Frontline World

Dispatches From a Small Planet: Israel, April 2005

Video Dispatches - Israel

Interview WIth the Filmmaker
A filmmaker's journey into the Israeli punk scene.
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The Bands
"Jericho's Echo" features eight different punk bands.
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Moderator Comment: Should there be mandatory military service in any country? And what role should religion play in society?
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Interview with Filmmaker Liz Nord
Liz Nord

FRONTLINE/World reporter Liz Nord.
How did you end up making a film about Israeli punks?

I went to Israel in the summer of 2003, three years after the Intifada began. I realized that so many of my peers had such a limited view of what's going on over there. I wanted to throw another perspective into the mix from the one you hear in the U.S. everyday, which is a very limited and frightening one. I thought, who better to present an alternative view of society than a group of punk rockers?

Did you even know there was a punk scene in Israel?

The Israeli punk band Useless I.D. had toured the U.S. back and 1998. When I saw them perform, I felt my Jewish upbringing, interest in Israel, and love of underground music had come together in an interesting way. I had a feeling there must be a small punk movement in Israel, but when I arrived, I was surprised to find a scene full of young, idealistic, conflicted, and articulate characters.

Scene inside a club

Much of Israel's live punk scene takes place in small venues around Tel Aviv.
Historically, punk has grown out of political or social upheaval and this is also true of Israel. There are more than 40 punk bands in the scene there now, although the turnover is pretty high because of the mandatory military service. Alternative culture is in its infancy in Israel, so there are few venues and practice spaces or independent recording studios to support these bands.

How do politics and music mix in this case?

One of the biggest schisms in the scene is between the politically active bands and those who just play for fun. You find this in most punk scenes, but it's particularly poignant in a place as politically charged as Israel. It was easier for me to understand both sides once I started talking to the bands. Guy Carmel and Ishay Berger from Useless I.D. told me they play poppy love songs, not anti-occupation rants, because their lives are already mired in politics. Their music is a deliberate escape from that. With the exception of the hardcore band Retribution whose music is highly nationalistic and right wing, most of the bands I spoke to lean to the left.

Group of military

With mandated military service, uniformed soldiers are a regular presence on Israeli streets.
What's the general attitude toward military service?

Many Israeli punks share a distrust and often an outright rejection of the Israeli armed forces. Every Israeli citizen is mandated to serve as soon as they reach 18, just after they graduate high school. Typically, boys serve for three years and girls for about two; and men serve one month every year at least until they reach their 40s. For some of these teenagers, service can mean an administrative job, or full combat in hostile territory.

Are there any exceptions to being drafted?

Ultra-religious Jews are excluded so they can study religious law, which explains some of the animosity the punks have toward the religious right. You can also submit yourself to intensive psychological testing in the hopes that a military psychiatrist will declare you insane. Many punks take this route. David Katzin with the band Nikmat Olalim, told me it's fairly easy to be categorized this way: "If you're not interested in going into the Army, you're already an outcast." For those who are excused on mental grounds, the fact is stamped on their national I.D. card, which can stigmatize them in finding jobs. The ones who do sign up, often find themselves in life-threatening situations or defending a position that is against their ethical beliefs. They feel forced to fight people they would rather try to find peace with. All in all, the decision to opt-in or out of military service is laden with consequences for young Israelis.

Gold Dome

Landmark monuments remind visitors of the region's long religious history.
How did your Jewish upbringing and approach to religion differ from the young Israelis you spoke to?

My experience with Judaism, growing up in a small town in the American Northeast with a small Jewish minority, was almost exactly the opposite of the Israeli punks. When I tried to explain that being Jewish for me was an act of rebellion against a predominantly Christian society, they didn't understand. For them, the mainstream authority is Jewish, and their rebellion is directed toward their own religious roots.

Like the rest of the secular majority, almost all of the punks were born Jewish. But Jewish orthodoxy is the only strand of Judaism officially recognized by the Israeli government. This frustrates the punks and other secular Israelis who tend to identify more closely with "cultural" Judaism, and other more lenient forms popular among Jews living outside of Israel.

Scene of bombing

Suicide bombings have become a new reality for Israeli citizens.
What surprised you most about traveling to Israel and talking to people there?

What really caught me off-guard during the interviews was how nonchalantly people discussed the suicide bombings, which were still happening relatively frequently when I was there. Just about everyone in the country has been affected in some way by the bombings of nightclubs, cafes, and buses. I lost count of the number of times I heard the phrase, "You get used to it." Yet I kept wondering, is this something you can ever get used to? Omri Goldin, the 20-year-old singer with the band Ha Pussy shel Lussy was killed in a blast in 2000. The band's surviving singer told me how he keeps things in perspective despite the loss: "There are bad Arabs and good Arabs. There are bad Jews and good Jews. We are all human beings, and that is the universal truth for us." It's an attitude shared by many in the scene.

Band member playing on stage

Israeli punks take visual cues from U.K. street punk.
Is there a particular message the movement is trying to get across?

Israelis are pretty cynical, and even though some of the punks' comments were negative, they were still some of the most hopeful people I met. Many of the bands feel a responsibility to voice their discontent on everything from the Israeli occupation to the religious right. They want to make music despite events around them and the pressure to follow a mainstream path. And no matter where they fall in the ideological spectrum, they all share one belief: punk rock is freedom.

The video interviews were excerpted from Liz Nord's feature-length documentary Jericho's Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land. For more information about the film, go to Jericho's Echo.

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