Former Black Panther jailed for running Mizrahi pirate radio

Former Israeli Black Panther and ‘godfather of Mizrahi music radio’ Israel Bundak goes back to prison for running a pirate radio station. But what role did racism and cultural elitism play in his unprecedented prison sentence?

By Hagar Shezaf

Former Black Panther jailed for running Mizrahi pirate radio
Israel Bundak upon being released from prison after serving 18 months in 2011. (Photo: Israel Bundak’s Facebook page)

Former Black Panther and ‘godfather of Mizrahi music radio,’ Israel Bundak, began serving a 50-day prison term on Sunday. His imprisonment will be the conclusion of an unprecedented 18-month prison sentence and NIS 25,000 (nearly $7,000) fine handed down in December 2009, for the establishment and operation of “Kol Hamizrach” (Voice of The East), a pirate radio station that played only Mizrahi music, 24 hours a day.

Kol Hamizrach holds a special place in Israel’s Mizrahi musical history. He established the radio station in 1992, at a time when Mizrahi music was even more excluded from mainstream radio programing than it is today. At the time, according to Bundak, he applied for a license to operate an all-Mizrahi radio station from The Second Authority for Television and Radio, the body in charge of supervising commercial television and radio, but his application was denied. The Authority told Bundak he would have to add other content if he wanted the permit. However, no specific demands were listed. In an act of protest, Bundak decided to begin broadcasting without the permit. Quickly enough, the radio station became very popular and the home of some of today’s most well known Israeli artists.

Fifteen years after the pirate radio station started broadcasting, in 2007 police raided Bundak’s house in Jerusalem, where he was broadcasting from an improvised studio. After spending 70 days in detention and another seven months under house arrest, Bundak was indicted and brought to trial on charges of operating a pirate radio station and, more severely, interfering with legitimate radio broadcasters and air traffic controllers at Ben-Gurion Airport. Despite the fact that Bundak proved the latter accusation was false, and was therefore acquitted of the graver accusation, he was still sentenced to 24 months in prison, a one-year suspended sentence and a ban on exiting the country. This was by far the most severe punishment ever given to the operator of a pirate radio station in the history of Israel.

The context of Bundak’s sentence becomes clearer when you look at the ruling by Judge Alexander Ron, which reeks of racism and hatred toward Mizrahi culture:

The culture identified with the [Israeli] Black Panthers, and all of its byproducts, or to be precise – this inferior culture – is outdated, and one may ponder if it was ever legitimate… Spreading Eastern [Mizrahi] culture, while bypassing the law and the state’s institutions not only harms its content and its social status, but it also stains it forever…

In 2009, following public criticism and an appeal to the Jerusalem District Court, the sentence was reduced to 18 months imprisonment and a NIS 25,000 fine. Judge Ron also published a public apology for his wording. In October 2010, Bundak began serving his prison term, amid an uproar from supporters. One of his main backers at the time was Etti Levi, a well known Mizrahi singer and sister of Zehava Ben, who even dedicated a song called “Che Guevara” (set to an Arabic melody) to him and his struggle.

After his release from the 18-month prison term, Bundak went public on the issue of his imprisonment and continued to be a firm advocate on the subject of racism within the Jewish community in Israel. While many may think that Bundak’s struggle for Mizrahi music is outdated, due to Mizrahi-pop becoming a very popular genre that has quite a lot of exposure in the mainstream music stations nowadays, Bundak thinks differently.

In a blog post that he wrote for Cafe Gibraltar Magazine in January 2013 [Hebrew], Bundak wrote: “Is there a radio station where you can listen to Avi Bitter, for example, even today? His concerts are always fully booked, and even if that’s only 0.5 percent rating, it is important for [Israeli] radio to represent the people and allow them to enjoy this music.”

Thus, he brings to light an important point: even today, when the popularity of Mizrahi music is undeniable, it is still considered to be inferior and while some Mizrahi singers have made it into television and radio primetime, most of the singers (and even some of the most popular ones, such as Avi Bitter), are perceived as shallow and of poor quality. In a video-survey recently conducted by Cafe Gibraltar’s Ophir Tubol and musician Amit Hai Cohen [Hebrew], random people in the street were asked to state what type of music they find most obnoxious. The most popular answer from this unofficial survey was almost unanimous: Mizrahi music. The finding is strange when compared to Mizrahi music’s enormous popularity. Tubol and Hai Cohen’s conclusion (and I share their impression) is that Mizrahi music still holds a bad reputation and suffers from racism toward the culture from which it stems. Therefore, those who see themselves as intellectuals, for example, would like to disassociate themselves from the “vulgar” masses that enjoy it. This is exactly the point Bundak is trying to make.

Bundak’s decision to go back to prison on Sunday, rather than pay the NIS 25,000 fine, comes as a political statement and a principled act. On Friday, Bundak wrote on Facebook [Hebrew]: “If I must choose between paying a fine and my own truth, I prefer the second option, and no racist, despicable, worthless court sentence will take that from me.”

On Sunday, dozens of supporters were watching closely as one of the most prominent figures in Mizrahi culture begins yet another prison term in the name of his struggle.

Hagar Shezaf is a journalist, activist and editor of Cafe Gibraltar Radio.