The Shmooze

Yehoram Gaon Sparks Israeli Pop Music Culture War

By Nathan Burstein

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In America, we fight our culture wars over unwed mothers and gay marriage. In Israel, they fight them over pop music.

One of the Jewish state’s veteran Ashkenazi entertainers has ignited the latest battle over Mizrahi music, the genre that arrived with Jewish immigrants from the Arab world. Traditionally disdained by the country’s Ashkenazi elite, the music has long been a symbol of Mizrahis’ outsider status in Israeli politics, education and income distribution.

So singer Yehoram Gaon should have known better when he told the student newspaper at Ariel University that Mizrahi music is “garbage” and a “natural disaster.” Referring to the music’s soaring popularity in recent years, the 71-year-old Gaon added that he was “waiting for this foul wave to pass.” (This is roughly akin to someone like Paul Simon making similar comments about rap or hip-hop, with all the corresponding identity politics.)

Gaon’s comments sparked a furious response, even in the Knesset, where a number of legislators condemned them as reviving ugly memories that had started to recede. “Yehoram Gaon is setting us back a generation,” said Ronit Tirosh, a Kadima MK who denounced the singer’s “elitism and arrogance.” She was joined in her sentiments by members of the rival Likud party, and may be joined by them later this month when she convenes a special Knesset “salute” to Mizrahi music. (Just one Knesset member, the far-rightist Aryeh Eldad, went on record in praise of Gaon’s remarks.)

While it is true that top Mizrahi singers like Eyal Golan and Sarit Hadad are not known for their profound lyrics, their emergence in the Israeli mainstream says good things about diminishing ethnic tensions in the country. And, the Shmooze will add, they’re a lot of fun to listen to at concerts and weddings.


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