Down and out of tune - Israeli 'war singer' draws fire

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

TEL AVIV, Israel -- For half a century, Yaffa Yarkoni's songs glorified Israeli soldiers. So when the 76-year-old diva, a national symbol, drew parallels between the treatment of Jews by the Nazis and the army's handling of Palestinians, she stunned other Israelis.

Yarkoni was quickly branded a traitor, received death threats and had a gala tribute to her career canceled.

The furor, which refuses to die down, is a barometer of Israel's mood after 20 months of fighting with the Palestinians: many Israelis have become anxious, defensive and uncomfortable with dissent.

The controversy has split the Israeli public, with the country's shrinking dovish wing -- an unlikely ally for a wartime songbird -- rushing to the defense of Yarkoni's right to free speech.

Surrounded by bodyguards, she sang at a recent peace rally and wept at the rousing reception she received. Last week, an alternative tribute was held for her at a Tel Aviv basement theater, Tsavta, under the banner "Artists salute freedom of expression."

Artists' freedom

Giving his support was young musician Ivri Lider, who said he was shocked when Yarkoni's tribute was canceled. "It is important artists can say what they think and not be afraid shows will be canceled," he said.

Lider said the response to Yarkoni's remarks is a sign of a deep uncertainty Israelis are feeling. "She is a symbol for everyone, not just one side, and when she took a stand it was hard for them to accept. I think she is very brave," he said.

Outside the theater, protesters held placards that read "You besmirch the memory of our dear ones." Some chanted "don't collaborate with the enemy" as audience members walked past.

Among the demonstrators was Geulla Bussidan, whose 22-year-old son Amit was one of 13 Israeli soldiers killed in a booby-trapped house in Jenin refugee camp in April.

"I am deeply hurt. I thought she was the singer of the soldiers and now she says terrible things about them. She should be ashamed of what she said," Bussidan said.

Yarkoni said she was not aligning herself with a political view, but speaking out of love for her country. "I am not for the left. I am not for the right. I am for my country. I am not a politician, I am a singer," Yarkoni said.

Seated in her spacious Tel Aviv apartment, she seemed hurt and confused by the backlash.

"I was surprised at what happened. This is not the first time I have said this. I have always said what I wanted," she said.

Dramatic with her black hair and pale face, Yarkoni said she was tired of war, of dead young men and heartbroken mothers.

"I am tired. For 51 years I am singing about Israel all over the world, telling stories about how it was before -- the first war, the second war, every war. War, war, war. They call me the singer of wars. I don't like this name. I want to be the singer of Israel," she said.

Entertaining troops

Since before Israel's founding in 1948, a khaki-clad Yarkoni has entertained troops at army bases and on the front line. Often, she would call up a soldier's mother to let her know her son was all right.

Yarkoni's songs conjure up a nostalgia for the pioneering days of Israel's youth.

Her hits include, "Don't say Goodbye, Say I will see You," a song about a soldier leaving his girlfriend to go off to battle. "Road to Jerusalem" tells the story of soldiers bringing food to besieged Jerusalem during the 1948 war for Israel's independence.

She sang in Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish and Arabic to generations of Israelis who know her lyrics by heart. Every year on Independence Day, radio stations play her songs and there hasn't been a Memorial Day commemorating Israel's fallen soldiers where she hasn't performed.

Until this year.

In a radio interview before Memorial Day, which this year fell on April 15, Yarkoni described fears for her grandchildren's future and her feelings about Israeli soldiers who, during Israel's recent military offensive, lined up blindfolded Palestinians and in one case kept track of arrests by writing numbers on the detainees' arms.

"We are a people that lived through the Holocaust. How can we be capable of such things?" she said.

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