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Israeli independence: a bitter-sweet celebration

Sarah Judith Hofmann
May 11, 2018

As a teenager, Israeli musician Noga Erez lived through the terror attacks of the second Intifada. She spoke to DW about Israeli independence, national pride and the two-state solution.

Israelische Musikein Noga Erez
Image: DW/S. Hofmann

Noga Erez is a singer-songwriter from Israel who originally studied classical composition. Today she makes energetic electro-pop and her latest album "Off the Radar" was released in June, 2017. She sat down with DW's Sarah Judith Hofmann in Tel Aviv to talk about 70 years of independence in her home country.

Deutsche Welle: On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared Israel an independent state. You were born in Israel, you grew up here. Is there a sense of pride about what your ancestors achieved?

I hate the word pride. It has this nationalistic sound. No, I'm proud of a lot of things here. At the same time, I am in the process of realizing what a lot of the people who came here 100 years or 70 years ago have been through, before coming here. Jewish people have not just been persecuted in Europe but all over the world.

They escaped, they were refugees, they had been through horrible things. They lost family, generations. Both sides of my family in Europe were deleted. I'm realizing how traumatized they were and how they needed to rebuild themselves – not just building a country but building themselves mentally.

Israeli musician Noga Erez
Noga Erez wouldn't describe herself as a 'political' musicianImage: Tonje Thielesen

I think that this country was built in 70 years has a lot to do with the urge to survive. It's the strongest fuel for acceleration of culture and technology. This is still true today. If you think about the wars here, that accelerated other processes. The cyber nation – it's all because we have to. Its crazy how these ugly forces are the best accelerators. So, am I proud? It's bitter-sweet.

As you mentioned, Israel is a mix of people, mostly Jewish people, who came as refugees from all over the world. In your music you mix very different sounds within one song. Is this inspired by the place you live in?

I get a lot from walking around Tel Aviv and crossing the border to Jaffa – this adds another flavor to the mixture. Ten minutes from here you are in an Arabic city, this is stunning. Tel Aviv for me is a place which has the potential to be the most beautiful place on earth because of the mixture of people and of culture, the beach, the city – everything together. But at the same time it has a very strong frequency and noise of complexity.

There is something harsh about it, dirty and something complex. This place is beautiful and amazing but it exists due to things that happened very recently and are still happening. And that blends into the atmosphere, and eventually into my work in the sound in a very clear way.

In one of your songs you ask: "Can you dance while you shoot?” When I listened to it I had to think of living in the so-called "party bubble” Tel Aviv while people are being shot just 60 minutes from here at the Gaza border. Was this on your mind when you wrote this line?

Israelische Musikein Noga Erez
Image: DW/S. Hofmann

It's a song about escapism and the duality of living in the western world. It's not just about Tel Aviv or about Israel, it's a global thing. It's our reality as the privileged part of society of the world. Being privileged is nothing to be ashamed of. It's a good thing to be able to have a life and to be able to accomplish things. But eventually there is always the knowledge of what it took to get those things in your hands, to have the security that you have, to live in your home, what it took for your city to be built, your country to be built. And that is something that every person in every country can relate to. All our existence is on somebody's back. Reminding ourselves of that every now and then is important.

Are people here still being reminded about where they live? Or do people in Tel Aviv just forget that the West Bank is 25 minutes by car from here?

I have a huge criticism about my generation. But I have a huge criticism about myself. It's extremely easy to forget what's happening. It's too easy. Especially when you live in Tel Aviv. The funny thing is that when you look at the political map, people from Tel Aviv are shallow pro-Palestinian, pro-Two-State solution, but at the same time you walk the streets here and it's just so easy to forget. The cafes are bursting with people every single day of the week.

Israel -  the beach in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv is often seen as somewhat insulated from the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflictImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Grimm

I think the most dangerous part of our society is not the one who has hatred towards the other side. The dangerous part is the strong elite who is so forgetful about this situation, who can talk about it from home with the paper in their hand, "oh that's so bad,” maybe even post something on Facebook and feel like they did something, and then forget about it for the rest of the day – again, me included.

What should people be talking about in this country?

The first topic that should be talked about in every conversation about this place is the occupation. That's it. Period. And nothing will change before we start talking about it seriously. People use the word "Apartheid” in a very irresponsible way towards what's happening here and I don't want to compare it. It's not the same as it was in South Africa. But even though it's very different you learn from history. You learn that people have the ambition to live a normal life. And if you give them the opportunity to control what their lives should look like, this would change everything.

I love this place so much. I can see the potential in everything here, how it could be, but at the same time I see it being held back all the time from developing and I see it declining in so many aspects, morally and socially. And that's what I'm angry about because for the past almost 15 years I have lived in a country that doesn't try hard enough. The government doesn't try at all. But I think if there was a very strong voice coming from the young generation of people saying that we are not willing for the next government to act the way that the previous government acted, I think that could start a change and a dialogue. 

What is your role as a musician?

CD Cover of Noga Erez's Off The Radar
Erez's latest album 'Off the Radar'

I'm not a political artist. I make music for very selfish reasons, for my love of music. It is my way of processing everything that is happening to me and around me. But the by-product is that I think it can help people if they go deep enough, try to understand what is going on here, maybe read one or two articles about what is going on in the Middle East. People are so responsive today, so quick to talk back. There is a chance to change this through music. Listening, maybe even learning. I myself became socially aware because of music. Before that I was just minding my own business. So yes, I think music can change the mindset of a human being.

Like every Israeli, you had to do military service at the age of 18. For women it's two years, for men three. What did you do in the army?

My military service was a very ridiculous one. I did not contribute anything. I was a singer, a musician in the army. This is a tradition from the 60s and 70s when serious war was going on here, a leftover from an old era. The military band entertaining the soldiers. And this is what I did. It was surreal in many ways. You take music which is a very superior thing, a spiritual thing, and you bring that to soldiers in situations where they are just before going out, heading somewhere, which is crazy. They didn't know what would happen to them while they were listening to the music. They didn't even listen…

You were a teenager when the Second Intifada took place. Do you have the feeling that war has surrounded you all your life?

Not really. You know that's the thing. I'm in the most privileged part of society in Israel. Sometimes there is a war or a terror attack but most of the time for me it's quiet. Ask people who live on the border, on the Israeli side. They would describe something different. Ask people in Gaza or from the West Bank – they would describe something completely different.

Frauen bei den Protesten an der israelischen Grenze im Gaza-Streifen
A woman protesting at border between the Gaza Strip and Israel in April, 2018Image: Reuters/I. Abu Mustafa

If there is a war going on in Gaza, I can hear alarms here and go to a shelter and feel anxious, even experience anxiety attacks and it's frightening and for years after when I hear a bike go by, I get anxious. But compare it to what's going on in Gaza. They don't live in freedom. How would I be if I didn't have freedom? I don't know. I might be extremely angry. I might be extremely upset and do something about it.

Many young Israelis have moved to Berlin in recent years. Have you ever considered leaving Israel and escaping all of this?

I have an intention to move out for some time, not for life. But there is something very unique with the place you grew up in – your home. There is something that makes you extremely rooted. My family is here and there is a very strong aspect of family in Israel. But in 2015, last elections, I was about to go. I was so frustrated. The nation was divided almost 50/50 – it was so close to change. And then we remain in the same situation as before. That led me to thinking: ok, do your thing, I'm just gonna go.

But in 2006, before I joined the army, I spent time in Thailand, and then the second Lebanon war broke out. Of course you want to escape it. You don't want to be there when it happens, but at the same time, you cannot. I spent all the time in Thailand reading about it, talking to my family on the phone, wanting to go back. Yes, I want to be there with everyone when they hide from bombing. It's weird and obnoxious. But the Israeli society is most united when things like that happen. When you have a joint enemy, you are united. But if not, I think Israel has never been so divided and so hateful towards each other.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NatanyahuImage: REUTERS

Why is that? Because of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu?

Absolutely. You don't have to have a conspiracy in your mind about it. You just have to read their posts on Twitter and Facebook and you understand that they have an agenda in dividing the society so they maintain power.

There is a new lexicon of hating the left party. "They are traitors.” Everyone who is on the left side of the political map. It's the new enemy from within. People who are in the highest ranks in the government, Netanyahu, they just talk about it like that.

Does this make you pessimistic about Israel's future?

I spent a lot of time being depressed about it. But then I think someone wants me to lose hope. It's the government, they want us to lose hope. And for that reason I'm not gonna do it. Nothing has been changing for 50 years, so I hope there will be the moment when people will say, let's try something out. Just do something. Let's give it a try. I'm up for any solution.

But being realistic for a moment, I think that the best option that we have is the two-state solution. I think the Palestinian people want their own country. So any other solution will not work. If you wanna put them inside your country and make them second-class citizens, that's never going to work. Being very selfish, I would like to see the country of Israel around me, not Palestine around me – this is my country and I talk Hebrew and I still think this is a great place. But if we are all in one country and vote for one government, we are not going to be the majority. There are a lot of Palestinians. So I think the two-state solution is the best for everybody.

What is your toast to Israel in its 70th year?

I'm going to raise a toast for the next 70 years, not for the past. I'm going to raise a toast for peace. I probably sound stupid, but peace. Yes. I'm celebrating that.

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