Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize and the “Zionist Anthem”

On October 13, Bob Dylan became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature since Toni Morrison received the award in the early ’90s. The announcement was greeted with as much applause as derision: some praised Dylan’s lyrics as high poetry while others argued that even a brilliant singer-songwriter should not be receiving an award meant to recognize poets and novelists. For those more politically attuned to the question of Palestine, Dylan’s avowed support for the State of Israel was similarly the subject of impassioned argument.

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Long gone are the days when American stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra were happy to sing Israel’s praises. (Ms. Taylor once offered herself as a substitute hostage for Israelis detained by Palestinian militants in Entebbe, Uganda.) So, perhaps it came as no surprise that Zionist organizations and individuals were eager to seize on Nobel-laureate Dylan as a major cultural icon to brand as pro-Israelat a time when Brand Israel is culturally uncool (as exemplified by the growing artistic boycott of Israel). Many took to social media to celebrate Dylan as an ideological kin and almost invariably spotlighted his song, “Neighborhood Bully.” Sometimes referred to as Dylan’s “Zionist anthem,” the 1983 folk song recycled the old trope of a plucky little Israel unfairly criticized for being the “neighborhood bully.” As Dylan sings,

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 neighborhood bully he just lives to survive

He’s criticized and condemned for being alive

He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin

He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in

He’s the neighborhood bully.

(Time; 27 September 1982)
(Time; 27 September 1982)

“Neighborhood Bully” was released shortly after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon when Israel was censured internationally for laying siege to West Beirut and causing the deaths of thousands of civilians in systemic bombing and shelling of civilian neighborhoods. (See this New York Times article from 28 July, 1982, for example.) Media coverage grew more vociferous after militiamen of the far-right Christian Lebanese Forces, armed and aided by Israel, stormed the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, and massacred hundreds of civilians as IDF soldiers secured the perimeter of the camp, turned away fleeing refugees, and lit the night sky with flares to facilitate the carnage. The Lebanese Forces were able to enter the camps in the first place because the PLO, whose armed presence in Lebanon was one of the pretexts for Israel’s action, had been booted out of the country, leaving the camps defenseless. Dylan had witnessed Israel’s triumphant infliction of wreckage and bloodshedmuch of it on populations already previously dispossessed by Israel and its Lebanese alliesand determined that it was the Middle East’s only nuclear power that was the victim worthy of his melodic sympathy.

But Dylan’s morally blind and reality-inverted anthem was par for the course for this musician who somehow wound up known as the troubadour of the hippie generation. One of Dylan’s contemporaries, and long-time antagonists, A.J. Weberman, related in an interview last year, “Dylan was never a leftist. He just fell into the easiest thing that would make him famous . . .” In the interview, Weberman attempts to show that the songwriter’s lyrics are often “racist” and even pro-Apartheid. Breaking down some of Dylan’s lyrics, Weberman said that when Dylan sings, “catch a cannonball, bring me down the line, my bag is sinking low and I do believe it’s time,” he’s actually saying, “Let’s find a black heroin connection, my bag is sinking low”—i.e., I’m running out of dope. (…) Time after time these things come up,” Weberman continues. “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat [means] you used to have diplomatic relations with the biggest exporter of chrome, South Africa. Who carried on his shoulder—who shouldered the white man’s burden—a Siamese cat, slang for a black man … Ain’t it hard when you discovered that he really wasn’t where it’s at—wasn’t it hard for you to rationalize what you’d done when you decided to break diplomatic relations with South Africa.”

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And many Palestinian solidarity activists went to social media to get the word out that there’s more to Dylan than his (feigned?) Greenwich Village vibe.

And then there are the lamenters: Individuals who are fans of Dylan’s music but cannot overlook his politics.

Academic and blogger As’ad Abu Khalil related his own disappointment on his Angry Arab News Service blog.

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-3-23-48-pm
(The Angry Arab News Service)

And on social media, while some people expressed regret over remaining fans of the American icon, some stated that Dylan’s support for Israel and indifference toward the Palestinians had them lose their admiration for him. 

Musicians who wade into politics, and especially fraught territory, invite controversy. Thus it’s no surprise that many avoid commenting altogether. Dylan made a song out of his politics. The Nobel committee issued its judgment, but for many Palestinians and their supporters around the world, Dylan’s legacy will always be tainted by his willful association with Israeli war crimes.

Some, however, think the whole controversy is overblown. Palestinian-American economist and Dylan aficionado Raja Khalidi says he “overlooks [Dylan’s] Zionism” as “we needn’t judge every artist by their opinion on Palestine or Israel. Khalidi, who has tried to translate some of Dylan’s lyrics into Arabic as introductions to his articles on the Palestinian economy, says that Dylan’s “lifelong literary achievement, lyrically and musically, overshadows his position on Palestine.” After all, Dylan expressing admiration for Israel can be attributed to “identity politics” rather than “fervor or conviction.” Moreover, “besides Roger Waters and the Specials, which modern rock artists has ever come out with songs or otherwise against Israel?” Khalidi posits, before summing up his thoughts: “So, why pick on Dylan for being pro-Israel?”

By Khelil Bouarrouj.

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