 10, 1987. (Gal Yehiam/Dan Hadani Collection/National Library of Israel)

The brevity and calamity of Argov’s life only aided in building the narrative of the tragic hero, observers said.

“It’s like a Greek tragedy – in a way the tragedy transformed him into a cultural hero,” said Seroussi. In the wake of his death, he added, Argov was portrayed as “a victim of the system… he was designed for greatness, but the system exploited him and eventually abandoned him to his own fate.”

Canonization of a hero

His posthumous canonization was quick in coming. His songs were re-released on tribute albums and artists gathered on the anniversary of his death to memorialize his life. In 1992, a play about his life – titled “The King” – hit the stage in Tel Aviv. A year later, an acclaimed film, “Zohar,” played on silver screens around the country. Many more documentaries, films and TV specials were to follow.

“When people are looking for this kind of figure, part of the attraction has to do with his flaws – this hero has problems,” said Horowitz. “He was convenient, he was kind of a Jimi Hendrix figure” – the legendary American musician who died of a drug overdose at age 27.

His death at the peak of his fame, said Litvin, helped the creation of an icon.

“It could be that if he had lived and continued to release songs, he would just be one of many,” said Litvin. “But the fact that he disappeared suddenly at the height of his success – it added something.”

Graffiti, depicting personalities like Zohar Argov, a popular Israeli singer who died in 1987, painted on walls in the Florentin neighborhood on March 11, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

As Horowitz wrote in her book: “Argov’s celebrity was only possible after his death when the sordid details of his life were muted and replaced with an acceptable narrative of social suffering.”

“In legendary histories about Argov, his conviction as a rapist is entirely elided. By contrast, his drug addiction is worked into the tale of his elevation to hero as the tragic flaw from which society can learn,” the academic added in a chapter dedicated to Argov.

His death made it easier to reshape his history into a more palatable narrative.

“After his death, he became sort of sanctioned figure that deserves honor,” said Seroussi. “After his death, the sins of his life were sort of forgotten – and what remained was the saintly figure of the great artist and the great voice.”

There was, however, some opposition to the myth-making of Argov. In 1993, the now-acclaimed author Etgar Keret penned a piece in the Hadashot newspaper slamming journalist Rino Zror for saying that Argov “did nothing wrong,” because he “came from a background where women give [it up freely].”

“Resisting sexual assault is not the exclusive domain of the top 10% of society,” wrote Keret, comparing Zror’s statement to one saying that “Eichmann, for example, did not come from a background of Elie Wiesel books, but from a world where Jews were quiet and died without making a fuss.”

Muted reckoning

Now, 35 years have passed since his death. But recent years have seen only a muted reckoning over Argov’s legacy.

In 2009, the Israel Postal Company released an official stamp in his memory. In 2015, the city of Rishon Lezion staged a mass tribute concert to mark what would have been his 60th birthday featuring some of the best-known singers in Israel. Popular religious singer Hanan Ben-Ari’s biggest hit, 2016’s “Tutim” (“Strawberries”) includes the line “it’s hard to sing like Zohar.”

His music is in regular rotation on reality TV music competitions: A rendition of the Argov hit “Yam Shel Demaot” (A Sea of Tears) is the song that clinched the win on “Kochav Nolad” (A Star Is Born) for Ninet Tayeb in 2003. Almost 20 years later – with Tayeb serving as a judge – Eliav Zohar sang the song in the grand finale of “The Next Star” in September of this year, and won.

“It’s a great honor to do a Zohar song,” he told the judges.

It remains unclear how familiar the average Israeli is with Argov’s past, both the rape conviction and the rape allegation hanging over his head when he died. Not all those interviewed for this article – experts in the music field – knew the extent of Argov’s criminal history. Many average Israelis quizzed by this reporter had no knowledge either.

Two years ago, popular veteran radio DJ Boaz Cohen, 58 – considered one of the most knowledgeable in the business – tweeted that he had no idea Argov had ever been convicted of rape, adding: “Most people I asked had no idea that Zohar Argov was a convicted rapist.”

“There are a lot of people who are not aware of it, certainly younger people,” suggested Litvin. “And it’s unfortunate, because you should know. Even if you love an artist and he’s an incredible singer, if he did terrible things you should know about it.”

It seems that over the past decade, both attempts to canonize Argov as well as the subsequent backlash have grown louder.

Efforts to name streets and town squares after Argov have been raised repeatedly in several cities since his death. Several have opted to call streets after his most famous song, “Haperach Begani,” instead of his name. In 2012, an attempt in Herzliya to name a street after Argov was ultimately shot down.

Last year, the mayor of Ramle led a successful campaign to name a square in the city after Argov, despite vocal opposition and wide media coverage of the controversy.

“I had hoped, but it’s hard to say I expected” that attitudes toward Argov would change following the #MeToo era, said Sulitzeanu. But any real change has to come from within Israeli society, she added. “Until there is societal shaming, sexual violence will continue all over the place,” she said. “There have to be people pushing for it… the only way to make change is through activism.”

From Argov to Golan

Multiple interviewees drew a direct comparison between Argov and Eyal Golan, the hugely popular Mizrahi singer who has been embroiled in controversy for years. Golan, 51, has been questioned repeatedly over the past decade for his role in several sex abuse scandals.

Litvin said it is easy to say of Argov that “today it wouldn’t work – although on the other hand, you see what happens with Eyal Golan, who’s been accused of serious things, and [his songs are] still played [on the radio] and beloved. So it still happens today.”

People who defend Golan say that he’s never been convicted of sexual misconduct, said Sulitzeanu, “and Zohar Argov, who was convicted, they forget about that.”

Singer Eyal Golan performing at an Independence Day concert in Beit Shemesh on May 5, 2014. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

Golan was investigated on allegations of statutory rape of young women, but ultimately never charged. In a 2014 interview, he defended his conduct by saying: “I don’t know a lot of men who – while a woman is performing oral sex on them – will ask to see their ID.”

Golan’s father, Dani Bitton, was indicted and convicted in a plea deal for statutory rape of young female fans of Golan whom he lured to his home using his son’s fame. Bitton was sentenced to two years in jail, and charges against Golan were dismissed.

The charges continued to dog Golan over the years, but did little to dent his mainstream popularity. But in the past few months the case has returned again to the headlines, after new complaints caused police to reopen their investigation. Golan is expected this week to face several of the complainants, who allege that the singer requested they “take care of” several high-profile friends who then raped the girls with Golan’s knowledge.

In 2018, Golan released a tribute album to Argov marking 30 years since the singer’s death, featuring posthumous duets where Golan alternates verses with Argov.

Sulitzeanu said she feels a tide is turning when it comes to public treatment of Golan and the allegations against him.

“We are seeing a change in the public perception – in the beginning, when I would criticize him I would get slammed by the media,” recalled Sulitzeanu. “Today, when I talk about [his alleged crimes], I get back love from the media… So things are happening. Change is very slow, and it’s too slow, but it’s happening.”

Forty years after Argov sprang onto the national stage with “Haperach Begani” – changing Israeli music forever – there is no easy answer to how to deal with his legacy.

“He’s very beloved and his songs are much loved and have lasted many years – but at the same time, I can say that there’s a problem with his past,” said Litvin. “I don’t have any conclusion about what should be done – but I admit there’s a problem.”

Sulitzeanu said she doesn’t have high expectations that Argov will ever be shunned by Israeli society.

But the least that is needed, she said, “is to give a disclaimer – ‘remember that this man was convicted of rape.’”

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