Controversially, musical genius Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for literature last week.
Even some critics who acknowledged his musical brilliance have argued that awarding a musician was a step that too dramatically expanded the definition of literature. What few dispute is that his music inspired millions in the midst of the anti-war and civil rights movements.
But there is also a less pleasant, less known side to the artist, particularly his views on Israel, Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League.
In 1983, in The New York Times, Stephen Holden described Dylan’s album Infidels as “a disturbing artistic semirecovery by a rock legend who seemed in recent years to have lost his ability to engage the Zeitgeist.”
Holden asserted that a “stomping, hollering rhetorical tone infuses the two most specifically political songs, ‘Neighborhood Bully,’ an outspoken defense of Israel, and ‘Union Sundown,’ a gospel-blues indictment of American labor unions.”
“The lyrics suggest an angry crackpot throwing wild punches and hoping that one or two will land,” Holden added.
With its opening lyrics parroting Israel’s own narrative of being the blameless, perpetual victim of Arab violence, “Neighborhood Bully” came just a year after Israel’s bloody invasion of Lebanon that would claim tens of thousands of lives:
Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man
His enemies say he’s on their land
They got him outnumbered about a million to one
He got no place to escape to, no place to run
He’s the neighborhood bully
The invasion of Lebanon was a calamitous war, widely opposed even in Israel where it was likened to the US quagmire in Vietnam.
Yet Dylan sang these words exonerating Israel even after the world had witnessed the horrifying massacres of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by an Israeli-allied militia during the occupation of Beirut.
Today, the lyrics read like a prelude to the racist nationalism embodied in the politics of today’s Israeli leaders, including Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett.
Deeper into the tune, Dylan betrays an ignorance of the enormous support given by the US government to Israel, notably the huge influx of military support provided by the administration of President Jimmy Carter shortly before the release of the album.
That funding continues to this day with the record-breaking $38 billion in military aid over 10 years recently negotiated by the Obama administration.
Yet Dylan sings:
He got no allies to really speak of
What he gets he must pay for, he don’t get it out of love
He buys obsolete weapons and he won’t be denied
The equal rights backed by Dylan in the US seemingly have no place in his politics regarding Israel and its neighbors.
Dylan’s challenge to power in the US is transmuted into an embrace of Israeli militancy because of a flawed sense of reality, perhaps one learned from Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) and later of the racist Kach party in Israel.
Dylan’s relationship to Kahane and the JDL is not entirely clear, but was explored by Anthony Scaduto in The New York Times in 1971.
“Dylan’s interest in Israel and Judaism led him, over a year ago, into an unexpected relationship with Rabbi Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League,” Scaduto wrote.
The singer reportedly attended several JDL meetings and may have given money to the organization.
Already in 1971, Scaduto wrote, “Dylan’s enthusiasm for the militant Jewish organization has brought down the wrath of some in the radical movement.”
Scaduto detailed this just four years after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria’s Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai had begun: “To many young radicals, including Jewish kids, Israel is simply another one of those fascist states propped up by a fascist American Government, and Dylan’s fervent support of Israel and his over-publicized contacts with the JDL are to them a further indication that he has sold out to the political right he condemned.”
Rejecting Palestinian struggle
Dylan’s drift away from the anti-war movement over the course of the next 45 years – and his clear embrace of Israel after its invasion of Lebanon – led to no surprise when he rejected the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement’s call for him not to play Israel in 2011.
The right of return for refugees, the end of the occupation and equal rights for all Palestinians – the BDS movement’s key demands – would not have resonated with the man who wrote “Neighborhood Bully.”
Ironically, both Dylan and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters performed at the Desert Trip musical festival this month.
Today, however, it is Waters who is politically relevant, with his support of the BDS movement and Black Lives Matter, his blasting of Donald Trump’s racism and his love and support for children wearing “Derriba el muro” T-shirts – Spanish for “take down the wall.”
In front of an audience of tens of thousands of festival-goers in Indio, California, Waters gave a shout-out to Students for Justice in Palestine:
Both Waters and Dylan are now in their 70s; one has grown over the last 50 years in his willingness to embrace urgent contemporary struggles for freedom and equal rights. The other has stepped back from vital political engagements and yet been rewarded with a Nobel Prize.
Today it is no longer Dylan who best embodies the spirit of one of his best known lyrics:
Yes, and how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?