The afternoon looked like any other day at the port in northern Tel Aviv. The sun shone brightly over the glistening Mediterranean. Buses with smiling square-lettered advertisements filled the parking lot. Large, balding men strode around the promenade speaking gruffly into cell-phones.
But something strange, something foreign, something utterly un-Israeli was occurring on the far side of the harbor.
In front of the blocky nightclub buildings massed thousands of youths clad in various forms of black garments emblazoned with spiky and aggressive looking band logos. Swishy hair on tank top sporting, tanned, and toned young men. Platinum blonde with the dark roots showing through on scantily clad equally tanned and toned young women. The port of Tel Aviv had been transported to Orange County, California. Or to any other place where the fans of metal-core, a genre that borrows both from death metal and hardcore punk, gather for raucous revelry.
Like the genre they came to hear, these kids demonstrated a mix of two styles and cultures – not all-Israeli, but certainly not all-California. Scattered around the ground where they stood on line – for what was perhaps the biggest musical event of their lives -were the large camping backpacks soldiers take on their trips to and from their bases. The familiar olive green cargo pants featured frequently, but so did shirts that screamed English song lyrics. The flash of an IDF dog tag was fairly common, as were large and graphic tattoos on shoulders, calves and forearms.
While abrasive and aggressive to the first-time listener, this music is not avant-garde. It is not striving to be art. It does not articulate any message. Metal-core, part of the larger global metal music market, generates millions if not billions of dollars. It has made significant inroads in the international top – 100 charts. Featured in video-game soundtracks and celebrated on festival stages, the genre is decidedly situated within the realm of popular music. These metal-core fans were not part of some fragment of a underground scene.
The backgrounds of the young adults gathered outside of Hanger 11 reflected the mainstream character of the music they were queuing up to hear. They were largely middle class, from smaller cities like Hadera, Rishon Le’Zion, and Netanya, not members of the hip, Tel Aviv cultural elite. Many had spent their entire monthly soldier’s salaries to pay for the tickets. Some had even requested a special dispensation for a day of leave from the army in order to attend the show. They spoke in a Hebrew idiom inflected not by the songs of pioneers or religious melodies but by American television shows and globalized pop-music, their modern Hebrew slang peppered with short English phrases and song lyrics. They dressed in a uniform of American brands – Levi’s Jeans, Vans shoes, and Ray Ban sunglasses.
This is the generation that voted overwhelmingly for Yair Lapid. These are Israelis who, as Haaretz editor Aluf Benn writes, ” love their Israeli identity and the Israel Defense Forces, but who live their lives to an American soundtrack… These are people who don’t love Arabs and aren’t interested in any ‘New Middle East,’ and want peace mainly so that Israel will be accepted by the West; the types who rant about Israel’s lousy public diplomacy being the reason the world hates us.” Their greatest fear is not a nuclear Iran or an emboldened Hamas but rejection by the West.
On the scheduled day of the Spring Break Metal-core Festival, that fear was realized. Merely two hours before the doors were set to open the ticket agency Jokerface, which had been responsible for organizing the show, posted on its Facebook page that due to problems with the police the entire lineup had cancelled. With thousands of young metal-core fans already standing outside the venue, tempers flared and rumors circulated. One young man was involved in an altercation with representatives of the band Comeback Kid, while several others received warnings from the police. Seemingly to cope with the disappointment, a crowd of fans turned a car into a amplifier and held an impromptu mosh-pit in the parking lot of Hanger 11. Hundreds of kids stuck around long after it became clear that the concert was not going to happen, unable to deal with the shock of such a terrible let-down.
The official story as reported by Mako, an Israeli news site, was that due to problems with the police and technical problems with the sound system at the club the bands had decided to cancel. Still, the cancellation of what was slated to be one of the largest hardcore/metal festivals in Israel felt abrupt and unexplained. Sitting at a table with a friend and several of her acquaintances at a cafe next to the parking lot where the black-clad masses continued to mill around, I spoke with T., a young man from a suburb north of Tel Aviv dressed in a bright red tank-top with the words “MOSH GUARD” written across the front. He smoked agitatedly in between sips of a noxious-looking combination of lukewarm vodka and neon-red colored energy drink. “That’s it!” He cried dramatically. “No bands from outside of Israel will come here ever again. Not after this. Never again in our lives will bands like these come,” he lamented, expressing the fear shared by many of his generation. Whether out of ideology or just poor luck, seven major bands from the United States, Canada, and Sweden had refused to play in front of an Israeli audience that wanted nothing more than to feel part of the Western music scene. Hungry to feel like residents of any other country, the young Israelis had been denied another tasty musical meal.
The cancellation of the festival aroused feelings of disappointment, resentment, and even anger in the young Israelis who had purchased tickets in anticipation of the event. Disappointed that they would miss the show they had been waiting for months to see. Resentful that they lived in a country that was anything but normal. And angry that, once again, performing artists had abandoned them.
The Israeli public’s sensitivity to the country’s growing isolation has policy implications. At a time when the peace process feels stalled, the situation on the ground gets worse by the hour, and the Israeli public’s indifference to the occupation grows deeper, increasing feelings of frustration and discontent with government policies may be a means of instilling in the Israeli public a sense of urgency. A stronger boycott against Israeli goods and cultural institutions and mounting refusals by artists to perform can potentially turn dissatisfaction into political pressure. The way to reignite the desire for peace is to make the status quo once again uncomfortable for Israelis – to stop famous artists from the U.S. and Europe from performing in Israel, to limit cultural/commercial exchange, and to cease overseas funding for Israeli institutions. The fear of being cut off from the West must be greater than the fear of impending terrorist attacks. Only then, after feeling the sting of maintaining the status quo, will the Israeli public be moved to alter it.
After mentally registering that the concert’s cancellation had left the entire night open, the metal-core fans decided to move the party from the parking lot of the Tel Aviv port to a metal club in gritty South Tel Aviv, a place far from their middle class origins. In the club, with the music turned up to an eardrum-splitting decible level, the young Israelis took their anger out in the mosh-pit. Jews of all shapes and colors “threw down” (the Hebrew slang for this is to break or to break apart), limbs flying and bodies crashing together to the staccato rumblings of a Despised Icon breakdown. During the sing-along choruses of August Burns Red they shouted themselves hoarse, as if screaming the English song-lyrics would somehow bring the Western bands back.
Denying this generation of young Israelis the opportunity to engage with American style and Western culture may catalyze an inward, defensive turn, and consequently make matters worse. But a comprehensive cultural boycott of Israel has the power to make them feel the urgency of the ending the occupation. The key is to make it clear that unless they stand up and speak out against racism, occupation, and violence, there will be no more concerts. There will be no news of new bands from overseas. And no one will ever ask again, how do you say hardcore in Hebrew?