A song was born: The tale of a controversial tune

Six or seven years ago, I was sitting in Tel Aviv’s Cafe Ginzburg with a man I admire deeply. Mikhael Manekin was then, along with Yehuda Shaul, one of heads of Breaking the Silence.

BTS was still a budding organization at the time, made up entirely of Israeli soldiers who participated in the occupation and sought to document and inform of its atrocities. The organization was expanding its activities. Manekin came to Tel Aviv to brainstorm on organizing tours for Israelis and foreigners in Hebron. “I would like to bring authors there,” he told me. “I feel that authors have a more lasting effect on a society than journalists do.”

“Interesting you would say that,” I said, “Do you see this woman who sits at the table behind me? That’s Alona Kimhi. Let’s say hi to her.”

We were too shy to actually speak to a literary legend such as Kimhi, so instead we conducted our conversation a little more loudly, looked in her direction here and there and hoped for her to chime in. She did and eventually joined our table. “I would love to go to Hebron,” she said, “but I’d like to go with the two of you and that’s it. I don’t want to be on a bus with a lot of leftists messing with my brain. If I go with you and what I see is interesting, I’ll fill up a bus of other writers for you.”

We went with Kimhi to Hebron and saw her going through the typical shock every Israeli experiences when shown the realities of this cursed city. She spoke to the soldiers positioned on the street and learned of their experiences. Filling up an entire Hebron-bound bus of Tel Avivian writers turned out to be a task beyond human capacity, but Kimhi did send several of her friends on the next Breaking the Silence tour, and made references to the experience in interviews over the years.

Years passed and we assumed that was all. Then, recently, a song was released on the radio. Kimhi’s lyrics were composed and performed by her husband, iconic Israeli rocker Yizhar Ashdot. I may never have heard of this song had it not been banned, temporarily at least, from being played on the radio. When Ashdot came with his band to the studios of Galatz, or Army Radio – the highly popular IDF radio station – to launch their new album, they were instructed not to perform it.

In a statement released by Galatz commander Yaron Dekel, he explained that the song “is contemptuous towards IDF soldiers.” I personally do not think the song is contemptuous soldiers at all. IDF soldiers are young men and women who face difficult moral decisions every day, be they stationed on the streets of Hebron or in the corridors of Galatz (where I myself volunteer with a weekly program). The song treats these questions with rare seriousness.

In 1948, in the midst of the war, Israeli poet Nathan Alterman wrote a song accusing Israeli soldiers of war crimes and massacres. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion instructed that a copy of Alterman’s poem be sent to every soldier to educate them on these matters. What Alona Kimhi saw in Hebron and what she sees in Israeli society is true. It is not surprising that a military station would be threatened by this truth, but the ban on the song has an adverse impact. It has already brought it much attention in the past few days, and is sure to make it legendary. Manekin was right, authors do have a lasting impact on culture, and all we need to do is be patient.

(The translation of the song’s lyrics appear beneath the video below)

Learning to kill
Is a matter of momentum
It starts small
And then it comes

Patrols every night
In the casbah of Nablus
Hey, what here is ours
And what is yours

At first just a drill
A rifle’s butt bangs on the door
Children in shock
A family terrified

Later – closure*
There’s danger already
Death is lurking
Behind every corner

Cocking the weapon
Arm shaking
Finger is firm
Against the trigger

The heart goes wild
Beats, terrified
It knows – next time
It will be easier

They are not a man, not a woman
They are just an object, just a shadow
Learning to kill
Is a matter of habit

Learning to fear
Is a matter of momentum
You start small
And then it comes

The news from above
Reaches the street
There’s no hope of living
The end is so near

Prophecies of terror
Like the crow of a raven
Close the shutters
Close up in the homes

We’re just a few
And they are so many
A tiny country
Devoured by enemies

They have only hate in their hearts
Evil, dark urges
Learning to fear
Is a matter of habit

Learning cruelty
Is a matter of momentum
It starts small
And then it comes

Every boy is a man
Craving victory
Hands behind the head
Legs spread

It’s a time of danger
It’s a time of destruction
Soldier, toughen up
There’s no good in compassion

The cousin like an animal
Used to blood
Doesn’t feel suffering
Is not human

Field uniform and chafing
Exhaustion and routine
From stupidity to evil
The route is short

All ours, all ours
Israel’s land
Learning cruely
Is a matter of habit

Son, son– stop
Son, son – come back
Come to me, sweetheart
Come to me, my baby

The sky is so gloomy
Outside, already dark
Tin soldiers still
Under the bed

Come home, son
Come home

Learning to love
Is a matter of tenderness
A careful step
In a cloud of gentleness

We will hesitate, we will come apart
We will soften, we will round out
Learning to love
Is a matter of habit

Being human
Is a matter of momentum
It grows like an unborn child
And then it comes

For just one minute
Just now, just today
To be on the other side
Of that same checkpoint

But our heart has hardened
And our skin is thick
Deaf and blind
In the bubble of the present

We will observe in amazement
The falling angel
Being human
Is a matter of habit

*”Closure” is a military term referring to a situation in which inhabitants of a village or town are prevented from traveling outside it.