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Reviving the Israel Song Festival Means More Than Music

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Amidst all the alarming news coming out of Israel last week -- the government's treatment of the Arab minority and its flouting of humanitarian principles in the case of asylum seekers, one bit of happy news emerged. After a thirty-year hiatus, the Israel Broadcasting Authority announced that the Israel Song Festival is being revived.

According to a Haaretz report, the festival will be more along the lines of a public-broadcast show, rather than attempting "to compete with the style of high-budget music reality shows that are now common fare on television." Neither will the festival be merely a pre-Eurovision contest, as it had become in the years prior to its demise three decades ago.

To my mind, this is big news. When we think about artistic expressions that are not directly tethered to the demands of the commercial market, something amazing can occur. As we know, in politics, hearts and minds matter, suggesting important potential links between collective longings and policy directions. Thirty decades later, Israeli society is perhaps more fractured than it has ever been. A revived festival might just serve as a searing and necessary conversation about Israel's tomorrow.

I am a passionate fan of Israeli folk songs, having grown up in a Diaspora community deeply devoted to instilling Israeli and Jewish cultural traditions in its youth. Echoing the Israel song festival, my home town of Winnipeg, Manitoba held an annual festival where kids as young as 11 would write an original song, in English or Hebrew, about a Jewish or Israeli theme.

When my family and I moved to Vancouver when I was 12, I would send away for cassette recordings of the event, memorizing the words and tunes. The themes of Jerusalem, war, soldiers, Theodore Herzl, and Dizengoff Street romance all appeared, capturing the dreams of young Disapora Jews closely watching Israel.

Culture reflects popular longings. But the inverse is also true. Writing in Haaretz, I suggested that Hadag Nachash's song about Jerusalem suggests new possibilities for that Holy City. In these pages, I wrote about The Band's anthem "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Drawing some potential lessons for West Bank settlers, I argued that through song, the Confederates were able to engender some empathy for their narrative, helping along the process of national healing.

Thinking about the upcoming Israeli Song Festival, I am fantasizing about a penetrating exchange where politics is expressed through musical means.

Picture an Arab citizen of Israel singing about her experience as a member of an increasingly culturally and politically squeezed minority; settlers lamenting a possible relocation; a Tel Avivi celebrating his city's unabashed openness; a Conservative (Masorti) or Reform (Progressive) Jew singing about the possibilities for strengthening liberal Judaism in a state partly controlled by an Orthodox rabbinate; or even a Haredi Jew (sadly, a Haredi woman would not be allowed to sing by the conventions of ultra-Orthodoxy) sharing his experience of God. Maybe there would even be a slot allotted to a Diaspora Jew to express her connection -- sometimes straightforward, other times fraught -- to her imagined homeland.

Without the broader-market pressures of an American Idol-type of show, contestants will have the opportunity to sing honestly and openly. From the opening chords, a dialogue leading to empathy might just result.

One of the last Israel Song Festival winners was Yizhar Cohen's "A-Ba-Ni-Bi."

Five years after Israelis thought their country might be annihilated in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, "A-Ba-Ni-Bi" captured a longing for the innocence of child-like romance. The following year saw another unabashedly joyous song, as Milk and Honey's "Hallelujah" became a worldwide Jewish anthem.

Of course, the songs of the revived Israel Song Festival might not be laden with politics. They might simply be fun or sexy. But if there is indeed a wide cross-section of participants (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim; religious and secular; Mizrachi and Ashkenazi; Ethiopian, Russian, Anglo-Saxon, and Arab), hearing each other's everyday concerns can be powerful. A liberal democracy at some point has to try to strip away what makes us different to celebrate what makes us the same.

In a truly diverse Israel Song Festival, dominant narratives may come to be challenged. But in so doing, a fractured Israeli society might come to better understand itself. How will non-Jewish citizens fare in the Israel of tomorrow? Will settlers be able to find their feet on the other side of the Green Line? How will the religious and secular communities be better able to respectfully coexist? The answer certainly doesn't lie in a cup of water being thrown by one Member of Knesset at another. Instead, it just might lie in a song.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Haaretz.com

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