The Jewish Musicians Who Shaped Modern North Africa—and Modern Israel

In Christopher Silver’s book Recording History: Jews, Muslims, and Music across Twentieth-Century North Africa, Matti Friedman finds a slice of history whose echoes reverberate in contemporary Israeli culture, and that “matters a great deal for anyone trying to understand Israel” today:

Recording History introduces us to the musical world of the Maghreb in the first half of the 20th century, and specifically to the Jewish performers and talent scouts who shaped the sounds heard by millions of Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians. Jews were central players in the Arabic music scene, moving back and forth over ethnic lines and between the concert hall and the synagogue in a way that now seems remarkable. We meet figures like Edmond Nathan Yafil, a Jewish mandolin player from the casbah of Algiers who collected hundreds of beloved local melodies in a 1904 compendium that was the first of its kind. Yafil also mentored dozens of musicians—Jews and Muslims—conducted the radio orchestra, and steered Algeria’s new recording industry in the first decades of the 20th century.

Silver’s memorable cast of characters includes . . . Acher Mizrahi, born in Jerusalem and transplanted to the Jewish Quarter of Tunis, who was somehow a synagogue cantor, a teacher at a religious school, and the author of the suggestive pop hit “Où vous étiez mademoiselle.”

It may surprise many readers to learn that some of the voices most closely identified with the North African independence movements belonged to Jews. [The Tunisian pop starlet Habiba] Messika’s 1928 version of an anti-British Egyptian anthem was considered so dangerous, for example, that it drew the attention of French security agents.

Much changed with the creation of Israel in 1948—but the real shift, Friedman explains, came after the Nazi defeat of France in 1940, when the collaborationist Vichy regime took control of much of the Maghreb:

After 1940, the native Jewish musicians who’d been at the center of the Arab scene, and who were now barred from it by law, watched many of their Muslim friends and colleagues betray them. Cultural officials accused them of importing “decadence” into Arabic music and of appropriating a culture that was foreign to them. Magazines published vicious musical critiques of their work alongside the regime’s new anti-Jewish laws. Mahiedinne Bachetarzi, for decades a protégé of the famed Jewish impresario Yafil, now moved to center stage and wrote a song of exuberant praise for Vichy and its dictator, Marshal Pétain.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Anti-Semitism, Arab nationalism, Israeli culture, Jewish music, North African Jewry, Vichy France

 

Condemning Terrorism in Jerusalem—and Efforts to Stop It

Jan. 30 2023

On Friday night, a Palestinian opened fire at a group of Israelis standing outside a Jerusalem synagogue, killing seven and wounding several others. The day before, the IDF had been drawn into a gunfight in the West Bank city of Jenin while trying to arrest members of a terrorist cell. Of the nine Palestinians killed in the raid, only one appears to have been a noncombatant. Lahav Harkov compares the responses to the two events, beginning with the more recent:

President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce the attack, offer his condolences, and express his commitment to Israel’s security. Other leaders released supportive statements as well. Governments across Europe condemned the attack. Turkey’s foreign ministry did the same, as did Israel’s Abraham Accords partners the UAE and Bahrain. Even Saudi Arabia released a statement against the killing of civilians in Jerusalem.

It feels wrong to criticize those statements. . . . But the condemnations should be full-throated, not spoken out of one side of the mouth while the other is wishy-washy about what it takes to stave off terrorism. These very same leaders and ministries were tsk-tsking at Israel for doing just that only a day before the attacks in Jerusalem.

The context didn’t seem to matter to some countries that are friendly to Israel. It didn’t matter that Israel was trying to stop jihadists from attacking civilians; it didn’t matter that IDF soldiers were attacked on the way.

It’s very easy for some to be sad when Jews are murdered. Yet, at the same time, so many of them are uncomfortable with Jews asserting themselves, protecting themselves, arming themselves against the bloodthirsty horde that would hand out bonbons to celebrate their deaths. It’s a reminder of how important it is that we do just that, and how essential the state of Israel is.

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Read more at Lahav’s Newsletter

More about: Jerusalem, Palestinian terror