In the forty years since its inception, punk has almost always been synonymous with radical politics. The very nature of counterculture, of which punk is a mainstay, is to fight against whoever is in power. Even right-wing bands operate within this ethos. On the far end of that, white power music is very much situated in what its practitioners see as a comparative struggle, even if the songs are lyrically backwards.
While some local scenes are less left-wing in nature – the 1980s New York hardcore scene being a good example – those are taken as blips on the cultural radar. For every Warzone, Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law, and so on, there was also Nausea, Born Against, A.P.P.L.E., and even the maligned Reagan Youth, to balance things out. But what if there are no musical or geographic alternatives?
While that might be impossible to imagine in a city the size of NYC, where literally everything exists, it is very much the case in Israel. Home to just a few thousand punks in a country the size of the state of New Jersey, Israeli punk culture has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. What used to be a very small but extremely vocal and politically aware hardcore scene has become much more street punk-oriented, especially following the most recent wave of Russian immigration to the country, during the 1990s. The new immigrants brought with them a more conservative and certainly more pro-Israel outlook, which easily translated into music and subculture.
While the new olim (immigrants) helped create a larger and more robust punk scene, they also helped depoliticize Israeli punk, by focusing more on its lifestyle aspects, like fashion, than on the occupation and democracy. By the early-2000s, bands like Nikmat Olalim and Smartut Kahol Lavan – both of which had anti-Zionist views (the latter translates to Blue and White Rag, a reference to the Israeli flag) – were the exceptions in a hardcore scene that at its start, in the early 1990s, had been far more radical and activist. (Bands like Smartut predecessors Dir Yassin, for example.) This is not surprising. Russian immigration aside, Israelis as a whole have become more centrist politically over the past couple decades. Today, there is also an almost nihilistic approach to the issue of Palestine, one that is both very patriotic in its presentation, but also very apathetic to the situation ever improving.
Marmara Streisand hope to change that. Well, maybe not on such a grand scale, but at least when it comes to the Israeli punk scene. According to the bassist, Michal, “I think we’re trying to give a voice to all the people here living as occupied and occupiers under duress. We’re primarily anti-Zionist and (anti) capitalist, but I think we talk more about the day to day influence the occupation has had on everyone here and give an outlet to our frustration.”
Named after the American singer Barbara Streisand, and the MV Mavi Marmara, which was the main ship that tried to break the 2010 naval blockade of Gaza, the band was started that same year after three of the members – Michal (bass,) Rob (drums,) and Ben (vocals) – met at the Rogatka Bar Collective, an anarchist-run infoshop and café in Tel Aviv. Michal and Rob had played together before in the crust bands Clandestine and Skelm Helm when they both lived in Johannesburg a decade ago. Maya (guitar) was recruited soon after and the current lineup was completed with the addition of Johanna on violin. She had previously been in the Hamburg folk punk band Blickwinkel, and had also played in a few Israeli bands. According to Maya, “We knew each other from different political struggles and alternative groups. I think we all needed a place to take out all the rage and frustration from the daily reality of IsraHell, and it seemed fun!”
On their website, Marmara Streisand expands a bit more about that rage and frustration: “… being part of the local punk scene we see the lack of political content within our community. We do not wish to escape or ignore the place where we live.” To that end, they have made it a point to own that identity as an Israeli band, despite being anti-Zionist and very much disliking everything the country stands for. According to the band, “We wish to confront the place where we live and the mentality of apartheid that surrounds us.”
Though Marmara Streisand do have a dedicated fanbase made up of punks and activists, that doesn’t mean that they’re always playing to those people. Sometimes there’s a less-than-receptive crowd or they’ve been booked together with bands that might not be on the same page politically. Ben explained that, “There are punks who are interested in politics and even if they are not politically involved they understand the things we stand up for. Sometimes they like it, sometimes not. But we always try to create a dialogue with the audience in order to understand what they think … .”
That idea of dialogue seems to be the true backbone of the group. Asked about the relationship between music and politics in the band, Ben said, “We try and involve our music in the political world and vice versa by first writing songs that different people can relate to then organizing concerts in different places. So we try and mix between people who like us as people or like our message, but not necessarily like punk music, and punks who don’t necessarily have the political part in their lives.”
Musically, Marmara Streisand plays what would most easily be classified as crust punk, though there’s a lot more going on than that. Due to the presence of the violin, it is somewhat reminiscent of 1990s American crust stalwarts Behead the Prophet No Lord Shall Live, who shared a similar mix of anarchist and queer politics. However, the band made it clear that their influences and sound comes from many places, and not just punk. According to Maya, “We have many different influences and we try not to categorize our genre. We mostly try to come with musical ideas that talk to us.” Favorites brought up during the interview included Bessie Smith – who Marmara Streisand cover – Kylesa, Farid Al-Atrache, Amebix, Fall of Efrafa, John Coltrane, and The Clash, just to name a few. With five members each bringing something else to the table, it’s easy to understand why the band’s sound is both complex and just so cacophonous.
While some punk bands in the US and Europe might sing about struggles half a world away, Marmara Streisand doesn’t have to go very far to find lyrical inspiration. The members are all involved in different activist groups including Anarchists Against the Wall, the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, and other anti-occupation and anti-apartheid organizations, as well as animal rights, queer, and feminist causes. Michal told Souciant that what’s important is not “single issue politics but rather a real need to change the world for everyone and not out of some utopian ideal, but as a survival mechanism for our species.”
A good example of the personal nature of the music is the song “Ghosts,” which Rob explained is about Maya’s time spent with anti-occupation groups in East Jerusalem. On the track, which appears on the band’s first release The Purity of Arms (available online at Bandcamp), Ben sings:
We are the ghosts from your destruction
We are the leftovers of your dream
You scattered our souls for comfort
Vanished our existence in the name of fear
The lyrics – most of the vocals are in English, in part due to the international nature of the band – are extremely personal. At first glance, they’re not particularly political, which is to the band’s credit. Nuance is hard to come by in punk, and more often than not bands try and hit the listener over the head with their message. Although Marmara Streisand is first and foremost a political group, it’s clear that, as Ben put it, “We try to write in a way that will not serve as a political manifest(o) but more in way that is personal and reflects our inner conflicts with the world.”
That being said, the Palestinian struggle and its effect on Israeli society is the cornerstone of Marmara Streisand’s existence. It’s in the lyrics, the song titles, the cover art, the band’s Internet presence, and their live shows. One of the most intense songs on the album is the band’s reworking of a popular Israeli folk song “I Don’t Have Another Land,” which is a 1980s-era patriotic song about how even if the land is burning – or is at war – it will always belong to Israel. The Marmara Streisand version, which includes an intro taken from a live recording of the song done at a memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin, is about the fascism inherent in government policymaking. In typically local fashion, it includes a line about putting gas on that fire, and watching everything burn.
While the Israeli punk scene, especially the political side of it, is quite small, groups like Marmara Streisand are having an impact. Between playing benefit shows, serving as inspiration to both punks and activists, and being openly anti-Zionist, the group is slowly making headway. As Johanna put it: “We define ourselves as anti-Zionists and such are our lyrics. We want to spread our point of view in the hope to inspire more young people to critical thinking and radical art.”
Photographs courtesy of Marmara Streisand. All rights reserved.