Israeli-Palestinian Musician’s Subversive Critique of Mizrahi Politics-Culture

The controversial Israeli-Palestinian performer, Jowan Safadi, produced a new song, It’s Hard to Be an Arab, which features a provocative YouTube video.  When I first listened to it without knowing anything about Safadi, I thought he might be a Mizrahi Jew satirizing his own ethnic community’s prejudices.  But after hearing the song’s lyrics, it became clearer that he was a Palestinian commenting on the ironies of being an Mizrahi “Arab” in an Ashkenazi dominated State.

The song is deeply subversive.  It portrays a deep-seated form of self-loathing (or at least inferiority) that besets Mizrahim who seek, above all, to be accepted despite their alienness within a society and culture dominated by Ashkenazi-ness.

Here are the lyrics:

Hardcore homophobes
Are the most gay on the inside
Mizrahi Arabophobes
Are themselves Arabs
Who are just afraid
And prefer to stay in the closet
Because they know, they know best
That to be an Arab is not so great

It’s hard to be an Arab
It’s really hard, just ask me
It’s hard to be an Arab
How much can one be black
Under the rule of the rich and white
In a nation of racists.

Sephardis, Mizrahis
Once they too were Arabs
They changed their names
To change their fate
Because they know, they know best
They know better than anyone
They know, they know best
They paid the bloody price
They learned it on their skin

It’s hard to be an Arab
It’s really hard, ask me
It’s hard to be an Arab
How much can one be black
Under the rule of the rich and white
In the racist state

Listen to me, dude
You need to know where you came from
And where you’re going to
And what you’re gonna find
Standing in the streets and chanting death to Arabs and such shit
You’re an Arab man, more fucked than I am

Hey you imported Arab,
Take it from a local Arab
You were dragged here
To settle in my place

It’s hard to be an Arab
It’s really hard, ask me
It’s hard to be an Arab
How much can one be black
Under the rule of the rich and white
In the land of Palestine.

A portion of the video is fairly static and boring with Safadi singing in the backseat of a car with women swaying and accompanying him.  But the really interesting part of the video includes a side story featuring a Mizrahi dressing himself for confrontation with Safadi.  In preparation, he dresses and makes himself up much like an actor before taking to the stage.  He puts on a t-shirt displaying a Lehava logo (the anti-miscegenation, terror-supporting NGO).  Then he paints a Jewish star on his face and dons a necklace with a Jewish star.  Safadi cleverly shows these to be the affectations Mizrahim must adopt to become part of the Israeli Ashkenazi mainstream.  They are the symbols of separation and hate which divide them from their own Arab roots.

At the confrontation at the beach, where the Mizrahim take out their clubs and prepare to beat the Palestinians, Safadi begins to lecture them about their second-class status.  Instead of assaulting them, the Mizrahi street-toughs absorb the lesson and even shrink from the truths the singer reveals to them.  But the real kicker is the last word of the last line.  The last lines of the previous stanzas each referred to Israel as a racist state.  But in that very last line, Safadi pulls a switch.  Instead of referring to Israel he ends with the words, “the land of Palestine.”  This shocks the toughs even more than the lecture they’d been previously given by Safadi.  The two camps, the Mizrahim and Palestinians, seem to be frozen at these shocking words.  It’s a stand-off. It’s not clear whether a real riot will ensue.  At this point, the video ends and you don’t find out how it was resolved.  Which is a perfect ending that fits the current situation in Israel-Palestine.

A word on the phrase, “it’s hard to be an Arab.”  Given Safadi’s brilliant subversive skills, I’m certain he knows the Yiddish phrase from which this originates: T’iz shver zu zein a Yid (“it’s hard to be a Jew”).  It is a saying meant to encapsulate hundreds of years of Jewish suffering, but specifically the suffering of European Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries.  It speaks of pogroms, massacres, blood libels, Inquisitions, Holocausts.  It speaks of poverty, prejudice and second-class status.  Of Sholem Aleichem and Tevye.  It speaks of religious hatred.  All the things that Palestinians (and Mizrahim) suffer in contemporary Israel.

The brilliance of this is its appropriation of the suffering of the Ashkenazi Jews, and then turning it back as a mirror upon itself.  As if to say: once you were the Arabs of Europe.  Now, here in Israel you have become those who despised you.  Remember your history.  If you do, you will not inflict it on others.  If you don’t, you will become the very thing you hated.

Make no mistake: there is a price to be paid for such clarity and fearlessness.  Palestinian artists do not enjoy the liberty of speaking their minds and being free to go about the rest of their business unmolested.  No, the very Ashkenazim he takes on fight back; and they do so with a vengeance.

In 2010, Safadi performed the song, The Search, which contained the ironic lyrics:

“I’m a terrorist, but I have no explosive belt around by waist
I have no bomb under my arm, no machine gun on my shoulder
I’m a soldier in the army of conscience
I’ll shoot you with bullets of poetry
I’ll assassinate you with a monologue
I’ll commit suicide with the bomb of a dance troupe and I’ll torture you with the beat of drums”

Any high school literature student could parse this and understand that it is meant metaphorically and ironically.  But not the far-right settlers.  They deliberately mistranslated the lyrics:

“I’m a proud Arab, a suicide bomber
I will murder your mother and your sister too.”

Apparently, irony is not the strong suit of Israel’s fascist class.  But just to be safe, they mangle the lyrics with literalness.  It took four years before the Israeli judicial system finally cleared Safadi of any wrongdoing.  And it did so only after he sued the State demanding to be declared not guilty of any crime.  Reluctantly and begrudgingly, it conceded his point.

This is what it’s like to be an “Arab” in Israel.  Always a suspect.  Always an enemy.  Always feared and hated.

H/t Iftach Shavit.