In every country and among every people, music attests to national character and national ideals. The rhythms, harmonies, melodies, and poetry of music relate to and help to define personal characteristics, social customs and rituals, national religion, as well as national and personal identity. Most of today’s societies have had hundreds or thousands of years to develop a national music; the State of Israel has had only since 1948 to assert itself as a political, social, and cultural entity in a fast-moving world. In many ways, the history of Israeli music reflects the broad struggles of that young country.
The early history of music in Israel was determined by two major forces: the Zionist movement, whose participants encouraged the creation and dissemination of Israeli “folk” music; and the political struggle against Fascism, which led many European-born musicians to flee to the Holy Land.
Jewish immigrants to Palestine brought with them music of their various host countries. The leaders of the Zionist movement sought to inspire and unite these new olim (immigrants) with a common cultural identity. To that end, Zionist musicians composed hundreds of short and simple folk songs for dissemination among the immigrant communities and among Jews abroad. The songs’ lyrics spoke of the experience of living in the Holy Land, from stories about the agricultural cycle to lullabies to stories of love. Their musical qualities combined the sounds of European music with hallmarks of the “exotic” — minor modes, the Yemenite trill, and Arabic instruments. Many of these songs are still sung today throughout the Jewish community; among the most well-known is the love song “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (“Evening of Lillies”).
The folk tradition dovetailed into a new form of national popular music, represented above all by Naomi Shemer. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Shemer sang of the uniqueness of the land of Israel. Her song “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”)–composed just before the Six Day War of 1967–spoke of Jews’ longing for Jerusalem. After Jerusalem’s unification, Shemer famously modified the lyrics to reflect Israel’s accomplishments in the war.
Israel also has cultivated a rich tradition of classical European music. The Palestine Orchestra was founded in 1936 by Bronislaw Huberman, who anticipated the coming war against the Jewish people in Europe and took scores of other Jewish musicians from Europe with him to Palestine. The formation of the orchestra was a distinctly political move: Huberman stated that his goal was to produce a “materialization of the Zionist culture in the fatherland.” After the creation of the State of Israel, the orchestra changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Classically trained Jewish artists from Israel and abroad–Koussevitsky, Bernstein, Heifetz, Rubinstein, Arrau, and many others–were naturally drawn to participate in the orchestra’s activities from its inception. It is no coincidence that the Philharmonic’s first recording project was of symphonies of Mahler, a Jewish composer. Together with music departments in Israel’s various universities and institutions such as the Jerusalem Music Center, the Israel Philharmonic continues to cultivate the country’s interest in European classical music.
In addition, the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, located in a suburb of Tel Aviv, serves as a hothouse for growing a new generation of musicians, creating a unique and contemporary Israeli sound. The school counts among its graduates the popular Achinoam Nini, an Israeli woman of Yemenite descent who spent her childhood in North America.
Today, the population of Israel is divided over its national identity. Some Israelis think that Israel should attempt to be a country like every other, with no distinct religious or cultural identity; while other Israelis think that there is something unique about Israel as the Jewish homeland and that it should not necessarily strive to be like other Western countries. Israeli popular music reflects this struggle. In 1998, the Israeli singer Dana International won the Eurovision Song Contest seeing herself as a representative of Israel to the rest of the world; her music is very much like contemporary European popular music. Singers like Arik Einstein (1939 – 2013) have further developed the musical style of Naomi Shemer, uniting a distinctive Israeli message with a more modern folk-influenced popular idiom.
In addition, within the country, musical styles of Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews have long competed with Western sounds. In recent years there has been a crossover in which Mizrachi–and even Ethiopian–music has become part of the popular Israeli music scene. Politics, also, is intertwined with the Israeli popular-music scene, with lyrics expressing all sides of the debate regarding the conflict with the Palestinians and the stresses of everyday life in a war-torn land.