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Israeli Army Radio ban on protest song raises controversy

October 15, 2012 | 11:27 am

JERUSALEM — A leading Israeli radio station's decision to ban for broadcast a protest song is stirring controversy and underscoring the sensitive intersection of art, politics and freedom of speech in the country.

"A Matter of Habit," recently released by veteran Israeli musician Izhar Ashdot, describes the slippery slope Israeli soldiers go down, from fear and confusion to complacency, until "killing is a matter of habit."  The lyrics, written by Ashdot's life partner, novelist Alona Kimhi, reportedly were inspired by her tour with Breaking the Silence, an organization of former combat soldiers whose website says it is dedicated to exposing the "reality of everyday life in the occupied territories." 

The song was welcomed by liberals as a protest of Israel's actions in the West Bank but fiercely criticized by others, who defaced Ashdot's official Facebook page last month, with one angry reader referring to Ashdot as a "draft-dodging dog" — though he didn't evade mandatory service.

Army Radio stuck by an advance invitation that Ashdot perform in its studios but expressly vetoed the playing of this song. The station later issued a statement saying there was no room on the military station for a song that "denigrates and denounces those who have sacrificed their lives for the defense of the country."

"I am worried when songs are banned for broadcast in a democratic country," Ashdot told Israeli media, adding he was shocked by the "incitement" against him that the statement encouraged. The decision and statement were issued by Yaron Dekel, a veteran journalist appointed to be the station's military commander in February.

Army Radio is something of a media anomaly. It started out more than 60 years ago as a channel for broadcasting military messages to the civilian population of the young Israel during wartime but over time evolved into a hugely popular and almost normal media outlet, except for the fact that it is funded through the defense budget, staffed mostly by soldiers and has a military commander for its chief editor.

Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the spokesman for Israel's military, posted his support of the move on his official Facebook page Monday morning, praising Dekel for the "unpopular and brave decision" to ban the song from a station that is "home to the soldiers," as one of its slogans says.

As a former journalist, army spokesman and station commander, Avi Benayahu is familiar with walking the tightrope of a media outlet that is also a military base. Speaking on Israel Radio — the military station's competition, where Dekel waged rather uncompromising journalism until recently — Benayahu said Army Radio is committed to as diverse and broad a public debate as possible, "but this breadth has limits in a democracy on the defense."

Israel Radio made a point of playing the song throughout Monday.

Michael Sfard, an activist attorney who represents Breaking the Silence, called the decision a "sad instance of political censorship" and wondered if an interviewer speaking, not singing, the same critique would be censored.

Ronen Shoval, chairman of Im Tirtzu, a conservative organization aiming to reinforce Zionist values and combat the de-legitimization of Israel, dismissed the claim of political censorship.

"People have the right to say whatever they want but not wherever they want," he said, saying the song should not be broadcast on the soldiers' "home station."

The debate continues to rage on Facebook, where Ashdot, one of the country's veteran rockers and a much respected musician, is facing a flood of especially abusive comments. The political party Meretz, which opposes Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank, used its social media platform to recommend the song and ushered its supporters to YouTube to 'like' "Ashdot's courage and Kimhi's uncompromising text."  

The song ends on a hopeful note, saying that "loving is a matter of habit" too.

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— Batsheva Sobelman

Video: "A Matter of Habit." Credit: YouTube.

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