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Yaron Ezrahi: How Music Helped an Optimist Refrain from Pessimism

A leitmotif of music as social inspiration ran through the life of the Israeli political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, who died on January 29 at age 78. Author of “Imagined Democracies,” “The Descent of Icarus,” and “Rubber Bullets,” Ezrahi also coedited a collection of essays, “Technology, Pessimism, and Postmodernism,” while personally eschewing any such pessimism.

In 2011, he told an audience at the Humboldt University of Berlin: “I’m optimistic… about the future for two reasons. First, because I’m an unrepentant optimist by nature. And second, because no liberal or social democrat who seeks progress can afford the luxury of being a pessimist.” Part of this essential balm in Gilead may have been drawn from music.

In 2017, he co-authored “Composing Power, Singing Freedom: Overt and Covert Links between Music and Politics in the West,” as yet untranslated from Hebrew. Published by Van Leer Institute Press and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, it was written with his wife, the musicologist Ruth HaCohen.

“Composing Power, Singing Freedom” examines musical cultures in different historical regimes. Rulers manipulated music for their own purposes, just as they had with science, as Ezrahi argued elsewhere. Beyond a mere power play for potentates, music also represented the disenfranchised individual, and promoted the civilized social communication of string quartets and trios.

This metaphoric understanding of the essential role of music in society was surely influenced by his father Yariv (1904-2002), a violinist and teacher. In 2012, Ezrahi would recall how his family sat in 1947 in front of the radio that usually broadcast Beethoven’s music in their Tel Aviv home. That November, the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution recommending the establishment of a Jewish state. Ezrahi’s father reacted as he might have done to an inspiring concert performance: “As the number of yeses began to accumulate, my father’s applause turned increasingly stronger, climaxing when he jumped to his feet crying out bravo as the United States and the Soviet Union voted in approval.”

This acclamation was from a Russian-born musician — the family name was originally Krischevky (also transliterated as Krishewsky) — who translated into French the libretto of the opera “Sabbatai Zevi or the False Messiah” (1958) by the Polish Jewish composer Alexandre Tansman.

In 1933, over a dozen years before Ezrahi’s family huddled to listen to the United Nations vote, his father had written an essay on music for the literary weekly “Turim,” as cited in “Jewish Contiguities and the Soundtrack of Israeli History.” Seeing the integration of Western classical music as a sign of societal development, Ezrahi’s father “somewhat unfavourably mentioned” local Tel Aviv cantors and folk singers, while brightly conveying “uplifting rumors” that the modernist German Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg might be making Aliyah.

Such gossip remained at the level of bubbe-meise, but represented how outward-looking sensibilities in music were discerned as an integral part of national development. The historian Jehoash Hirshberg has noted that Ezrahi’s father would adopt a “sardonic tone” when writing about comparatively provincial spirits such as the Russian pianist and educator David Schor, who complained that too many European musicians were arriving in Tel Aviv.

By contrast, the elder Ezrahi welcomed foreign talents, especially the touring violinist Jascha Heifetz, who gave an early recital to a cheering crowd at Nahalal, a moshav in northern Israel. In a review, the elder Ezrahi observed that when Heifetz performed Joseph Achron’s “Hebrew Melody,” “it sounded as if all Diaspora yearning for the homeland burst out of Heifetz’s violin, moans of our brethren, consolations, weeping, and hopes… . But while shedding tears, we clenched our fists: ‘Our people will live forever. We will build our home.’”

As an instructor, the elder Ezrahi mentored such major violin talents as Yfrah Neaman and Joshua Epstein. A certain mythology would grow, identifying him as a pupil of the Hungarian Jewish pedagogue Joseph Joachim. This seems unlikely, as Joachim died when Ezrahi’s father was only three years old.

No matter. With this humanistic example as antecedent, Yaron Ezrahi could appear in later life as a rueful representative of finer times, amid the squalid morass of today’s sectarian violence. He was slightly reminiscent of the character actor Albert Bassermann, typecast in films of the 1940s such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent” and “The Red Shoes” as a benevolent, somewhat astringent throwback to a more civilized era. Like Bassermann’s onscreen characters, Ezrahi retained a loftily preoccupied perspective.

Part of Ezrahi’s disquiet was due to how the achievement of Albert Einstein, the individualist hero of modern science, may have affected society. In two essays published by Princeton University Press Ezrahi opined that Einstein, by coincidence an amateur violinist, inadvertently shook popular faith in scientific truth with his counterintuitive theories. Almost four decades later, Ezrahi finally revised his quasi-Oedipal blaming of the old fiddler for any decay of “common sense realism.” Instead, Ezrahi suggested, the “growing public distrust in Enlightenment notions of realism and public facts” was more likely caused by the omnipresence of easily deceptive television and other media: “The camera, as an instrument that combines the documentary and the fantastic while blurring their boundaries, has radically transformed political phenomenology in modern teledemocracies.”

In a 2007 review of the collection “Einstein on Politics,” Ezrahi praised Einstein’s “deep engagement with the founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1925… Whereas the inclusion of ‘Hebrew’ in the name of the university implied a commitment to creating a Jewish home, Einstein had great faith in the mission of the university as an international academic institution.” Ezrahi further cited Einstein’s belief that one of the university’s “noblest tasks [was] to keep our people free from nationalistic obscurantism and aggressive intolerance.”

Likewise, at a 2009 symposium at the Central European University of Budapest, Ezrahi optimistically suggested that education today in the Social Sciences should prepare students to live with “ambiguities and uncertainties, which open them up to dialogue. Compromise… should be viewed as a principle in itself, rather than a betrayal of principles.”

If Israel, and other nations, learned to dance to that tune, surely it would be a better world, Ezrahi implied.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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