Narratives of Dissent: War in Contemporary Israeli Arts and Culture. Edited by Rachel S. Harris and Ranen Omer-Sherman. Detroit, MI: Wayne State Press, 2012. ISBN 9780814338032.

Reviewed by Mili Leitner Cohen


The edited volume Narratives of Dissent: War in Contemporary Israeli Arts and Culture brings together analyses of post-1980s cultural texts that address conflict, war, and violence in Israel. Its nineteen chapters are divided into three parts that approximate disciplinary boundaries: Private and Public Spaces of Commemoration and Mourning, Poetry and Prose, and Cinema and Stage. The extensive range of arts and culture with which the authors grapple includes not only those named in these section titles, but—especially in the first and most disciplinarily varied section—also music, television, radio, monuments, and online communication.

The introduction frames the content that follows using examples of collective song, presumably with the understanding that this is a particularly evocative mode through which Israelis engage with multiple affective states. Song, while eliding much attention in the chapters that follow, is surely mentioned during the introduction because of its participatory nature. It is presumed a common experience among the book’s interdisciplinary readership as opposed to the more culturally niche and analytically focused discussions that dominate this academic text.

The book’s title belies its pervasive concern with the relationship between Jewish Israeli and Palestinian/Arab Israeli cultural production and reception. The diverse authorial perspectives collectively give nuance to this binary, treating peripheral and borderline subjects such as Palestinians, Arab Israelis, and “subaltern” Jewish Israelis as essential actors in regional conflict. Counterpoints between individual-subjective and collective-national narratives further enhance the polyphony of authorial voices. The editors’ own differences–their backgrounds, self-declared political positions, and academic disciplines–surely influenced this broad array of perspectives, even as the volume’s tight thematic focus is successfully maintained. These factors, combined with a broad willingness to critique earlier generations of Israeli historicity, aligns the volume with the “new historicist” trend in Israel studies.

Two chapters of Narratives of Dissent are likely to be of particular interest to musicologists and Musica Judaica’s readership. Both are penned by scholars trained as anthropologists: Galeet Dardashti, now working within musicology, and Danny Kaplan, working in gender and masculinity studies.

Dardashti’s “Middle Eastern Music Amid the Second Intifada” offers a concise history of “ethnic” music in Israel over the longue durée, elegantly explaining the complex factors that coalesced to constitute this genre, including media creation and distribution, cultural policy, and educational institutions. The chapter is informed by her own ethnographic fieldwork in Israel, which spanned the eras of the Oslo Accords and Second Intifada. She assesses the gap between the apparent continuity of musical collaborations between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians/Arab Israelis during this era. Dardashti offers an important insight in noting the shift from musician-driven collaboration to “concealed motivations” to collaborate, that is, musicians engaging in these projects for reasons that appear to be ideological, but are actually motivated by other considerations such as financial or career opportunities. Dardashti describes the influence of external funding bodies during the Second Intifada as “curatorial coercion,” demonstrating that even when the music stays the same, modes of production, motivating forces, and audience reception can fluctuate as the result of national political change.

Dardashti’s work engages with some of the same repertoires and individuals as Benjamin Brinner’s 2009 monograph Playing Across A Divide, contributing a retrospective analysis that serves both to complement and complicate Brinner’s ethnography on musical collaborations between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians/Arab Israelis.1 Unlike the more idealized picture offered by Brinner, Dardashti’s critical concern with attempts to model peace through musical collaboration indicates a perspective that has more in common with Beckles Wilson’s Orientalism and Musical Mission.2 While Beckles Wilson and Dardashti share a broad critical perspective, Dardashti offers a concise historical perspective in contrast to Beckles Wilson’s ethnographic detail, making Dardashti’s work a potentially effective entry-point for scholars new to musical studies of Israel and/or the region’s conflict.

In “Cyclic Interruptions: Popular Music on Israeli Radio in Times of Emergency,” Kaplan investigates the role of music on the radio in manipulating the national mood of Israel. He opens with a brief history of Israeli radio, focusing on the post-1990 era when the neoliberal turn opened the media market to privatization. While in the United States, an increase in the number of available stations led to specialization and creation of niche stations (“format radio”), in Israel the opposite transpired. One outcome has been the unintentional national standardization of associations between genres or songs and political events.

Historically, as Kaplan explains, engineers would mimic the expected national mood, for example by playing upbeat Hebrew language songs on Independence Day or acoustic songs with mournful lyrics immediately after a news report of a terror attack. Kaplan notes a change in strategy in two complementary directions in an attempt to moderate these associations, because genres such as Shirei Eretz Yisrael became effectively off-limits for everyday programming due to the strength of their association with emergencies and commemoration. One change was the inversion of their past method, whereby sound engineers attempted to become an “engineer of collective emotions” (65) and to determine the national mood by, for example, playing retro dance hits during a prolonged missile attack. The second was to introduce a greater number of acoustic songs into everyday programming so that these genres could once again find a place among other popular music without fear of an unwarranted audience reaction. Today, the unifying features of songs of emergency and commemoration are the use of the Hebrew language and lyrics that specifically address the national issue at hand.

Perhaps Kaplan’s most important claim is that the radio can provide sonic and emotional stability in times of uncertainty through the sonic ritualization of war, violence, and terror. This is achieved through long-term musical-political congruencies and constitutes a display of civic responsibility by radio engineers. His ethnography offers a new lens with which to consider the relationship between war and national mood in Israel, challenging the top-down distribution model of affect and media that has (often rightly) typified previous work on Israeli radio.

While Narratives of Dissent: War in Contemporary Israeli Arts and Culture offers a surprisingly limited amount of musical content given its title, it is a worthy addition to Israeli cultural studies and to the emerging ethno/musicological subfield of music and violence studies. Some of the topics covered in the volume are rarely addressed in English language scholarship, and this book makes an important contribution to Israeli Studies by offering case studies beyond canonical works, in addition to the niche focus of some of the chapters. Scholars and teachers will surely find a wealth of highly specific studies and diverse authorial voices here, which, as a whole, make substantial contributions to these fields. The originality of the two musical chapters and the interweaving of extensive ethnography with critical analysis certainly make a noteworthy contribution to contemporary ethno/musicological studies of Israel.

[1] Brinner, Benjamin. 2009. Playing Across A Divide. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Beckles Willson, Rachel. 2013. Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Mili Leitner Cohen, University of Chicago