A Shekel for Your Thoughts?

HaDag Nachash

Jerusalem is a city of a thousand neighbourhoods, united by white stones and divided by ethnic and religious identity. Every conflict felt between Jews and Arabs is redivided in both communities by conflicts between the religious and the secular, and then redivided again by economic disparities within the communities. The renowned vibrance of Israeli society has thus produced art that is at once emblematic and escapist. This art is highly engaging at many
levels; like all forms of cultural expression, it contains something for the outsider, the neophyte, and the native.

The Kiriyat Mordechai neighbourhood of Jerusalem is a bluecollar residential borough, and this summer it hosted the Festival b’Shekel, the One Shekel Festival. The festival was created through the initiative of Israeli musicians and performers who wanted to allow greater access to their concerts, which are often plagued by restrictive ticket prices. The festival was held in a park in Kiriyat Mordechai and charged a single shekel as admission. The performers
were some of Israel’s most popular musicians: the headlining band was HaDag Nachash, a funk, rock, and hip-hop group that achieved fame in the last five years; they were joined by Israeli rock legends Rami Fortis and Berry Sakharof, a duo that split up in the 1990s and were reunited for that night’s performance.

HaDag Nachash is a group that deserves serious attention. They are led by writer and vocalist/rapper Shanan Street and the band includes a DJ/keyboardist, an electric guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, a flautist, and a beatboxer. They combine electric-sounding 80s funk with a hip hop hook and “mizrachi” (Arabic and North African) rhythms. They opened the festival with some energetic songs from their extensive catalogue, suitable for the crowd, who responded by
jumping and punching their fists in the air.

The atmosphere within the park contained more than simple fanfare and excitement. The festival took place on June 27th, seven weeks before the beginning of the Israeli government’s disengagement plan—the withdrawal of 8000 Jewish civilians from occupied territories in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.
Since its inception, this plan has caused an incredible amount of civil disagreement within Israel. The fact that the Jewish state was removing Jews from their houses was entirely unacceptable to some, while others saw it as an invaluable step towards handing over territory to Palestinian rule. The proponents and opponents of the plan battled in editorial posts and on street corners, and fears grew of the possibility of civil violence between the groups. Within
Jerusalem, opinions run as high as they can, and the different political camps became associated with coloured ribbons that waved the banners of their causes. An orange ribbon indicated that one opposed the disengagement plan, and a blue-and white ribbon expressed support for the decision of the democratic government. Wearing ribbons in public invited discussion, insult, and even threats from those opposed to the colour of opinion flying from
one’s rucksack. Atop this political division within the society, there loomed the threat of a terrorist attack, a threat felt in any crowded area, especially in Jerusalem.

Imagine then, the crowd that appeared for an accessible concert in the state’s capital—overwhelmingly young, many of the Jerusalemites present were waiting to be drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces. There were large numbers of casually dressed music lovers, high-school students enjoying a great show on a summer night. Some wore small knitted kippot, a sign of religious observance or an inclination towards the traditional. Many wore ribbons of different colours. Some were old enough (18-22) to appear in their army unit fatigues, and a few young men wore the uniform of the ultra-religious (black pants and jackets, white shirts, sidelocks, and black felt kippot). The religious-secular divide in Israeli society was seemingly united for the duration of the concert.

Within the mixed crowd, society and politics blended equally in the music heard that evening. HaDag Nachash is Israel’s foremost politically and socially conscious band; above their musical talents, their commentary on Israeli society is famously engaging. In their song “Rak Po” (Only Here), rapper Shanan describes how, despite the easy life one can find in America and Amsterdam he prefers Israel to any other place on earth. In the song, he includes in the
song descriptions of various everyday trials faced by Israelis, including army service, metal detectors, moral confl ict, and economic strife. In “Bela Belisida” he tells the true story of a woman named Bela who protected a knife-wielding terrorist with her body against a crowd bent on avenging the victims stabbed moments earlier. The band, known for its moderate, secular, and cynical approach to Israeli politics achieved widespread approval among music lovers of all
political stripes because no one can disagree with their honesty in describing the humanity of the confl ict and the strain it places upon Israeli society.

The music built up to what would appropriately be the festival’s climax, when HaDag Nachash and guests performed “Shir HaStikerim” (The Sticker Song). The Sticker Song was released by HaDag Nachash last summer and grew immensely popular over the past year, because its ingenuity touches most Israelis with a sense of familiar sarcasm that rains down upon all who engage in the political dialogue in the country. The verses are composed entirely of recognizable phrases taken from Israeli bumper stickers, one of Israel’s most prolific media. The single-slogan manifestos coat vehicles and street-signs up and down the country and range from the moderate to the mocking to the blatantly racist.

The lyrics of the song were originally composed by Israeli author David Grossman, following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The political murder of Israel’s Prime Minister spurred Grossman into composing the song, wherein he displays both the divisions within the society and the incitement and hatred of opposing views. David Grossman broke onto the political scene with his 1987 work The Yellow Wind, a collection of essays on his encounters with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Grossman’s primary focus has often been on the impact of the occupation on Israeli society, how occupation
corrupts and brutalizes the occupier. He expresses his fears of civil hatred between Israelis, and the murder of Rabin truly brought his (and many Israelis’) worst fears to light.

“Shir HaStickerim” begins by contrasting moderate bumper stickers, then begins to include both the humorous and the extremist slogans. As the song progresses it spirals out towards the most shockingly objectionable. The chorus repeats the question “how much evil can we swallow?” The suspenseful instrumentation, and the shouted lyrics (Shanan spits every slogan with the appropriate emphasis) add to a chaotic bombardment that only forces you
to appreciate how seamlessly Grossman and Shanan wove the interlocking and contradictory fragments into a rhythmic, rhyming poem. When sung in the politicised atmosphere of a hot Jerusalem night, the song took on the force of a musical score to the evening. And everyone present knew all the words, having grown up seeing them stuck to their parents’ cars, their neighbours’ widows, their street corner’s stop signs.

The concert wasn’t long, but it was intense, and it was fun. The country was discussing tearing itself apart in the newspapers, and we stood together singing regardless of our political perspectives.

For more information on HaDag Nachash and The Sticker Song, a PDF fi le called “Israel from Bumper to Bumper” is available online. Created as an educational tool to explain some of the different political views in Israel, it is a really thorough package that provides images of the original stickers. However, it treats every sticker, whether rude or racist, as another quirky expression of the Israeli mosaic, downplaying the serious and disturbing nature of many of the slogans.