Largely unknown abroad, Amir Benayoun is one of the most talented musicians in Israel. Composing and performing a complex blend of traditional North African, classical Western and Israeli rock music, the 35-year-old Benayoun has earned the acclaim of critics and the adoration of fans across musical and social divides. His voice, at once powerful and undulating, rapturous and guttural, refines an aesthetic elegance out of the popular Mizrahi genre.
Yet, ahead of a rare interview in Benayoun’s Tel Aviv studio, I braced for a broadside against journalists, leftists and other real and imagined enemies. Since releasing the protest song “I Am Your Brother” on Israel’s Memorial Day, Benayoun has become embroiled in an ongoing political drama.
The single joined a campaign by the nationalist group Im Tirtzu, accusing Israeli civil and human rights organizations (and their backer, New Israel Fund) of betraying the country by publicizing allegations of abuse by the Israel Defense Forces during Operation Cast Lead.
“I preserve your identity / I protect your children / … You spit in my face,” the song begins, “With my back to you / You sharpen the knife.” The chorus leaves even less to the imagination: “I am your brother, you are an enemy / You hate, I love / When I weep / You laugh behind my back.” Benayoun ends the song reciting the official prayer for the IDF.
Benayoun paints himself as a rebellious Everyman, the voice of working-class North African Jews from his native Beersheva and the National Religious camp, with its settlers, to whom he has drawn close in recent years. Yet leading up to the interview, his public statements reveal an idiosyncratic, paranoid artist who thinks a small but powerful media clique is out to destroy him — and the country.
In February, as reporters from Israel’s Channel 10 filmed a post-concert segment, the singer launched into an unprovoked 15-minute rant about Israeli music, society and politics. “The record companies, the courts, members of Knesset, they are thieves and trash,” he said, his brown eyes wide and fixed on the ground. “They trample human beings, they trample over the people who voted for them. They trample,” he repeated seven times.
Raviv Drucker, one of the Channel 10 reporters who bore the brunt of Benayoun’s outburst, remained sanguine. “Much of his thinking is very spontaneous, not really coherent,” said Drucker, who remains a fan of Benayoun’s music. “I don’t think there is any dangerous dimension to this song, that some lunatic will take this too far and do something.”
But Benayoun’s views are not isolated. Shortly after the song was released, a survey published in April by Tel Aviv University found that nearly 58% of Israelis support curtailing the freedoms of human rights groups that document “immoral conduct” by Israel. A similar percentage “opposed harsh criticism of the country,” and most respondents backed “punishing journalists who report news that reflects badly on the actions of the defense establishment,” according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Benayoun quickly claimed that he did not intend to attack the left, but merely to voice outrage over a few concrete incidents, including the leak of classified military documents by a soldier, Anat Kamm, to Uri Blau, a reporter for Haaretz.
During another bizarre interview, on May 2, Benayoun informed Army Radio that his family had received death threats — “if so, the song proves itself,” Benayoun said. “One person loves, and one wants to kill him.” Speaking calmly and softly, the singer warned that if anything happens to him, “the blood will be on the media’s hands.” He accused the media of orchestrating the controversy over his song and selling out the state: “And when someone doesn’t go along with it … they incite murder. And just so it’s clear, I am ready for any war,” Benayoun said. “Not only am I not going to surrender, I don’t intend to leave this world alone.”
“I Am Your Brother” identifies a form of betrayal that unites Israel against its enemies, both internal and external. “After they failed to kill me abroad / You come and kill me from within,” Benayoun croons slowly. The song speaks to Israeli society’s core anxieties and formerly fringe beliefs. From this standpoint, the outside world wants to destroy Israel, and the people’s army, the IDF, represents Israel’s essential right to self-defense.
Benayoun did not serve in the IDF, due to drug problems. But his song voices a growing belief that critiques of the military’s conduct are attacks on Israel’s legitimacy, while Israelis’ documentation of army abuses amount to treason. Such a context makes it difficult to separate criticism from malice, and responses like Benayoun’s appear to become self-fulfilling prophecies of violence.
Despite his previous outbursts, in person Benayoun proved remarkably capable of articulating his point of view. His intelligence and the volatility of his “artistic temperament” may account for his ability to tap into a rattled and divided Israeli consciousness. Benayoun spoke softly, apologizing for his occasional cigarette. “Every society must renounce its extremes,” Benayoun explained. Just as “a Zionist is not someone who sees an Arab in the street and shoots him,” so too “a leftist is not a traitor… As if there cannot be a person who thinks broadly, with an expansive heart… [as if] to love the state of Israel is a diagonal line toward hating the foreigner. This is not correct.”
A short, jet-black beard covers the rounded curves of Benayoun’s face, and his humble posture hides the smile that helped earn him a platinum record as a 23-year-old construction worker. Early in his career, he became more interested in Judaism, and his lyrics now probe a deepening relationship with the teachings of the Chabad movement and its late Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson.
Beneath a large, white knit kippah, Benayoun’s eyes never drifted as he outlined his political-aesthetic philosophy: “Art is a mission. An artist requires freedom. A man that makes art and does not say what he believes is not really an artist, because he isn’t really a free person.” From here, Benayoun charts a smooth course through God, populism and artistry: “I decided that the One who gave us life gave us freedom. And we must use this freedom, because … most of the people want someone who will serve as their mouth for their small feelings and their pains. And the things that truly, truly must be said, no one will say. So I am a kind of fool who volunteers to say these things. And this makes me happy.”
As the people’s voice, Benayoun sees no distinction between his artistic ambition and his political prescriptions for Israel. He offers the parable of a musician who sends all his songs to critics and asks radio stations to pick a single before he completes an album. After endless tinkering, the musician becomes “a little poodle who will never be satisfied.” Thus he frames an almost anti-imperialist argument against Israeli human rights groups: “You go around the world, and you say, ‘Friends, I live in an immoral place. You come and explain to us what is moral.’ You, Europe, who killed 6 million Jews and all kinds of Africans and all kinds of foreigners. Or America, the only country, for now, that has ever dropped an atomic bomb. ‘You, come, and teach me what is morality. Come in, come in, we don’t know how to be moral.’ Then what do you say about yourself? That you are just an animal.”
During the 2006 Lebanon war, Benayoun recorded a political song titled “Master of the Universe.” A prayer in the first person (“Answer me, it’s me Israel, it’s me your son”), the song’s refrain was clear: “The enemy must die.” Yet, Benayoun is proud of the Algerian and Moroccan influence on his music. As with previous albums, his newest album, “Thoughts,” includes a track in Arabic. But Benayoun remains skeptical that Arab audiences will see beyond his religious Zionist appearance and listen to what he claims is a religious belief in peace. “I also don’t blame them,” he adds. “It’s already been some time since we all became used to the fact that everything is lip service. Anyone who talks [about peace] is just talking, he doesn’t mean it.”
Benayoun acknowledges that his music is nothing if not the successful fusion of disparate influences. Yet his politics come down to a traditional, religious emphasis on identity and essence. “A real lover of Israel loves the real Other. Someone who doesn’t love Israel will never love another person in his life,” he argues. “If a Jew doesn’t understand the essence of Judaism, he will not be able to understand what is a Muslim, he will not be able to help a Muslim or any other non-Jew. The moment a Jew understands his Judaism,” Benayoun stops — kisses his fingertips — smiles warmly — “the story’s over … You must keep your heart open.”
Benayoun seems to believe that his artistic talent grants him an inspired grasp on the true will of the people. “It’s like cooking. You have all the ingredients. Everything has an essence that you must treat in its own way. You know who knows how to cook?” He lifts an index finger to his ear. “One who knows how to listen to those who love to eat. If you really want to make it good, I say to you, ‘Trust me. Don’t worry.’ The problem is they don’t trust you. That is the problem. You don’t believe.”
Watch Amir Benayoun perform “Nitsariti Akol” live: