Through Music, Israelis and Palestinians Fight for Equality

Through Music, Israelis and Palestinians Fight for Equality

A New Documentary Showcases Their Efforts

Assaf Ben Shetrit never imagined he'd produce a film related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Ben Shetrit, born and raised mostly in Israel, didn't know what more he could add to the conversation. For him, profound films had been created about this topic before, yet never had much impact on the situation.

But in 2017, a friend told Ben Shetrit about a concert for Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. Ben Shetrit jumped at the chance to document the event.

"When I offered to document it, I never thought I would make a documentary film," Ben Shetrit said. "But very quickly, I realized this was a very inspiring story that is not often told."

"When the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is talked about, it's usually very sensationalized, and it's always violent, demoralizing, sad, pessimistic, angry, and with rhetoric on both sides. It feels like there's never any points of contact [between the two groups], and here, there were people who were dead set on changing that."

Over the last six years, Ben Shetrit has been working on Prophets Of Change, a documentary examining the lives of musicians and activists from both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, working to inspire change through their music. Luminosity Entertainment bought the film at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and Ben Shetrit expects it to be released later this year.

The documentary is divided into five "chapters." The first chapter follows Sameh Zakout (Alsaz), a Palestinian rapper from Ramle, Israel and Arnon 'Sun Tailor' Naor, an Israeli singer/songwriter. The second chapter is dedicated to Mira Awad, a Palestinian and Bulgarian "Art-avist" who grew up in Rameh village, a Palestinian town located in the Galilee in Israel. The third chapter follows the Israeli heavy metal band Orphaned Land and the Palestinian heavy metal band Khalas. The fourth chapter focuses on Yael Deckelbaum, an Israeli singer/songwriter and musical activist. And the last chapter features System Ali, a hip-hop collective from Yafo, Israel, comprised of members who identify as Palestinian and Israeli.

Mira Awad

Credit: Tomasz Solinski

Mira Awad was born an artist.

Awad, the daughter of a Bulgarian mother and Palestinian father, has been singing, songwriting, acting, and drawing since she was a little girl. During her young life, Awad's art was her passion—a way for her to express herself.

"Growing up, I might have written songs about women's rights or equal rights because as a young female growing up in a patriarchal society, I felt that I needed to struggle to get my words heard," she said. "But I didn't treat it like I'm writing about an agenda. I was writing about my own pain."

Awad grew up in the same Palestinian village where her father was born and raised, in a family of mixed national identity. She often mingled with people outside of her nationality through her father's medical practice, and her parents were very liberal—always protesting and demonstrating for equality for women, children, political prisoners, etc.

"I guess that kind of paved the way for me to care about other people," Awad said.

But the combination of her art and activism didn't come until she left her village to attend Haifa University, where she experienced discrimination for the first time.

Awad recalls searching for housing with a friend in Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel. Unlike other cities in the country that are either all Jewish or all Arab, Haifa is considered a "mixed city"—of the 280,000 residents, about 50,000 are of Arab (Palestinian) descent. So it didn't cross Awad's mind that she might experience discrimination because of her Palestinian roots.

But she did.

After spending hours searching for an apartment with a real estate agent, she and her friend finally found the perfect place. The agent asked her to sign an agreement.

"My friend and I didn't have the stereotypical look of Arab women—whatever that is—and we didn't sound Arab. We didn't have an accent. So we were with this real estate agent signing an agreement, and we got our IDs. And he's like, 'OK, your name is Mira. Your family name is ... Awad.' And then everything freezes."

She explained that the real estate agent quickly changed tune and began making excuses to leave, saying he would call later in the day.

He never called.

"So if this happened once, twice, even three times, you think, maybe it's a coincidence. But it happened more and more because of my name. And suddenly, you start to realize that there's something here. I wasn't welcome because my name is a threat, or my name is scary, or something unwanted,” she said.

When she was around 20 years old, Awad left Haifa and began studying at Rimon School Of Music. She was their first Arab student and first Arab female student. Later, she would become the first Arab with a prominent role in the Opera House and the first Arab to represent Israel in Eurovision. All of this made national news. Reporters wanted to interview her—not about her music—but about being the first Arab to accomplish these feats in Israel.

"I was shying away from the issues, but then an article would come out, and the reporter would have written something of their own and how they interpreted my story because I didn't tell it, and usually they told it wrong," she said.

"I never was interested in becoming such a political entity. I didn't want to represent anyone. So actually, society, or the pressure from around me, pushed me into being a political entity."

As the years went on, Awad's music and social agendas began merging, and her music became about human solidarity, oneness, and caring for "the other."

And in Prophets Of Change, Awad's music and words take center stage.

"I don't sing about, you know, if we hold hands and sing songs, then we will all love each other, and then peace will suddenly rain on us. Peace is not going to rain on us. Peace is something we have to make. We have to build it. It's going to take sacrifice," she said.

"Now listen to this amazing notion. We send our kids to die in war, but we are unwilling to send anyone to die for peace. Israelis, for example, will tell me, 'Let's say I make peace with the Palestinians. But then maybe they will send somebody to bomb themselves in Tel Aviv.' And I say, there is sacrifice. Someone might stab you when you stand out there and are willing to hug. It's a sacrifice. But you know you are going to get casualties in a war. In peace, you might have casualties.”

"Because centuries, over centuries, we have told these magnificent stories about heroism and dying for your country. Let's try telling another story about dying to save other people ... to save them from going into war. I'm willing to stand in that first line. If I get stabbed, I'm willing to make that sacrifice."

Kobi Farhi

Credit: Zoharon

Kobi Farhi sees the best in humanity when he is on stage with his heavy metal band, Orphaned Land. For a few hours, Farhi, who is Jewish and Israeli, performs for an audience of fans of all faiths, sexual orientations, and ethnicities. He also said Orphaned Land is the most famous Israeli band in the Arab world.

It's easy to see why.

Orphaned Land began 30 years ago when Farhi and his bandmates were teenagers. Their music is a metal genre that uses stories and reality from the region where they live—the Middle East—no matter how intense, harsh, or controversial that reality might be. The band, which has released six albums and toured over 50 countries, uses allegories, philosophies, and biblical stories to speak about the conflict between the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

Their music has also touched the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a way that looks at human behavior and the paradigms that made the conflict a reality.

"This is not an exclusive thing to Israelis and Palestinians," Farhi said. "We always try to research and learn why we [humans] are so advanced in aspects like technology, science, or agriculture. And why we invent satellites, spaceships, or iPhones, but we can't just get along … which seems to be so much easier than to invent a spaceship that goes all the way to the moon."

Growing up in Jaffa, a suburb of Tel Aviv, had an immense influence on Farhi's life and musical career. Like Haifa, Jaffa is considered a "mixed city.” Farhi has two stories from his childhood that impacted his thinking and showed him, as he puts it, the "balance of humanity."

Farhi remembers sitting in the passenger seat of his uncle's car, traveling through Jaffa. They passed an Arab taxi driver on the side of the road, who smiled, and Farhi smiled back. When they drove away, Farhi said his uncle turned to him and said, "You have to be careful because he's smiling at you, but deep inside, he wants to kill you."

On the contrary, Farhi reminisced about his family's textile factory, where his grandmother and many other Israeli and Arab women spent their days together sewing.

"I remember them laughing all the time and being friends. And 30 years later, I'm sitting at my grandmother's home before Passover, and one of the Arab sewers that used to sit next to her is calling to wish her a happy holiday. And then I asked my grandma, 'How come you are still in touch?' And she told me, 'I'm also greeting her on the Muslim holidays.'”

"I was thrilled by the friendship and sisterhood that they had between them. So I guess those two stories showed me the balance of humanity, of good and evil, of hate and love. And I often wondered why people went towards hate, and I believe it’s a matter of education.”

Through his music, Farhi hopes to educate people on this notion.

Orphaned Land's latest album looks at the "allegory of the cave" by Plato, the Greek philosopher. The allegory examines how human beings live in the world, contrasting reality with human interpretation. It begins with humans chained inside a cave, where the shadows on the wall created by firelight behind them are all they know to be real. So what happens if one prisoner breaks free and sees the outside world? According to the allegory, that person will come to understand a new reality. But when the freed prisoner returns to the cave to tell the fellow prisoners—but they won't believe them and will instead think the outside world is harmful, and the truth is not worth seeking.

"They [the other people in the cave] think that he [the person who ventured out of the cave] lost his mind, and they killed him," Farhi said. "That's the allegory of the cave. And that's what happened many times in our history when great leaders tried to take us out of the cave. It could be Socrates; it could even be Jesus Christ. It could be Dr. King for African Americans. It could be Mahatma Gandhi for the Indians. It could be Che Guevara for the South Americans, and so on. We can discuss the personalities, but those people were the Socrates of their people, and they always ended up dead."

"So our latest album deals with the fact that this is a human behavior that's been repeating itself for more than two and a half millennia. Sometimes it brings me to a situation where I meet these hopeless thoughts that we're just lost and doomed because so many people don't want to leave the cave."

Farhi left the cave a long time ago, and he leads by example. Aside from Orphaned Land's lyrics, they’ve toured with a Palestinian heavy metal band called Khalas.

"We work together with them on a tour bus, and we always share; while our nations cannot get along in the same landscape, we live together on a bus.”

"You have all of this in the movie [Prophets Of Change]. And like I said, it's an inspiration. It's a hope. It's footage showing that it's possible."

Abed Hathot

Credit: Ofir Abe

Abed Hathot is a self-described metalhead. Since he can remember, he's been entranced by the sound, the rhythm, and the lyrics of metal music; it's his passion and his release.

As a Palestinian teenager growing up in Acre, Israel, Hathot decided he wanted to create metal music. However, he wasn’t sure how. At the time, there were no Palestinian or Arabic metal bands to use as a role model. But, that didn't deter Hathot, who gathered three friends and created their metal band—Khalas—becoming the first, according to Hathot, Palestinian/Arabic metal band in the Middle East.

Khalas released two albums. The second album was a tribute to Arabic music and culture, where they took classical Arabic songs and made metal adaptations. The first album focused more on the situation in Israel/Palestine.

For Hathot, music is about reflecting reality.

"The fact that we are a Palestinian band making metal music, it's political," Hathot said. "People don't expect a metal band to be coming out of Palestine. They don't expect to see Palestinian teenagers wearing leather pants and head banging on stage. That's not the image sold to them in the West."

When he was a teen, one of Hathot's favorite metal bands was the Israeli metal band, Orphaned Land, and he grew up respecting and admiring Kobi Farhi. A decade after his own band's creation, Hathot, and his band Khalas would be on tour with Farhi and Orphaned Land, spreading their messages through music while showing brotherhood between two metal bands, and by default, between two nations.

"It's not all bad over there [In Israel/Palestine], where everyone is stabbing everyone in the streets, but at the same time, it's not all peace and love and Arabs and Jews living equally," Hathot explained. "It's somewhere in the middle.”

"And the moment we accept that and start working together, and trying to understand the other side, and see where they're coming from and ignore all the brainwashing media, and experience stuff ourselves, then we will understand, and we can move forward to actually solve the situation."

(Note: Hathot is the composer of Prophets Of Change.)

Yael Deckelbaum

Credit: Omer Messenger

Earlier this year, Yael Deckelbaum, an Israeli singer, songwriter, and musical activist, released a song called "Hayati," featuring Palestinian musician Meera Eilabouni. The artists performed and shot the music video for the song on both sides of the separation wall in Bethlehem. (Bethlehem is a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem in the West Bank; Israel erected a separation wall during the Second Intifada, a period of heightened conflict between Israel and Palestine. The barrier separates Israel from the West Bank and regulates the entry of Palestinians from the West Bank into Israel.)

The “Hayati” music video showcases how the wall looks on the Israeli side: a gray slab near a highway of nothingness; and on the Palestinian side: a wall full of artwork, right next to homes, shops, and humanity. Deckelbaum stayed with Eilabouni's family in the West Bank while shooting the video and heard their stories and narrative about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

"I cried a lot when I heard their stories," Deckelbaum said. "What her family told me really confused me and really, really, really, really broke my heart. And I felt like I retrieved the piece of my heart when we did this video clip."

"I did this because I wanted to show Israelis what's happening on the other side, and I wanted to show Palestinians that we're not all bad here. And that there's a lot of people who really care."

This song and music video is just Deckelbaum’s latest musical activism initiative.

Her journey began in 2015 when she and fellow activist Daphni Leef made a cross-country musical journey around Israel. For 45 days, the women met strangers from all walks of life, asking them about their hopes, dreams, and vision for the country.

"I brought my music to this space, and I saw the power of music," she said. "Music can change the world and can really open up hearts."

A year later, Deckelbaum met women from the organization Women Wage Peace, a grassroots movement with tens of thousands of Jewish and Arab members demanding a non-violent agreement between Israelis and Palestinians; and an agreement that involves women in the process. The organization members told Deckelbaum about a women's march they were hosting with thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women marching for peace. Deckelbaum wrote them an anthem, and it went viral.

From there, she wrote anthems and marched with women globally for various causes, including in Spain, Germany, Sweden, France, and the United States.

"I think that the most powerful force that I felt while collaborating with Women Wage Peace is that place of the position of the mothers," she said. "I think that the position of being a mother, taking action and no longer being willing to collaborate with a system that is not the kind of world they want to build for their children, and trying to demand a change of paradigm."

Deckelbaum said she grew up in a Jewish, Israeli household, and even though her family was very left leaning when it came to politics, she was taught nationalism and national pride during her schooling.

"I remember standing as a kid in first grade or even in kindergarten when the sirens went off, and I'm supposed to think really, really hard about the tragedy of the Holocaust, or all of the soldiers who died so that I will have a home. This is how we grow up here," she said. "But it's not being taught to be sad or feel uncomfortable for other soldiers who died or other children who died in that same war but are not from your nationality."

"As a child, I remember it was always really strange for me to think there are people who are 'others.' For me, everybody seemed to be the same."

And now, through Prophets Of Change, and in her work, Deckelbaum spreads her hope for a future where Israelis and Palestinians can learn from each others' stories and move forward together.

"I think my message is that it's up to us, and I would like to inspire more people to reach out to each other. Don't wait for the leaders."

Sameh “Alsaz” Zakout

Credit: Gili Levinson

Sameh "Alsaz" Zakout, a Palestinian rapper, singer, and actor, said his grandfather, Abdalla Abu El Nejem Zakout, is his inspiration in how he lives his life and the music he puts out into the world.

Zakout's grandfather was born and raised in the village of Isdud, Palestine, which was renamed Ashdod after Israel's creation. He was a renowned and respected teacher who was exiled during the Nakba, or "catastrophe," when many Palestinians were displaced from their homeland by the creation of the new state of Israel. Much of Zakout's family ended up around the world and in Gaza, where a large part of his family still resides today.

"My grandfather lost his land, his belongings, and family members. He was left with nothing," Zakout said. "He went through that, but he never hated a Jew or anybody. And he gave us this education to be good human beings and to see education for a better future because what happened in the past, you can't change."
That's how Zakout lives his life.

"I understand the Jews even more, when they say 'never again' about the Holocaust. We are two nations under PTSD," he said. "Jews, they went through the Holocaust, and around the world, Jewish people have really suffered; we can't deny it. But with that said, my family, not just my people, have been suffering since '48. And we just want to live a normal life."

Zakout has spent the last several years working with Israeli artists to create change in his homeland. First, he worked with Arnon 'Sun Tailor' Naor, who will also be in Prophets Of Change. And since last year, Zakout and Uriya Rosenman have rapped together after releasing their project called "Dugri," which means "straight talk" in Arabic, where they bluntly rap about the racism and tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel. With their songs, they hope to inspire a social awakening and build a community of young Israelis and Palestinians who believe in a new, mutually beneficial narrative.

He hopes that message is taken away by people who watch Prophets Of Change, too.

"Well, maybe I'm going to sound corny," Zakout said as he began a short rap. "But look into my eyes. Tell me what you see. I'm the same as you. Why do you hate me?"

"That's the thing that just came to mind. The last few decades when you say Arabs, Muslims, Middle East, Palestine, and even Israel, they [the rest of the world] think they know us. They think that we live on a different planet, not just earth. They think we came from Mars. But guys, girls, we're all the same."

"If we open our minds and hearts, I think this world will be better."

Ben Shetrit said his mind and heart opened through the journey of creating this film. He called it a "life-changing process.

"I was just floored by these people [the musicians] that I had never met when I lived in Israel," he said. "I never knew these people. I never knew their voices. I never heard their names. But when I met them, it was like … here's my tribe. Here's my clan.”

During the making of this film, Ben Shetrit traveled around Israel, Palestine, and the world, following these artists. He found himself in areas of Palestine where most Jews wouldn't go.

"I feel like this film is for the outside world. It's for the international community. And why I say that is because it feels to me that if this film would be embraced internationally, it would create more pressure in Israel/Palestine to create actual change."

Prophets Of Change includes big-time narrators like J.K. Simmons, Forest Whitaker, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee, Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, Sarah Silverman, and Billy Zane.

"My hope is that this film touches people and shows them that there's a different way to make change. We just need to be creative. We need to be kind. We need to be compassionate, and we need to love … simple things."

*Feature photo by Assaf Ben Shetrit Prophets of Change (Fooya Films)

Allison Norlian is a three-time Emmy-nominated journalist who co-founded a production company focused on telling unheard stories about underrepresented populations.
More posts by Allison Norlian.
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