Zionist at Heart

Fifty years into his career, Bob Dylan is still making waves. Sometimes, just by showing up. Such is the case with his upcoming concert in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, on June 20th. Cultural boycott, anyone? As always, Dylan is doing what he wants to, regardless of public opinion.

It’s tempting to try to pin down Bob Dylan’s political views. He was, after all, adopted as the voice of the 1960s. “Adopted” is the key word. Dylan’s songwriting has always meant what his audience wants him to mean. However, there’s no indication that the Minnesotan ever desired the role of a generational spokesperson.

Sometimes Bob Dylan is direct. There’s little doubt about what he means when, in Masters of War, he sings “I hope that you die/and your death will come soon/I’ll follow your casket by the pale afternoon/and I’ll watch while you’re lowered into your deathbed/ and I’ll stand over your grave till I’m sure that you’re dead.”

However, Dylan’s best work tends to be his most abstract. Whether it’s by playing with Old Testament imagery in 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, or singing  “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower/while calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers,” or the expositions on relationships on 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, the literary ambiguity of his work has helped the songwriter cultivate an extremely broad audience.

One of the most straightforward pieces Bob Dylan has ever written is Neighborhood Bully from his controversial 1983 album, Infidels. Espousing an avowedly Zionist point of view, the song, bemoaning Israel’s declining public image, (Dylan cites the 1967 Six Day War and Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor) is as naïve and stark as “The Times They Are A-Changin” twenty years before.

The difference is that “Times” held a broad appeal to Bob Dylan’s audience. Its celebration of the revolutionary spirit that was only starting to gather in the United States was both prescient and exciting. By 1983, when “Neighborhood Bully” came out, those same listeners had diverged along several political paths.

For some, Dylan’s impassioned defense of Israel stands as an affirmation of their support for the state and their sense that Israel is unfairly singled out for opprobrium. For others, Bob Dylan was simply siding with the oppressor and against the oppressed. Following his previous conversion to Evangelical Christianity, to fans of his earlier work,  Dylan’s defense of Israeli policy was yet another sign of how badly he had lost his way.

If “Neighborhood Bully” represented Bob Dylan’s thinking on Israel in 1983, and if it still reflects his politics today, those views are, at best, simplistic. Only those close to the songwriter truly know what is in his heart. There’s a well-known story about Dylan riding in a limousine with his contemporary, Phil Ochs, when Ochs criticized one of Dylan’s songs. Dylan threw Ochs out of the car saying, “You’re not a folksinger. You’re a journalist.” Perhaps there’s a clue there.

In 2005, Dylan wrote that his trip to the Western Wall wearing a kippah was an intentional stunt. He said “If the common perception of me out there in the public was that I was either a drunk, or I was a sicko, or a Zionist, or a Buddhist, or a Catholic, or a Mormon – all of this was better than ‘Archbishop of Anarchy.'”

Bob Dylan hasn’t played in Israel since 1993, so the upcoming concert is greatly anticipated. Much has obviously changed since his last local show. In light of the global call for artists to boycott Israel, his appearance has stirred controversy, though not as much as that which greeted Johnny Rotten’s decision to play in Tel Aviv last year.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists have petitioned Bob Dylan to cancel his performance in Tel Aviv, but the campaign has been much less noisy than others, even compared to some that have involved lesser names than Bob Dylan.

To date, Dylan has, unsurprisingly, ignored any controversy. Beyond the obligatory protest, the BDS activists seem to have realized that there is little point in pushing him too hard.

On the issue of Israel and Judaism, Bob Dylan has been as confounding as on so many others. As far back as 1971, he caused a stir related to when Dylan said of the fanatical right-wing extremist Meir Kahane that “He’s a really sincere guy. He’s really put it all together.”

I met Kahane, and saw him speak a couple of times. He certainly was sincere in his beliefs. Kahane broadcasted a clear and coherent message. Is that what Dylan meant, or did he truly admire Kahane’s ideology? We will never know. But the quote remains cited nearly every time Dylan’s views on Judaism are discussed.

In the same vein, one can speculate on whether Bob Dylan’s concert in Israel next month is an expression of his previously stated political views. Or, if at the age of 70, he just wants to return to a part of the world he finds personally meaningful. Chances are we’ll all be answering that question a little bit differently.

This article is licensed courtesy of Babylon Times.