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Israeli singer with right-wing views denied lifetime award

Despite xenophobic statements by singer Ariel Zilber, the Israeli right blames the left of persecuting him over the decision to award him a lifetime achievement award.
Israeli Ariel Zilber plays the trumpet in front of a house occupied by Jewish settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron November 26, 2008. Hardline Jewish settlers hunkered down in the house in the West Bank flashpoint city of Hebron on Sunday, vowing to resist a court order to quit the property they insist they bought from a Palestinian. About 150 Jewish hardliners, mostly youths, moved into Hebron's settler enclave in the past week to support the 13 families that have been living in the house for a year an

The political right swiftly turned singer Ariel Zilber into an innocent victim of left-wing persecution, arguing that they deprived him at the very last moment of a lifetime achievement award. However, they ignored the problem of bestowing such a prize on someone who claims that homosexuality is a perversion, or that Israel Defense Forces soldiers during the Disengagement Plan from the Gaza Strip seemed to him like Nazis. This swift turn of the right is actually just demagogy, intended to achieve political gain.

The facts are simple: Zilber, 70, is a much-esteemed and prolific Israeli singer-songwriter and composer. Several weeks ago, ACUM (Union of Composers, Writers and Publishers in Israeli Music) decided to grant Zilber the lifetime achievement award. The prize committee — of which left-wing singer Aviv Geffen is also a member — explained that “Zilber has clearly redefined the mainstream by bringing the fringes closer to the center. His stage presence is charismatic and his songs are still relevant and influential today, as they radiate artistic truth, authenticity, honesty and tremendous talent.”

But Zilber is not just the total of these superlatives; he is also the person responsible for some of the most offensive, ugly expressions against Arabs, gays and left-wingers that have been heard in Israel in recent years. Initially, the prize committee did not address Zilber’s radical comments. It was only when Israeli singer Noa (Achinoam Nini) — who was supposed to receive the prize together with Zilber — announced that she would waive the honor unless Zilber would apologize to all those he offended with his remarks, that ACUM realized its mistake. The decision to change the definition of the prize bestowed on Zilber from lifetime achievement award to creativity and cultural contribution award was made at the eleventh hour by the organization’s board of directors. Ultimately, it was a reasonable and practical decision.

However, ACUM’s conduct was negligent and sloppy and its decision barely came through. This was interpreted by the right as surrender to pressure from the left-wing bloc, which holds sway over cultural institutions and distances an artist whose only sin is that he is repentant to Orthodox Judaism and belongs to the extreme political right. It was not difficult to arouse a sense of persecution and exclusion in the right-wing public. Their reactions might have been justified if Zilber had never uttered fanatic comments or had only made just one slip of the tongue. But his offensive utterances over time have a common theme: hateful comments about minorities and different groups in the population.

If the accusations of mouth-muzzling by the “sanctimonious left” had emerged from marginal elements in the political system, they could have been ignored. But they were uttered by high-level ministers, thus instigating a shallow, superficial debate between the right and left, when the actual substantive issue has no place in the political courtyard. Zilber is not being persecuted politically.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, for example, protested the “dangerous kowtow to the bolshevism of extreme left elements” on his Facebook page. Liberman even added the instance of civics teacher Adam Verete to the discussion, to transform the entire affair into one of ideological persecution, and wrote, “Those same elements who waged war on all fronts to allow a high school teacher to cast aspersions on IDF morals in the name of freedom of expression are now fighting to silence a musician whose musical genius and contribution to Israeli culture are not disputed.”

“In short,” concluded Liberman in a line taken from one of Zilber’s songs, “How can I not turn to see … that people are being silenced.” This witticism garnered numerous likes for Liberman’s Facebook status.

HaBayit HaYehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett joined the fray and paraphrased one of Zilber’s great hits, "Rutzi Shmulik" ("Run to Shmuel"), on his Facebook page. “Run Shmulik, he calls you and throws stones at you.” (Instead of "throws kisses at you"). For this, ACUM would have given him the life achievement award.

In addition to Bennett, all the other HaBayit HaYehudi Knesset members and ministers put Zilber’s songs on their Facebook pages, to show solidarity with the singer.

Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat (Likud Party) also attacked the left in interviews she granted to the media, and argued that the incident was disgraceful and cowardly and that “we are talking about 'thought police' here, in the words of George Orwell. This is a group concerned about freedom of expression, but only for one vantage point. This is a group that uses force to exclude right-wingers, to mock them, make them look ridiculous and delegitimize them. To portray them as inferior to the left elite.”

The fact that Dalia Rabin, daughter of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was involved in the affair from behind the scenes also added a political dimension to the Zilber tempest. Rabin, an honorary member of ACUM’s board of directors, objected to giving the life achievement award to Zilber. She explained that although he is a gifted musician, Zilber holds problematic viewpoints with regard to minorities, civil rights and the gay community. Therefore, giving him the life achievement award sends a problematic message to Israeli society.

And by the way, in the past Zilber called for the release of the murderer of Rabin’s father, arguing that if Israel agrees to release terrorists with blood on their hands, then no discrimination should be made between one murderer and another. Rabin judiciously preferred not to participate in the vote on Zilber, but her absence did not neutralize the claim that Zilber is being politically persecuted. Thus, for example, Knesset member Miri Regev (Likud Party) said to journalist Nissim Mishal, “I don’t like this hypocrisy. The time has come to tell Dalia Rabin that other people are allowed to think differently than her.”

What is missing from all the right-wing attacks on the left, are objections to Zilber’s offensive comments. Except for Livnat, all the other ministers who attacked the left preferred to close their eyes and ignore Zilber’s brazen comments, to create the impression of an arbitrary decision taken by the left, the hegemony in culture.

That is a shame. What we could have had is a fundamental discussion about the contribution of a distinguished musician to society, when that individual’s personality and statements agitate and challenge Israeli society. Instead, the Zilber affair blew up into a cry-out campaign of the right.

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