A matter of habit.

Singer Izhar Ashdot is an Israeli rock star, among the biggest the country has to offer, one of those artists everybody likes—your mom, your kid, you. He’s been part of Israel’s cultural scene since the early 1980s, when he was a founding member of the legendary band Tislam, and today his songs are part of the national language. Everyone can sing along to at least one Izhar Ashdot song.

But like any Israeli, he’s also a citizen and observer of his state’s actions and policies, and he recently released a new album, the title track of which (“A Matter of Habit”) opens with the lines “Learning to kill/ is a matter of momentum.”

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The track is an excruciating indictment of the Israeli occupation from the standpoint of the soldier on patrol (translation after the jump), and is clearly very powerfully felt: Ashdot wrote the music, his life partner, Alona Kimchi, wrote the lyrics, and the video is nothing but graphics and lyrics, each and every word appearing in the middle of the screen. Toward the end, we see still shots of Ashdot himself as a young man in uniform.

Since the song was first released last month, it’s been played (and even performed live) on Israel’s military-run radio stations (Galei Tzahal and Galgalatz), stations that are as much a part of everyday Israeli life as NPR or KISS-FM, stations that have often paradoxically reflected a more liberal philosophy than many of the nation’s other broadcasters. It’s not unusual to hear songs on Army Radio that are understood to be explicitly critical of the government or its policies.

But on Sunday, HaAretz reported that station commander Yaron Dekel (also a major figure in Israeli culture and media) had cancelled a live broadcast of Ashdot’s new song, even as the musicians were tuning their instruments. In a statement,  the station said

Izhar Ashdot is held in high esteem by Army Radio. In this specific case however, we believe with the artistic leeway afforded to artists by this station, Army Radio, as a station of soldiers, where many soldiers perform their military service, should avoid celebrating a song that demonizes those soldiers.

In response, Ashdot released a statement saying

The release of the statement and the announcement that it represents the position of Army Radio negates the possibility of holding a fair and balanced discussion on the song and its contents. I am worried by the fact that in a democratic country a media outlet bans a song.

It seems to me that this clash of needs and worldviews reveals something at the very heart of Israeli society: So much of the country is so deeply enmeshed in the ins and outs of military life—it becomes as invisible as water to fish. But invisible or not, it’s still there, and no military is a democracy.

No matter what the social values are around it, an army has demands that do not and cannot align with notions of freedom of speech and the airing of differences. And bottom line, soldiers have to have each other’s back.

Much as I agree with every word in “A Matter of Habit,” I’m not surprised that the commander of Israel’s Army Radio doesn’t like it. I’m not surprised that he’s worried about the morale of the people he’s meant to serve and represent, and I’m not surprised that other folks have taken real offense, no matter where they hear the song.

In a country where you’re taught from birth that yours is an unassailably righteous cause, that your army is the most moral on earth, and that everyone with an ounce of spine serves when and how s/he is told, hearing from one of your favorite singers that military service in an occupation army can warp your humanity is rough going.

Ashdot is far from the only Israeli artist to take on the occupation. Authors Amos Oz and David Grossman and singer-songwriters David Broza and Noa (Achinoam Nini) are perhaps the best known internationally, but a variety of actors, singers, musicians, poets, and others have long stood in the ranks of those who call for a just and peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

These artists see what many Israelis see: The occupation is catastrophic for the Palestinian people, but it’s also disastrous for Israel, a nation forever sending its children into untenable, violent circumstances, forever torn between the exigencies of its military and the imperatives of democracy.

I don’t know if one song (or book, or protest) can make any real difference. But I do know that the best way to make sure that everyone hears a song is to try to ban it.

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Please note: The following is my own translation of the lyrics to “A Matter of Habit.” I tried to maintain both the spirit of the song and at least something of the beauty of the Hebrew. Translation is always more difficult when the original rhymes, and this is absolutely not my profession. My apologies for any ill turns of phrase.

Learning to kill
Is a matter of momentum
It starts out small
Then it comes to you

Patrolling all night
In the Kasbah of Nablus
Hey, what’s ours
And what’s yours

At first it’s just a drill
A rifle pounding on the door
Bewildered children
Frightened family

Then the closure
It’s already dangerous
Death lies in ambush
Around every corner

You cock your weapon
Your arm trembles
Your finger hardens
Tight on the trigger

Your heart goes wild
Throbs with fright
It knows—the next time
Will be easier

They aren’t men or women
Just things, just shadow
Learning to kill
Is a matter of habit

Learning to fear
Is a matter of momentum
It starts out small
Then it comes to you

Tidings from above
Fall on the streets
There’s no chance of living on
The end is so near

Prophecies of terror
Like the raven’s call
Bolt your shutters
Barricade yourselves at home

We’re just a tiny handful
And they are so many
A tiny land
consumed by enemies

Their hearts hold only hate
The evil inclination and darkness
Learning to fear
Is a matter of habit

Learning cruelty
Is a matter of momentum
It starts out small
Then it comes to you

Every little boy is a man
Lusting after conquest
Hands behind your head
Spread your legs

It’s a dangerous time
A time of terror
Toughen up, soldier
There’s no virtue in mercy

Our cousin [note: Hebrew slang for “Arab”]
Is like an animal
Already used to seeing blood
He doesn’t suffer
He’s not human

Fatigues and a rash
Exhaustion and routine
From stupidity to evil the distance
Is short

It’s ours, only ours
The land of Israel
Learning cruelty
Is a matter of habit

Little boy, little boy, stop
Little boy, little boy, come back
Come here, my darling,
Come here, my baby

The skies are so gloomy
And outside all is dark
The toy soldiers are still here
Underneath your bed

Come home, little boy.
Come home.

Learning to love
Is a matter of tenderness
Careful steps
On a cloud of gentleness

We’ll go slow, we’ll melt
We’ll grow soft, we’ll lose our edge
Learning to love
Is a matter of habit

Being human
Is a matter of momentum
It sprouts like a baby
Then it comes to you

To be just for a minute
Just for now, just today
On the other side
Of the same barricade

But our heart’s already calloused
Our skin already thick
Deaf and blind
In the bubble of the present

We’ll gaze in wonder
At the fallen angel.

Being human
Is a matter of habit,
A matter of habit.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

4 Comments

  1. Wow. That is one hell of a song. Thank you for the post and for the translation. I’m going to see if I can buy that track now.

    • It blew me away. And I listened to it over and over again as I translated, so it’s well and truly stuck in my head now. One could wish for a cheerier tune, I suppose….

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