There’s a certain trend among a noted niche of young Jews imbued with the pro-Israel politics of Meir Kahane but yearning for some of the cultural flash of the 1960s counter-culture. So they create this weird amalgam which could be called hip-hop settlerism. You can see it in the Israeli hip hop scene in figures like Subliminal (aka Kobi Shimoni), whose genocidal anti-Palestinian diatribe I featured last week. On this side of the ocean you could see this in Matisyahu (before he abandoned reggae), Jewlicious’ David Abitbol, and in a figure who is new to me who I’ll profile here, Erez Safar (aka DJ Diwon).
The Forward named him one of the Top 50 Jews of 2007. He’s viewed by certain commissars of culture as the It Jew. His Wikipedia profile indicates he’s Orthodox, and the child of an American Jewish father and Israeli Yemenite mother. That, of course makes him very cool as a cultural crossover. He swings Ashkenazi or Mizrahi depending on his mood. He graduated from the University of Maryland (another illustrious pro-Israel Terrapin is Natan Sharansky’s social media flack, Avi Mayer) in 2003.
Now, as Diwon and founder of a Sephardi music festival, he’s heavily tilted toward Sephardism. That may be because in Israel, Ashkenazim have no defined culture or musical style, making them boring. While Mizrahim have the cultural cache of being an oppressed minority along with “having all the good songs,” as Tom Lehrer used to say of liberals in the 1960s.
I can’t tell if there’s anything authentic about Safar’s foray into Sephardi-Mizrahi musical/cultural memes. But when you begin exploring his political views, everything about him becomes suspicious.
There is a certain brazenness common to people like Safar, especially Israelis. They’re the ultimate arrivistes from a small country, with big ambitions. They want to burst on the stage and make a splash on behalf of themselves personally, and their religion/nation. To do so, they adopt whatever is the cultural avatar of the moment: in their case–hip hop. To that, they graft their political, religious or cultural message. If done with some panache it becomes a heady mixture, especially for young Jews looking for a way to integrate their own identity with the mainstream.
This form of Jewish hipsterism strikes me as a domestic version of Birthright, a way for American Jews to search for an identity that has street cred, that’s cool and hip, but that’s also Jewish. It’s a way to make Jewish identity relevant for kids who are drawn into America’s mainstream popular culture. But as you can see from the Semitic Swag website, its version of Jewish identity is only skin deep. It focuses on clothing, fashion and a few thin pro-Israel ideas. It omits Jewish values, ethics and the prophetic tradition entirely.
Unfortunately for the Jewish hipster ethos, in creating it they adopt a pose that is anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic. Not to mention ultra-nationalist or settlerist.
Safar is nothing if not ambitious. He wants not only a musical empire. But along the lines of Russell Simmons, he wants to become a cultural impressario and fashion entrepreneur. So he created the pro-Israel fashion site, Semitic Swag, part of the parent company he calls Shemspeed (Shem or “Name” is one of the Orthodox names of God).
His latest creation, which he began marketing in 2010, is the “Original Semitic Keffiyeh” (which he more aptly called the “Israeli Keffiyeh” in an earlier product iteration). The ad copy, featuring mangled English syntax, has to be read to be believed:
Israelite Keffiyeh is revolutionary utilitarian scarf accentuated by Star of David in the center, while underlined with an Israel Chai on all four sides of the scarf. Highlighting the Semitic orient of this ancient people.
In honor of Madonna, I suppose, cashing in on the Kabbalah hipster craze, there is also the Kabbalah Tzizit (in “army green”), and the Talit Gadol (prayer shawl), Yiddish Players Club yarmulka and t-shirt, Semitic belts, the American-Israeli blend keffiyeh (red, white and blue), and “Do You Rap?” and “Punk Jew” t-shirts. Safar also has a line of record releases, one of which is titled “Shalom Haters” (you can imagine).
Note in the accompanying promotional photo how black women appear to adore men in an IDF uniform! Can you think of anything more puerile?
But it’s only when you get into his politics do you really understand what he’s really about. He conducts workshops to accompany his musical performances on college campuses and wherever young Jews hang. Here are the topics he covers:
1. Pro-Israel Activism on U.S. College Campuses
• Tips on how to promote and support Israel on campus.
• Learning how to counter anti-Israel sentiments.
• Understanding how Israel is portrayed in traditional and college media outlets. (StandWithUs will provide additional resources and support.)
2. Does Clothing Make the Jew?
• Does style of dress make someone more Jewish? Discussion of Biblical texts related to this topic, as well as socio-political forces in the Diaspora over the ages.
• Discussion of Jewish-oriented clothing styles, including Hassidism, and the relationship between modesty and spirituality.
3. Am Yisrael, Torat Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael (The People of Israel, The Torah of Israel, In the Land of Israel)
• Discussion of the important connection between all three – is this the road to redemption?
• Exploration of the the [sic] diverse nature of Judaism,, from the Diaspora to Israel
• Debate about the mainstream Jewish community’s support of Israel. Is it political, religious, spiritual, or social by nature? Is it truly selfless, or self-interest?
• The importance of Aliyah – can someone truly call him or herself a Zionist if this individual has no intention of ever making Aliyah? Discussion of both sides of this important topic.
And if that wasn’t enough there’s this truly offensive diatribe on Palestian-Arab cultural-fashion identity by way of the keffiyeh:
4. How the Keffiyeh Was Politicized
• Discussion of how the keffiyeh became a symbol of oppression for Arab Muslims, and how it became so closely tied to the Palestinian cause.
• History lesson about the keffiyeh and its close connection to Middle Eastern Jews.
• Does the keffiyeh have religious connotations? Discuss the connection between Judaism and Islam.
Of course, the keffiyeh never became a symbol of oppression for Arab Muslims. In fact, it is the piece of clothing worn with pride by working people throughout the region of Palestine and environs.
If you think about this, it’s precisely what settlers have done to Palestinian cultural symbols. Look at videos of marauding settlers and you’ll note many of them wear gear that defines them religiously and culturally: the large knitted kipah and a keffiyeh to mask the face in case they have to beat up Palestinians or engage in other acts of violence.
The appropriation (ie. theft) of a Palestinian icon for the sake of building a distinct ultra-nationalist settler identity is both audacious and repulsive. If one people wants to dominate another what better way to do it than to take part of their patrimony for your own and declare it was never theirs, but always yours. Isn’t that precisely the goal of settlements and Occupation themselves?
I’m not even sure whether Safar understands what he’s doing. But it doesn’t make his act any less a fraud.
I’m all in favor of creating a genuine Jewish identity that is bold, creative, even provocative. Israel, too may play a role in such a spiritual quest. But never at the expense of another people or religion. To raise ourselves up on the backs of others we trample upon is the worst sort of cultural brutalism.
H/t to Rima Najjar.