If ever a song evoked a particular
time and place, then ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ is that song. Commissioned
by West Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, composed in just three hours by Naomi
Shemer, rapidly submitted to the 1967 Israel Song Festival and on 14 May sung
before a rapt audience by the untrained voice of 19-year-old female army conscript,
Shuli Natan, ‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav’ (in its original
Hebrew) passed into instant folklore. The Old City was taken in the Six Day
War barely three weeks later; ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ became the
victors’ anthem: a tune of yearning, of hope and love and – after
the hazards of brutal battle – immense relief.
According to Dan Almagor, a songwriter and researcher
on Israeli music (quoted in Ha’aretz, 15 April 2002):
In my opinion, ‘Jerusalem the Golden’
. . . changed the history of the Middle East . . . The song was played constantly
on the radio throughout this period [leading up to the war]. Had it not been
for the song, it’s doubtful that there would have been such readiness
to charge and conquer the city. This was before Gush Emunim and messianism.
This song has extraordinary historic import. Paratroopers at the Western Wall
didn’t pray. They sang the song.
Shemer’s death on 23 June, aged 73, occasioned a
surge of public nostalgia. Forty days later, some 70,000 gathered in Tel Aviv’s
Yarkon Stadium for a concert in her memory, fondly recalling not only her
best-loved song but also the era it represented. For many, her passing prompted
a mourning of lost innocence. Others, however, have argued that aspects of
her work were narcissistic, naïve and far from ‘innocent’.
Soundtrack to a tempestuous history
Of course, there is always the
danger of becoming fixated on one particular song. Before exploring to the
disputes about ‘Jerusalem the Golden’, it is useful to consider
the wider context and career of Israel’s most famous songwriter.
The impact of Shemer’s
lifelong miscellany on Israeli popular culture was immense. Mordechai Beck
well described her significance and creative potency in his Guardian
There was something almost oracular
about Shemer’s work, as though she represented the feminine side of
Zionism, an earth mother come to reclaim her rightful heritage, not with arms
and violence, but with poetry and song; not with the fist, but with the heart.
A Jerusalem Post tribute
accurately spoke of her ‘uncanny ability to reach into the soul of the
nation and express its pride, its pain, its hope and its joy’.
It is no hyperbole to say that
Shemer’s prolific repertoire constituted a soundtrack to the never-ending
movie that is Israel. She encapsulated the national mood at crucial junctures
of the state’s tempestuous history. During the 1973 Yom Kippur war,
for instance, she penned ‘Lu Yehi’, modelled on the Beatles’
‘Let It Be’, but set to a distinctively Israeli tune. In contrast
to 1967, this voiced a maturation of the Israeli spirit, a coming to terms
with loss, a realization of near-disaster, an admission of vulnerability.
It also expressed hope:
There is still a white sail
on the horizon
against a heavy black cloud.
All that we desire should come
In 1996, a year after the assassination
of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Shemer translated Walt Whitman’s famous
poem ‘O Captain, My Captain’ and set it to a haunting melody.
President Lincoln’s murder had inspired Whitman’s original; Shemer’s
tribute conveyed a similar sense of a nation rudderless, bereft of wise leadership,
and aghast at a horror bred from within. Yet neither this tune nor ‘Jerusalem
the Golden’ surrendered to despair during troubling times. Both conveyed
inner strength and offered comfort to the perplexed.
Then there was her celebrated
composition ‘Al Kol Eileh’ (‘All of These’).
Perhaps its best-loved lines are:
Watch over these for me, my God,
over the honey and the bee sting,
over the bitter and the sweet.
Please don’t uproot what has been planted;
don’t forget the hope;
send me back, and I’ll return to the good land.
Pioneers and settlers
‘Al Kol Eileh’
is a perfect example of how Shemer’s deceptively simple lyrics could
spawn manifold interpretations. Settlers and the expansionist right adopted
it as a battle hymn. They sung it defiantly in 1979, when Menachem Begin’s
first Likud administration ordered bulldozers to dismantle the Sinai settlement
of Yamit, in the cause of peace with Egypt. Yet in 2004 peace activists evoked
its other message, of respect for nature and humanity, when they protested
against Israel’s demolition of ancient Palestinian olive groves in the
Shemer originally wrote the
song to comfort her sister, Ruth, who had just lost her husband. But she did
not object when settlers adopted it as their anthem, especially at Yamit.
On the contrary – and to the chagrin of her left-leaning fans –
Shemer backed the settlers’ umbrella group, Gush Emunim, as it grew
after the 1973 war. Occasionally she even marched with them. She also wrote
some controversial songs during that period; one was provocatively called
‘Ish Muzar’ (‘Oddball’) and contains the line:
‘The Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.’
In 1999 a writer to an online
peace bulletin board, Ira Weiss, wrote sadly of the ‘expropriation’
of his favourite song, ‘Al Kol Eileh’. On learning of Shemer’s
settler affiliations, he commented: ‘I am deeply saddened. I love that
song so . . . I don’t want to let them steal it from me . . . not even
with the help of its author.’
Shemer’s affiliations here raise the wider issue
of why certain scions of Labour’s founding generation, descendants of
the largely Ashkenazi and secular chalutzim of yore, found the settler
movement so beguiling. Perhaps they saw it as a logical continuation of the
‘tower and stockade’ campaign of socialist Zionists in the 1930s.
The clearest example of this ideological evolution was Moshe Shamir, a revered
author from ‘the Palmach generation’, former Marxist and key figure
within the left-wing Mapam party, who died two months after Shemer, on 20
August. Shamir surprised his erstwhile allies immediately after the Six Day
War when he became a leader of the Land of Israel Movement. In 1979 he helped
found Tehiyah, a party to the right of Likud, many of whose members were former
Religiously Orthodox Gushniks
must have felt they were enacting biblical prophesy and fulfilling divine
edicts ‘in our days’; yet their zeal found resonance in what may
be called the romantic Zionism of Shemer and her ilk. Such romanticism gives
zest to her songs, but it also, arguably, led her to ignore the whole issue
of Palestinian rights.
From the collective to the individual
Shemer was buried where she
was born, in Kvutzat Kinneret, a kibbutz bordering the Sea of Galilee that
was once home to the legendary poetess Rachel. The daughter of immigrants
from Lithuania, Naomi Saphir (Shemer being the surname of her first husband)
played piano from the age of 6. She hosted singsong evenings on her kibbutz
as a child, and helped defend her home during the 1948 war. Her father, Meir,
commanded Operation Briha, the evacuation of Jews to Israel from Displaced
Persons’ camps in Europe.
After her studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, Shemer
embarked on a career as songwriter for the army song corps, and especially
the Batzal Yarok ensemble after 1957. Yet, as she revealed in an interview
with the Jerusalem Post’s Sarah Hershenson in June 2000, her
own military service had not been a happy experience:
I wrote for the army and not
about the army. My songs, like ‘Mahar’ [‘Tomorrow’],
were written for young people in the army; this is a song about being young
and full of hope for peace. If you read carefully, you will see that I made
sure my songs were full of colours like green and blue not khaki, because,
personally, I do not have such fond memories of being in the army.
Shemer effectively articulated
national feeling long before ‘Jerusalem of Gold’. Her 1963 hit,
‘The Eucalyptus Grove’, for instance, speaks affectionately of
the early days of the Zionist venture. Other songs were were highly personal
in nature – a welcome relief for Israelis who yearned to escape the
collectivist ‘group-think’ mentality inherent in existent Israeli
song-lore. Examples include ‘Shiro Shel Abba’ (Father’s
Song) and ‘Od Lo Ahavti Dai’ (‘I still haven’t
loved enough’). Her own sadness, after divorcing her first husband,
Gideon Shemer, is reflected in the mid-1960s ‘Ha’ir Ba’afor’
(‘City in Grey’).
Shemer can be seen as a link between several musical worlds:
from the folksy patriotic tradition of Shi’erei Eretz Yisrael HaYashana
ve-HaTovah (broadly, Songs of the Good Old Land of Israel) through the
singer-songwriter mode to modern, individualistic pop, rock and rap. Musically,
she was inventive and eclectic, incorporating kibbutz sing-song, Hasidic melodies,
strains of Bach and, after a spell in Paris, a touch of sophisticated 1960s
The founding few
Shemer often strove for a specifically
Israeli sound. However, her hint of the oriental drew more on Russian folk
airs than on the quarter-tones and chromatic maqamat (scales) of Mizrachi
Jews and indigenous Arabs. This musical idiom might be seen to illustrate
the charge of critics like Meron Benvenisti, former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem,
who chided Shemer for operating from within an Ashkenazi bubble. Writing a
somewhat bitter essay in the wake of the gilded eulogies that followed her
death, Benvenisti lambasted what he saw as the arrogance and unjustified self-confidence
of Ashkenazi sabras – the native-born founding few, like Moshe
Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Shemer herself. Such a clique, he alleged,
still consider themselves first amongst equals, and blithely ignore the pluralist
nature of post-1948 Israeli immigrant society.
In Shemer’s defence, she
never personally expressed such prejudices. It was Golda Meir who famously
called protesting Mizrachi and Sephardi youth ‘not nice boys’,
and who insisted that a real Jew had to like gefilte fisch. Shemer
was true to her origins and her own authentic feelings. Why should she compromise
her craft for the sake of political correctness or the lure of fleeting fashion?
Ultimately Shemer’s real
innovation lay in her facility with the Hebrew language. Her songs seamlessly
blend allusions to ancient texts and Jewish festivals with slang and talk
of skyscrapers, cars and mundane twentieth-century work. ‘Od Lo Ahavti’,
for instance, incorporates quotes from Pirkei Avot, the Talmud’s
Ethics of the Fathers; ‘Song of the Grasses’ quotes the
Hasidic master, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav.
Shemer was a member of Israel’s Hebrew Language Academy
(which chooses acceptable Hebrew words for modern concepts and devices). ‘I
juxtapose biblical references with words from everyday street language,’
she said. ‘We have 3,000 years of Hebrew, why not use it?’
One night in May 1967
But let’s return for a
moment to the mood in Israel that night in the concert hall. Regional tensions
were rising alarmingly; mass graves were dug in anticipation of an imagined
new Holocaust. Military chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, had just heard the
final plaintive chords of ‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav’ when
an adjutant interrupted his reverie to inform him that Egypt had blockaded
the Sinai’s strategic Tiran Straits. This act ratcheted up tensions
Into this melange of heightened
emotion seeped a goodly dose of atavistic myth – a sudden longing for
Jerusalem united, for revisiting the holy Western Wall and Temple Mount, effectively
barred to Jews for 19 years. Perhaps the most paradoxical consequence of the
1948 war, if not the bitterest, was the fact that the very conflict that granted
Jews political independence, for the first time in 1,900 years, also resulted
in access denied to Judaism’s holiest spots.
Arguably by the mid-1960s Israelis had grown accustomed
to cauterizing from their soul aspirations of ever returning to the Wall and
Mount. It has often been noted that the dominant socialist Zionists somehow
mistrusted Jerusalem, that strange ancient city of ‘superstitious’
haredim and ‘alien’ Arabs. Emotionally, they much preferred
Tel Aviv, the stridently secular and modern ‘White City’ which
they had built with their own hands. In fact, Kollek specifically commissioned
songs on Jerusalem because there were so few in the Israeli national songbook.
Yet May 1967 was different, as Zionism belatedly remembered the centrality
of Zion itself – Mount Zion, in Jerusalem’s Jordanian-controlled
Old City, the same Zion referred to in the national anthem, ‘Hatikvah’.
Naomi Shemer’s song caught
this mood. It gave new meaning to the cliché ‘instant classic’,
partly because of its unforgettable melody, with its distinctly ancient, almost
timeless, sound. In similar vein its lyrics – wittingly or otherwise,
seeing as they were composed in such a rush – contain numerous echoes
of biblical and talmudic texts.
In words redolent of the ‘Rivers of Babylon’
Psalm 137 she wrote:
Your name will scorch my lips
Like a seraph’s kiss,
If I forget thee, golden city,
Jerusalem of gold.
Like the Prophet Isaiah or the verses of Lamentations,
The wells ran dry of all their
Forlorn the market square,
The Temple Mount dark and deserted,
In the Old City there . . .
And no one takes the Dead Sea
That leads through Jericho.
An Israeli blind spot
Dry wells? Empty market squares?
No one praying on the Temple Mount? Wonderful words, perhaps, but ultimately
offensive nonsense, wrote a young conscript, Amos Oz, a day after the conquest.
For Jerusalem’s Old City, and the road to Jericho, too, teemed with
Was Shemer truly blind to their
presence? Twenty years later she repeated her view in a newspaper and television
interviews. ‘[Oz] says that there are people. But to me any place without
Jews is a deserted place . . . an empty place.’
It would be absurd to question the joy that Shemer and
virtually all Jews felt in mid-June 1967. How could the fulfilment of such
age-old yearnings for Jerusalem be construed as triumphalist? Feelings of
righteousness only increased when Israeli troops discovered how many synagogues
in the Jewish Quarter had been deliberately damaged, or allowed to fall into
ruin, during two decades of Jordanian suzerainty. (In reply, the Hashemite
Kingdom charged Israeli West Jerusalem with wrecking the ancient burial ground
of Mamilla, outside the Jaffa Gate, last resting place for generations of
Muslim scholars, nobles and soldiers.) Yet for all that Shemer’s song
repeated the sense of that now somewhat embarrassing motto of early Zionists
– ‘a land without people for a people without a land’.
Scrutinizing the work a bit more reveals other paradoxes.
It is true that there is a midrash about King Solomon offering his queen a
diadem of gold - a legend that has been interpreted as a metaphor for Jerusalem
itself. And there is the unique cast of gold-coloured light that reflects
from the ancient stones at sunset. Shemer had a great affection for the city:
she loved studying there as a student, and it was where her first daughter
was born. But surely another ever-present image played in the songwriter’s
mind, if only subliminally. Virtually every Israeli tourist brochure shows
the crowning height of the city, the exquisite gold cupola of the Dome of
the Rock. For 1,300 years the Dome – in Arabic, Al-Majid al-Sakhna
– ruled over the surrounding landscape. Can there be any single
more powerful symbol of the integral Arab and Muslim connection to Jerusalem
and the Holy Land – or any more potent refutation of the foolish visionof
pre-Israeli Palestine as devoid of inhabitants? It is no accident that the
current intifada is named after the neighbouring Al Aqsa mosque on
the Temple Mount. Clearly Palestinian zeal derives, at least partly, from
their own ardour for the same city. Likewise the ‘tinkling bells’
in the opening lines of Shemer’s song hint at the myriad churches of
the Old City: aural evidence, at least, of a Christian provenance spanning
On 7 June 1967, Shemer was in
El-Arish, in the Sinai, performing with Shuli Natan before the troops, when
she heard that Jerusalem had just been taken. Immediately she added a new
stanza about Jews coming ‘back to the wells and to the fountains, within
the ancient walls’. Some months later she told the right-wing firebrand,
Geula Cohen, that she felt the song was complete without the new verse. But
she feared others would add their own inappropriate additions, so she wrote
One response came from the late songwriter Meir Ariel,
who composed a spoof to protest at the real horrors of war, which he experienced
personally as a soldier, and which he felt rendered hollow the protestations
of patriotism after June 1967:
Jerusalem of iron
And of gloom
To your walls we proclaimed
Yet for the most part the popularity
of ‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav’ has endured. Often it is invoked
as a symbol of Jewish identity. The Yemenite Israeli singer Ofra Haza sang
her own poignant version of the tune to much acclaim during her tour of the
USA in 1976, marking the nation’s Bicentennial. In 1993 Steven Spielberg
concluded his film, Schindler’s List, with the song intoned as
survivors filed past the grave of their redeemer, outside the walls of Jerusalem.
(Both Israelis and many Yiddish-speakers, however, objected to the historical
incongruity of a latter-day Hebrew tune summarizing the lives of Holocaust
survivors. Hence another tune was substituted in the Hebrew version of the
In 1998, when Israel celebrated
its fiftieth independence jubilee, the song was voted the most popular in
the nation’s history by four separate polls. Moreover, several Reform
and other congregations in Israel and abroad responded to the song’s
quasi-religious aura. They incorporated it into the liturgy for special occasions,
such as Friday evening, the last hakkafah (circumnavigation of the
bimah) on Simhat Torah, and the synagogue service on Israel Independence
Music and politics
Little is predictable in Israeli
politics, and this is certainly true of reactions to ‘Jerusalem the
Golden’. While a young Oz railed against the song, Uri Avnery became
one of its firmest champions. He was then a leftist Knesset member. Today
he is the veteran white-bearded guru of Gush Shalom, an anti-settlements pressure
group that stands several paces to the left of the one favoured by Oz, Peace
Avnery insisted that Shemer’s
song would make an ideal replacement for the official national anthem, ‘Hatikvah’
(‘The Hope’). He maintains that belief to this day. In fact, he
even tried to pass a private member’s bill to this effect in 1968, though
his bid failed. Avnery argued that ‘Hatikvah’ expressed
solely Jewish yearnings, and was redundant now that statehood had been achieved.
Its lines about hearts ‘eastward yearning for Zion’ seem hopelessly
anachronistic, now that Israelis have lived in the land for generations. It
was, after all, written as a hymn for Zionists in the Diaspora in 1878. Unofficially
adopted by the 5th Zionist Congress in 1901, it was set to a familiar old
non-Jewish Moldavian-Romanian folk tune, ‘Carul cu Boi’ (‘Cart
and Oxen’), which had earlier been adopted by the composer Smetana.
Today, in reality,the
only Israelis yearning eastwards are its Muslim Arab citizens, praying to
Mecca. Which brings us to Avnery’s second objection: can any of Israel’s
non-Jewish citizens, who make up a fifth of the population, really sing ‘Hatikvah’
In Avnery’s view, Shemer’s famous song is preferable
since it speaks of love for a city which Arabs and Jews share. Why should
Palestinians not sing it in Arabic? (With a few lyrical ‘tweaks’,
of course.) Nor is Avnery’s suggestion so bizarre. In 2003 the London-based
Palestinian singer, Reem Kelani, improvised on the tune for a track named
‘Al-Quds’ (Arabic for Jerusalem). Her version appears on
the album Exile (Enja Records) she recorded with the former Israeli
jazz saxophonist (and fervent anti-Zionist ideologue) Gilad Atzmon.
No doubt sceptics will see this as deliberate subversion
of a cherished Zionist classic. But a more charitable view would regard it
as a sincere gesture affirming common devotion towards the holy city.
A battlefield of song?
The furore over ‘Jerusalem
the Golden’ shows no sign of abating, even after Shemer’s death.
The debate was re-ignited in early August by Azmi Bishara, a Christian Palestinian
citizen of Israel and leader of the Balad party in the Knesset. Commenting
on the Yarkon tribute concert to Shemer in the Arabic newspapers Al Hayat
and Al Ahram, he spoke of songs ‘inspired by the nationalist
hue of the Zionist Labour Party . . . songs to a wall between them and the
Arabs’. Bishara felt excluded from ‘schmaltzy group feeling [that]
becomes justification for the most flagrantly racist remarks’.
Unsurprisingly, several Israeli
politicians countered by accusing Bishara of kowtowing to Syrian dictators,
thus undermining his claims to be a proponent of true democracy in Israel.
‘Under a cover of academic theory, this man expresses his intentions
to destroy us,’ said MK Gilad Erdan. And Aryeh Eldad of the far-right
National Union party charged that Bishara’s ‘Nazi-like propaganda
attaches a label of racism on everything nationalistic and Jewish in Israel
. . . including the songs of Shemer’.
However, Bishara had his unexpected
defenders. One was Yuli Tamir, Labour MK, author and holder of a PhD in philosophy
from Oxford, who wrote: ‘There is something in his claim that Israeli
society has developed a blindness towards Arabs. Israeli society sings, so
as not to see, I agree.’ She went on to assert that this was a phenomenon
even more serious than Bishara described. Echoing Benvenisti’s theme,
she said: ‘Israelis don’t even see those different within [their
own] society. A total sense of egoism is covered up by hugs and collective
Even those who have some sympathy
with Bishara’s criticisms of ‘Jerusalem the Golden’, however,
may want to ask in return: what about Ya’akov Rotblit’s ‘Song
of Peace’? Are there any Arab equivalent of that song? Rotblit’s
dissident anti-war tune was released just after the 1967 war and for a while
banned by the Israeli army, falling into abeyance until it was revived during
the seemingly halcyon days of the Oslo peace process. Now it is forever associated
with the death of Rabin, because his nearly tone-deaf but enthusiastic singing
of the tune was his last public pronouncement, the blood-stained lyrics in
his breast pocket a gruesome icon of his murder on 4 November 1995.
As for similar Arab anti-war melodies, there have
been verses by the esteemed late Palestinian poetess, Fadwa Tuqan, lamenting
Jewish and Arab children growing up destined to fight foolish wars. And in
2002 there was a popular Egyptian tune beseeching peace between the warring
‘Children of Abraham’. Much more popular, though, was the raucous
‘I Love Amr Moussa [then Egyptian Foreign Minister], I Hate Israel’.
So the battlefield of song, sadly, shows no sign of reaching a truce.
City of two walls
In today’s more sophisticated Israel it is almost
inconceivable to imagine a state-sponsored national song like ‘Jerusalem
the Golden’. The country is much more individualistic and less collectivist
– as the historian Tom Segev convincingly argued in his recent book,
Elvis in Jerusalem: post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel
(New York: Metropolitan, 2002). Such individualism is reflected in the din
of contending voices that constitute contemporary Israeli pop. In one corner
stands ‘Zionist hip-hop’ by the brash Subliminal, who in one angry
tune accuses a weak Israel of ‘dangling like a cigarette in Arafat’s
mouth’. In another there is the (Jewish) Aviv Geffen and (Arab) Tamr
Nafar’s rap duo protesting about state violence against Israeli Arabs.
Listening to ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ reinforces nostalgia for a
smaller, more cohesive ‘little Israel’ – an Israel, paradoxically,
that the 1967 victory destroyed forever.
Of all Shemer’s beautiful
phrases perhaps most beguiling is her line about Jerusalem, with ‘at
its heart, a wall’. True, the Western Wall lies at the heart of a Jerusalem
unified under Israeli law. But this year a new wall has grown in Jerusalem,
the ‘security fence’ that meanders through the outskirts of mainly
Arab East Jerusalem. It severs in two the suburb of Abu Dis, a place once
mooted as the possible seat of a Palestinian parliament. To Uri Avnery and
Yossi Beilin, Abu Dis could be – or could have been – the epicentre
of Al-Quds, the Palestinian portion of a Jerusalem shared between Israelis
and Palestinians at peace. Building this wall through Abu Dis is a slight
to such ‘lefty’ dreams. By the same token, it also surely undermines
Zionist notions of an indivisible Jerusalem. Predictably, perhaps, Azmi Bishara
concurs: ‘The words to Naomi’s songs . . . tell us that the wall
was built in the hearts and minds of the Israeli people long before it was
built on the ground.’
The final tribute, though, belongs
to Hava Alberstein, for whom Shemer composed ‘Lu Yehi’.
She is a left-wing Israeli icon like Bishara, whose songs and speeches have
long decried official policy towards Palestinians. Her mordant interpretation
of ‘Had Gadya’ was once even banned on Israeli airwaves,
for suggesting the government encouraged a cycle of violence. Yet in words
recorded by Michal Palti of Ha’aretz, she argued that
any political discussion of
Shemer diminishes her talents . . . Rather [one should] recognize the magnitude
of a great artist at the level of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. She was an
astounding composer . . . and always wrote from a positive outlook.
Calling Shemer ‘the Hasid’
because of the way she melded Hasidic with contemporary music, Alberstein
Despite the political distance
between us, we had an excellent relationship which lasted for years. Each
of us knew the other's position, but we were two Israeli women living here,
for better or for worse.
Lawrence Joffe is a London-based
writer who specializes in Middle Eastern politics and culture. He reviews
books and concerts for the Jewish Chronicle and Independent,
provides profiles and analyses for MORE CHARACTERS MORE CHARACTERS MORE CHARACTERS