How did you end up making a film about Israeli punks?
FRONTLINE/World reporter Liz
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.
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.
Much of Israel's live punk scene takes place in small venues around
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.
What's the general attitude toward military service?
With mandated military service, uniformed soldiers are a regular
presence on Israeli streets.
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.
How did your Jewish upbringing and approach to religion
differ from the young Israelis you spoke to?
Landmark monuments remind visitors
of the region's long religious history.
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.
What surprised you most about traveling to Israel and talking
to people there?
Suicide bombings have become a new reality for Israeli citizens.
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.
Is there a particular message the movement is trying to
Israeli punks take visual cues from U.K. street punk.
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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