Jews get in tune with the Arabs

OUT OF the windows of a Jewish neighbourhood come the unmistakable swooning melodies of the Middle East. Indoors, Amiram Avigzer, aged 66, is seated in front of his television, zapping his way round the Arab world, before settling down for Sabbath prayers.

'You want Egypt? Channel 32. You see? It is Arabic,' he says, grinning as he demonstrates the wonders of cable that recently came to Muzrara, a small neighbourhood in West Jerusalem inhabited mainly by Middle Eastern Jews.

'You want Morocco? This is Morocco, channel 34. I can give you anything you want. On Israel television they don't play Mizrahi (oriental) music,' he says. 'So we listen to Morocco. I was born in Casablanca.'

The revival of Middle Eastern music in Israel signals a growing freedom among the Sephardim (Middle Eastern Jews) to enjoy their culture after decades of discrimination by the European (Ashkenazi) Jewish establishment.

This confidence has been strengthened by the peace process. Many Sephardic Jews now argue that their cultural ties should be the channel for real integration between Israel and the Arab world. Israel must accept its place as a Middle Eastern country, they believe. Middle Eastern Jews now make up more than 60 per cent of the Israeli population.

At the Eastern Wind, the newest disco in Talpiot, West Jerusalem, the swooning sound is drawing a young Mizrahi crowd. While nearby clubs pump out the universal beat of Western disco, Zvika Avraham, 23, (mother Turkish, father Iraqi) is warming up to sing the tunes of the 'king' of Jewish oriental music, Ofra Levy. Later he will sing the songs of Umm Kalthum, the classical Egyptian singer.

'Until now it was hard to hear oriental music. But the public is changing. They want it more and more,' he says.

A cultural flowering among Israel's Sephardic Jews, however, spreads fear among the Ashkenazim, who have always controlled Israel's political and cultural identity. Peace with the Arabs is one thing, but integration quite another. Israel, they say, must be a European outpost in the Middle East.

Shlomo el Baz, a leading figure in East for Peace, a group that promotes the Sephardic role in the peace process, says: 'How can you have peace with Jordan or Syria if you hate their culture and their music?' And Sammy Chetrit, a Moroccan-born teacher, says: 'We arrived here as Arabs, culturally. But very, very fast we had to show what good Jews we were, and negate our culture. We were held against the mirror and told by the Europeans, 'This is your enemy.' We had to spit on our culture and reject it every day.

'It was a painful process. The immigrants' children came home from school to tell their parents that their favourite music was 'anti-Zionist'.'

The Israeli cultural establishment is entirely dominated by Ashkenazi Jews. Western opera and orchestral music is heavily subsidised, while Sephardic culture does not feature on the school curriculum. Oriental music is virtually banned from television and radio.

Since the peace agreement signs have appeared that the Israeli government may be becoming more flexible. The Israel Festival this year was opened by a Moroccan group, for instance. But the real flowering of Sephardic music is still taking place underground.

Ofra Levy and Zehava Ben may not be the biggest sellers at Tower Records in Tel Aviv, but their cassettes sell in thousands at stalls in the Tel Aviv central bus station. Buyers know that nowadays nobody can complain that they are listening to 'the music of the enemy'.

'Of all aspects of oriental culture that they have tried to suppress, music has proved the hardest,' says Shlomo el Baz. 'They put it out the door and it comes back in the window.' Or, as a teenage girl at the bar of Eastern Wind put it: 'This music is just better to dance to.'

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager / Section Manager - Airport Security

£40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a critical role within the secur...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45-55k

£20000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company is an established, ...

Recruitment Genius: E-Commerce Manager - Fashion Accessories

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Senior / Assistant Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Exciting new position available at an independ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn